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The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

Population Growth and Justice

By Rev. James B. Martin-Schramm

The following address was delivered on May 19, 1993 as part of the Panel on Religious and Ethical Perspectives on Population Issues convened by the NGO Steering Committee at Prepcom II of the International Conference on Population and Development at the United Nations.

Dr. Legare [of the Demography Department, University of Montreal and Chair of the NGO Steering Committee], I want to begin by thanking the NGO Steering Committee for the invitation and privilege to address the UN delegates and NGO representatives who are attending this second preparatory committee meeting for the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development. I am honored to be serving on this panel with such distinguished scholars as Dr. Maguire and Dr. al-Hibri.

In my remarks today I would like to stress the importance of linking population issues to matters of justice and injustice.1 I do so because I believe that the theological image which best describes the end or goal of Christian existence is the metaphor of justice as right relationship with our Creator and God's creation.2

This centrality of justice is rooted in God's love for the world. That is to say, God's love for all of creation confers an intrinsic value to all of God's creatures and creations. It is this fundamental measure of worth which serves as the foundation of justice.3 Justice understood in this light is not simple "rendering to each their due," but is more profoundly understood as "rendering to each their dignity as a creation of God."

God shows us what this means. Throughout the Scriptures, God acts on behalf of those who are poor and oppressed. It is precisely because God loves all creation that God shows special attention to those who do not live with the dignity that they deserve. Thus, the heart of justice in Hebrew and Christian thought is the meeting of fundamental human needs.4

It is precisely because nearly half the world's population is being denied their fundamental human needs and basic human dignity that we face the prospect for ecological peril the likes of which the world has never seen. This ecological jeopardy is grounded in an unjust distribution of wealth and power between the affluent few and the numerous poor. Any effort to redress this suffering means seeing the reciprocal relationship between ecological integrity and social justice.

Differently said, I believe that population growth today springs forth chiefly from poverty, which has its roots in injustice. Therefore, the primary Christian response should constitute an attack upon poverty and injustice. At the forefront of this effort must be the attempt to provide basic human needs. This will necessitate substantial social reform, and not just the path of Western economic development, since most conventional courses of development have only served the middle and upper classes in many developing countries. Alan Durning, citing Ghandi, rightly reminds us that "true development puts first those that society puts last."5

The areas in which social reform is desperately needed include more equitable distribution of land and income, improvement in access to education and employment, the elimination of discrimination based on race or sex, and substantial improvement in access to affordable housing, food, and health care.

The Role of Women

For moral and practical reasons, however, the most important area of social reform involves improvement in the lives of women. A wide variety of studies indicates that when the status of women's lives improves, fertility declines. As women have received adequate nutrition, proper sanitation, access to basic health care, increased educational opportunities, and equal rights, the fertility rate has dropped markedly.6

Christian communities must defend and strive to improve the lives of women and all people in this process of social transformation. High on the list must be the fundamental right to voluntary family planning. Currently, approximately $4.5 billion is spent per year by governmental and non-governmental organizations for family planning efforts.7 These funds provide family planning services to only 30 percent of reproductive age people in the developing world outside of China. Christian churches should join others who are calling for universal access to family planning by the end of the decade.8 The provision of such services is estimated to cost $10 billion - a sheer bargain compared with Third World debt payments of $125 billion and annual global military expenditures of $880 billion.9

In this process, pressure must be brought to bear on the US government to resume its leadership through a substantial increase in support for family planning programs. In addition, Vatican policies which proscribe artificial means of contraception must be critically challenged in the light of the effects of population growth on poverty and environmental degradation. These "pro-life" policies are ambiguous at best since they certainly contribute to an increase in unwanted pregnancies which have a deleterious effect on the lives of poor women, their families, and the environment.

