Text Size:
  • A
  • A
  • A

Islands of Plenty


Steven W. Mosher

Thousands of Filipinos, including many Knights of Columbus, rally against a proposed national reproductive health bill in metro Manila March 25. (CNS photo/Reuters)

With a laugh, Sonny de los Reyes, chairman of the Philippine bishops' laity commission, summarized his country's colonial history in one sentence. "We Filipinos spent four centuries in the convent with the Spaniards, 50 years in Hollywood with you Americans, and four years in hell with the Japanese," Reyes said with the good humor characteristic of him and his countrymen.

Spanish missionaries brought Christianity to the Philippines nearly 500 years ago. The country remains one of the most Catholic countries on earth, with more than 80 percent of the population professing the faith. The islands were ceded to the United States in 1898, following the Spanish-American War.

The Republic of the Philippines became independent after World War II, but continues to have close relations with the United States, in part because of the large and growing population of Filipinos in the United States who now number 4 million. The two countries are bound together by a common Christian heritage and knowledge of the English language. They share the same democratic ideals and watch many of the same movies.

But life with America has not been without a darker side. Gripped by the fear of a "population bomb," the U.S. National Security Council in 1974 added the Philippines to a list of countries targeted for population control programs.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, along with organizations like the U.N. Population Fund, the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the World Bank, has since poured hundreds of millions of dollars into campaigns to drive down birthrates in this child-friendly country. USAID alone currently spends about $30 million a year on "reproductive health" programs in the Philippines, money which in the past had been used to fund sterilization campaigns.

These challenges facing the Philippines today can be seen in light of the experience of dozens of countries throughout the world that have been similarly targeted for the promotion of widespread contraception, sterilization and abortion.


The Catholic Church in the Philippines has not stood idly by during this assault on life. Along with leading members of the Philippine Congress and the vast majority of the population, the Church has steadfastly resisted such population-control programs. The Philippines is also home to more than 260,000 members of Knights of Columbus, who regularly participate in pro-life events and advocate for pro-life policies.

But local Catholics are facing a formidable enemy in an establishment that does not always look favorably on life. The "powerful of the earth," as Pope John Paul II called the government of the United States and its major allies, often "prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive program of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy" (Evangelium Vitae, 16).

True believers in the myth of overpopulation do not hesitate to engage in such arm-twisting. After all, they are convinced that population growth is the root of global problems that range from overcrowding and air pollution to food shortages and urban poverty. In this dismal calculus, more people equals less prosperity, and the solution to these real or imaginary woes is always the same – reduce the birth rate.

What the population bombers forget is that people are not just inert consumers, but ingenious problem-solvers and producers. Pope Benedict XVI observed in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth), that "to consider population increase as the primary cause of underdevelopment is mistaken, even from an economic point of view" (44).

As noted economist Julian Simon has pointed out, population growth has been the primary driver of progress throughout human history. While it is true that a growing population leads to shortages of certain raw materials, goods and services, in a free market economy these shortages will always prove temporary. Innovators will come forward to extract more raw materials or find less expensive substitutes, while entrepreneurs will find a way to produce more goods at lower costs and distribute them more efficiently to the public. At the end of this creative process – if it is not interrupted – there will be more goods available at lower prices – precisely because there are more people.

The reality is that population control programs do not merely short-circuit economic growth; they cause real harm to real people. As Pope Benedict noted in his encyclical, some "non-governmental organizations work actively to spread abortion, at times promoting the practice of sterilization in poor countries, in some cases not even informing the women concerned" (28).

Let me illustrate the kind of human rights abuses that the pope is referring to with an example drawn from China's one-child policy.

Imagine for a minute that you and your wife live in China. You already have one child when she becomes pregnant a second time. When the police discover this some months later, they declare her pregnancy "illegal." Your wife is ordered to either report for an abortion or pay a fine equivalent to five years of your combined incomes.

You don't have that much money, you tell the population control official in charge. Then the one-child policy must be enforced, he responds. His determination to ensure that no "over-quota" babies are born on his watch is unshakable; his annual bonus depends on it.

When your wife refuses to report to the abortion ward, the official gathers a posse of men and breaks into your home. You watch helplessly as your wife is dragged off. Because she is by now in the third trimester of pregnancy, she is given an abortion by cesarean section.

The final blow comes when your now-dead baby is returned to you in a garbage bag, leaving you to arrange for burial.

By now, you might be saying to yourself that this cannot be happening in the real world; surely this is an exaggeration. But I recently received documentation from a source in China – complete with pictures of a dead baby in a garbage bag – of just such a case. And in the 32 years I have been following China's one-child policy, I have learned that such brutality is common.

The international population control establishment, believe it or not, wildly applauds the one-child policy. Consider, for example, the remarks of Thoraya Obaid, the former director of the U.N. Population Fund, who in 2001 said that "China has seen notable achievements made in population control by implementing the family planning policy. It has thereupon played an active role in curbing the population growth across the world."


It would be bad enough if it were just a matter of China denying one-fifth of the world's families the right to have children. But the excessive use of force in the pursuit of a population control agenda extends to numerous developing countries around the world.

To give just a few examples: Women in Indonesia have been apprehended at gunpoint by the military for mandatory sterilizations; hundreds of thousands of Native Americans have been pressured by the Peruvian government to accept tubal ligations; and government-run hospitals in Mexico routinely sterilize women after they give birth – with or without their consent.

This is the sort of thing that happens when, in Pope Benedict's words, "development aid is sometimes linked to specific health-care policies which de facto involve the imposition of strong birth control measures" (28). In other words, when we use foreign aid as a carrot to get governments to act, all too often they turn around and use the stick on their own people. Given the long and dismal catalog of abuses, it is unlikely that a birth control program can be both government-run and non-coercive, especially in the context of a developing country.

In fact, when the population controllers move into a developing country like the Philippines, primary health care invariably suffers. Government health officials and local medical associations are first co-opted by highly prized opportunities for advanced training overseas or offered generous gifts (read: bribes) of office equipment or limousines. Once a country's medical establishment has agreed to make "family planning" a priority, national health budgets tend to be spent disproportionately in this area.

As Dr. Stephan Karanja, the former secretary-general of the Kenyan Medical Association reported to me: "Our health sector is collapsed. Thousands of the Kenyan people will die of malaria, the treatment for which costs a few cents, in health facilities whose shelves are stocked to the ceiling with millions of dollars worth of pills, IUDs, Norplant, Depo-Provera, and so on, most of which are supplied with American money."

At the same time, fertility reduction programs funded by such groups as USAID, UNFPA, and IPPF are set up. By local standards, such programs are generously funded and become magnets for scarce medical resources. Doctors, attracted by higher wages, abandon primary health care in favor of "family planning." Clinics are transformed into "family planning" stations, where the only readily available medical care involves contraception, sterilization and abortion.

For consistently defending people against such depredations, the Church in general and Pope Benedict XVI in particular are blamed for causing governments to shy away from taking the "overpopulation problem" more seriously.

To which the response should be: What "overpopulation problem?"

According to the latest estimates from the U.N. Population Division, the population of the world, which now stands at 6.9 billion, will never double again. Instead, their "low variant" projection – historically the most accurate – shows it peaking at 8.1 billion or so around the year 2045 and then beginning to decline. Most countries in the world are already having too few children to maintain their current populations. Some, like Japan, are actually losing people from year to year. Even in the Philippines, which remains open to life, the birth rate has dropped off sharply in recent decades. As recently as 1960, women in the Philippines averaged seven children each. Today, the Philippines government reports that the number is slightly less than 3.


Those who attack the Church fail to understand that its pro-life stance is not just a matter of faith, but is supported by reason. Reducing the number of babies born does not in itself solve political, economic or environmental issues. Rather, reducing births often creates grave problems. Take Social Security and Medicare, for example. In the United States and other industrialized countries, such programs are difficult to sustain unless each generation of taxpaying workers is as large as, or larger than, the one before it.

Yet, birth rates have plummeted to historic lows in nearly all of the developed world. Europe as a whole is averaging only about 1.3 children per couple. According to the U.N. Population Division, some Asian countries, such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, are in even worse shape demographically. This birth dearth means that the work force and revenues are shrinking at precisely the same time that elderly citizens are growing in number – and demanding the retirement and health benefits that they have long been promised. For the past 20 years, Japan has been in the grip of what economists call a "demographic recession."

Indeed, Japan's lack of children is a national calamity. With tragically high abortion rates and astonishingly low birth rates – only 1.2 children per couple – the Japanese population is now in free fall. Unless they rediscover the blessings of children, there will only be 40 million or so Japanese – one-third of its current population – alive by the end of the 21st century.

How does the Philippines fit into this picture? Because of its youthful and still-growing population, the country is able to export millions of well-educated, English-speaking, hard-working young people to other countries around the world. There are growing expatriate colonies of young Filipinos in every Asian country with a decreasing population, and they bring their Catholic faith with them.

Immigration from the Philippines to Japan, in particular, is rising rapidly, despite the difficulties imposed on those who want to become citizens. With more than one-fifth of its population already over 65, and a rapidly contracting workforce, Japan really has no choice but to open its doors to immigrants helping to fill jobs, pay tax revenues and support retirement programs.

Over the next few decades, millions of Filipinos will likely be welcomed into Japan, helping to save it from the demographic recession and economic collapse that would otherwise be its fate. For its part, the Philippines will become home to tens of thousands of elderly, childless Japanese, who will happily settle in a land where the climate is warm and where they will receive loving care.

The world is not an overcrowded human ark. Rather, it is – as it was designed to be – a beautiful horn of plenty. And people, the pinnacle of creation, are its ultimate resource, the one resource that we cannot do without.

Parents who are willing to bring children into the world should be celebrated, not criticized. They are, after all, providing for the future in the most fundamental way: by allowing the next generation to inherit the earth.


STEVEN W. MOSHER is the president of the Population Research Institute and the author of Population Control: Real Costs and Illusory Benefits (Transaction Press, 2008). He is the host of the EWTN series "Promoting the Culture of Life Around the World," and frequently testifies before the U.S. Congress on population and human rights issues.