This commitment to universal and voluntary family planning must serve as the cornerstone of any population policy. Moreover, because women disproportionately bear the costs and burdens of reproduction, women must ultimately judge whether the programs of any population policy serve their needs. Ideally, such programs will include access for women and men to an increasing variety of contraceptive and birth control technologies, including legalized, voluntary abortion. While contraception is certainly the morally preferred means of birth control, the unjust treatment and exploitation of women makes legal recourse to voluntary abortion necessary. In addition, legalizing abortion would also make the procedure safer for the estimated 20 million women who undergo an illegal abortion each year.10

Considering measures which seek to go beyond voluntary family planning, the range of options between incentives, disincentives, and coercion should be viewed on a spectrum between suspicion and derision.11 Of paramount concern must be the potential impact these measures would have upon the lives and dignity of poor women and their families. The use of incentives like cash or consumer goods to promote family planning may be morally justifiable, but only if the incentive offers a significant gain in social or economic welfare and only if the recipient believes he or she benefits in a substantial way. Disincentives, like taxation schemes or the restriction of health, education, or medical benefits to limit births, are substantially unjustifiable because of the unfair impact these measures would have upon poor families and their children. The use of coercive measures like compulsory abortion, sterilization, or adoption is morally abhorrent.

Other measures to reduce fertility involve the alteration of social institutions and the use of government administered programs affecting the distribution of the right to bear children. Some have proposed altering the institution of marriage by raising the minimum legal age. When substituted for social reform aimed at improving the lives and choices of women, this proposal would have a disastrous effect upon young women who currently have few other options in life than marriage. Herman Daly and John Cobb have proposed the governmental implementation of "transferable birth quota plans" which would issue birth rights certificates to parents to sell or use as they deem fit on an open market. One of the major flaws with their proposal, however, is that if no attempt is made to level an unequal economic playing field, the poor are left with the terrible option of having to sell their fundamental right to bear children in order to purchase fundamental necessities like food, clothing, and shelter.12

This brings me to the concluding portion of my remarks. The reality is that, apart from the emphasis on improving the lives and moral agency of women, much of what I have proposed is not new. Ethicists like Ronald Green and Daniel Callahan were saying much the same thing nearly twenty years ago and population growth has continued largely unabated. That does not mean that the approach outlined above has failed; it has simply not been tried.

Toward a Just Future

The truth is that the emphasis which has been placed on economic development and the demographical transition theory, while it has had a limited effect, has not produced substantial declines in global fertility and population growth rates. The statistical gains that have been made are heavily skewed by the results of China's controversial birth control program. When these gains are excluded, there has been only a slight drop in fertility rates in many parts of the developing world.13

This failure of what Garrett Hardin describes as "laissez-faire approach" leads him to the following conclusion: "If the proposal (for population control) might work, it isn't acceptable; if it is acceptable, it won't work."14 In this pithy but highly dangerous maxim, Hardin has defined the key tension between effectiveness and ethical acceptability. This will only become more acute in the near future. In all likelihood, most nations facing continued high rates of population growth will either respond by flooding their people with contraceptives or by forcing their people to participate in government managed birth control programs. In both cases, the fundamental need for comprehensive social reform and substantial improvement in the lives of women will be ignored - for such changes will require a shift in the balance of social, economic, and political power. As a result, the bulk of the consequences of population growth will fall upon poor women and their families.

Christian communities, always mandated to side with the poor and disempowered, must speak out on their behalf. Delegates to the 1994 UN International Conference on Population and Development must be challenged to follow this alternative approach which lifts up the needs of women and the poor in its attempt to redistribute wealth and power, end discrimination, provide for basic human needs, and open doors to education, employment, and health care. While it is unreasonable to expect nations, or the Church for that matter, to accomplish perfect justice, it is clear that a greater measure of justice can be achieved, and that with its increase population growth will decline.

I will also argue that this commitment to justice for the poor and improvement in the lives of women represents the best way to insure the protection of the common good. There are many who point to the increasing level of environmental degradation caused by the sheer growth in human numbers and the threat human population growth poses to other species and the basic ecological systems of Earth. We must resist all attempts to pit the welfare of countless poor human beings against the welfare of the planet. The reality is that individual well-being and the common good cannot be separated. In the words of one of my teachers, Beverly Harrison, we "live and breath or die together."15

Legitimate concern for the common good must be re-focused upon the other two variables which contribute to environmental degradation: harmful technology and the level of affluence. The greatest threat to the common good continues to be posed by the destructive consumption of the rich and not the meager consumption of the poor. The growing ecological threat which population growth does pose can only be resolved by redistributing wealth and power and by providing for basic human needs. In Lester Brown's words:

We can no longer separate the future habitability of the planet from the current distribution of wealth...[A] meaningful sustainable development strategy anywhere must now embrace the satisfaction of basic human needs everywhere.16

What we know for certain is that the entire world's population is going to nearly double during the course of the lives of most people alive today, with almost all of that growth occurring in the less developed world. This means the exponential growth of suffering and misery among people who are already hungry, ill, and poverty-stricken. The only question is whether we will care enough about this increase in human suffering to prevent it from reaching unprecedented levels. The consensus among policy-makers and demographers is that decisions made during this decade will significantly determine the rate and consequences of population growth. I believe that Christian communities must find their voices and join with others in offering this kind of moral leadership. In a world driven by values of wealth and security, Christians must life up the value of justice and champion the cause of the poor and disenfranchised in an attempt to meet the ethical challenges posed by global population growth.


1. In preparing this presentation, I have excerpted and modified portions of my article entitled, "Population Growth, Poverty, and Environmental Degradation," published in the journal Theology and Public Policy, Vol. 4, no. 1, Summer 1992, pp. 26-38.

2. Beverly Harrison makes this claim in her essay, "The dream of a Common Language: Towards a Normative Theory of Justice," Annual of the Society of Christian Ethics, 1983, (Waterloo, Ontario: Council on the Study of Religion, 1983), p. 4.

3. Daniel Maguire makes this important point in his book A New American Justice, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1980), p. 58.

4. There has been some debate among Christian ethicists about whether one should speak of basic human rights and corresponding responsibilities, or whether it is more biblical to speak of basic Christian duties to meet corresponding human needs. See James A. Nash, Loving Nature: Ecological Integrity and Christian Responsibility, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1991, pp. 169-70) and Karen Lebacqz, Justice in an Unjust World, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1987, pp. 105-106).

5. Alan Durning, Poverty and the Environment: Reversing the Downward Spiral, (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, Worldwatch Paper #92, November 1989) p. 54.

6. See Nafis Sadik, Population Policies and Programmes: Lessons Learned From Two Decades of Experience, (New York: UN Family Planning Association, New York University Press, 1991) pp. 247, 267, 384.

7. Sandra Postel, "Denial in the Decisive Decade," State of the World 1992, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1992) p. 3. Postel uses data furnished by Nafis Sadik, The State of the World Population 1991, (New York: UNFPA, 1991).

8. "Final Report of the Seventy-Seventh American Assembly," in Jessica Tuchman Matthews, Preserving the Global Environment, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), p. 327.

9. Third World debt figure from Jessica Tuchman Matthews, Preserving the Global Environment, p. 320. Global military expenditures figure from Ruther Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1991, (Leesburg, VA: WMSE Publications, 1991), p. 11.

10. Jodi L. Jacobson, "Coming to Grips with Abortion." State of the World 1991, (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), p. 114.

11. For a more specific discussion of the types of incentives and disincentives offered by nations, see Population Policies and Programmes: Lessons Learned From Two Decades of Experience, Nafis Sadik (ed.), pp. 120-123; see also Robert Veatch, "An Ethical Analysis of Population Policy Proposals," Population Policy and Ethics: The American Experience, (New York: Irvington Publishers, 1977), pp. 445-475.

12. See Herman Daly and John Cobb, For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy Toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), pp. 236-251.

13. Robert S. McNamara, "Time Bomb or Myth: The Population Problem," Foreign Affairs, vol. 62, Summer 1984, p. 1112.

14. Garrett Hardin, "There is no Global Population Problem," The Humanist, vol. 49, July/August 1989, p. 11.

15. Beverly Harrison, "The Dream of a Common Language: Towards a Normative Theory of Justice," p. 14.

16. Lester Brown, "Launching the Environmental Revolution," State of the World 1992, p. 181.

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