The Population Problem PDF Print E-mail

by Timothy Bayly
Common Ground - Occasional papers from Presbyterians Pro-Life
No. 2 - April 1987

Will we starve ourselves to death?

"A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people... We must shift our efforts from treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer. The operation will demand many apparently brutal and heartless decisions."

So wrote Paul Ehrlich in The Population Explosion (1) published in 1968. Ehrlich is the best known of the Neo-Malthusians who speak of the dangers of "over-population." In a recent issue of the journal, Science, Ehrlich said that if, as he predicts, the world's population doubles, mankind will be in danger of extinction by starvation (2).

This threat of population explosion with its consequent famine and ecological disaster has been around for a long time. Back in 1798 the Rev. Thomas Malthus in his The Principle of Population wrote: "Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence (food) only increases in an arithmetical ratio."

Presbyterians as Malthusians

The fear of this predicted "population explosion," and the evils which Malthus and his modern counterpart, Ehrlich, have said will accompany such growth has led many to advocate policies aimed at holding down human reproduction. The mainline denominations have been quick to jump on the bandwagon. The United Presbyterian Church (USA) in a 1962 report titled "Responsible Marriage and Parenthood" recommended:

That the General Assembly...urge our government to assist other develop programs of responsible family planning and conception control in meeting problems of rapid population growth (3).

This same scenario of global over-population is the ecological worldview behind the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s current position paper on abortion called, "Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion." It says:

The morality of abortion is a question of stewardship...The decision to terminate a pregnancy may be an affirmation of one's covenant responsibility to accept the limits of human resources (4).

The message appears to have been communicated well. In an article on the dwindling numbers of liberal Protestants in the mainline denominations Newsweek said: "...mainliners are having fewer children. Indeed, the Presbyterians [PC(USA)], with a birthrate (1.97) well below the replacement level, seem bent on vanishing like the Shakers" (5).

The evils that follow the myth

Today, many thoughtful men and women follow the Presbyterians' lead in supporting liberalized abortion laws under the assumption that such laws are a significant step in the direction of ecological or environmental responsibility. If the Neo-Malthusians are right and we are truly in danger of species-extinction due to an inadequacy of food production reserves in the global economy, then one way of meeting the challenge would be to continue to permit the 40-60,000,000 annual abortions worldwide (6).

By anyone's reckoning, that many fewer mouths to feed, year after year, would make a significant dent in food production needs. But must we sacrifice our children -- our future -- to save the world? How real is the Neo-Malthusian scenario? What threat, if any, are we actually under?

Despite 175 years of Malthusian writing, the world population crisis has never materialized. Overpopulation hasn't appeared despite the dire warnings. In fact, throughout the industrialized nations of the western world the real problem today is not overpopulation, but just the opposite--infertility; too few parents, and too few children (7).

Demographers tell us that if a country is to reproduce itself it needs, on average, 2.1 children per family. In the US today the average number of children per family has fallen below 2.0. If it weren't for immigration our population would be decreasing. No Western nation now attains 2.1. In West Germany and Denmark the average has dropped to 1.3 children per family (8).

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune began: "Italians may be doomed to extinction if the nation's birthrate continues to plunge" (9). France feels the need for babies so acutely that posters of chubby-cheeked kids are being put upon public billboards with the headline: "FRANCE NEEDS BABIES" (10). French demographer Pierre Chaunn wrote:

The rejection of [marriage and the family] is a recent phenomenon. For the moment it is limited to the sixth of the world that constitutes the developed nations; the eight hundred million men and women who have decided to commit the strangest collective suicide of history (11).

Even in the third world the problem is not too many people

It is obvious today that the western world's fear of "overpopulation" is misdirected and, indeed, dangerous to the well-being of industrialized nations. Furthermore, although the fertility rate is still high in the Third World, many of the nations which 15 years ago were said to be hopelessly unable to meet the food production needs of their population are, today, self-sufficient (12).

Often, those lacking food are mere pawns in the hands of rulers whose political agendas deny mercy and justice to their own needy. And surely few of us fail to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit when we see the tragic suffering of these innocent men and women, boys and girls, whom God has made "in His image." Where we are able, we have an obligation to work to end such oppression.

But how? By taking the lives of the oppressed before they leave the womb? By telling mothers to stop reproducing because current political policies are incompatible with childbirth?

Arguments against having children based on the "threat of overpopulation," must be challenged. As Paul Simon, founder and director of Bread for the World, has said,

...hunger is no longer necessary...Our technology would allow us to overcome the worst features of hunger and malnutrition within a generation if there was the political willingness (13).

Other scholars refer to books such as Ehrlich's The Population Bomb as "anachronistic jokes" and speak of married couples creating large families as "socially responsible act(s)" (14).

God's view of people and resources

We speak from within the Christian church, in submission to the authority of God's Word. What should our response be to those who would use the specter of global starvation to argue in defense of abortion rights? What should our response be to the rejection of children in our western world and in our own churches?

Scripture teaches that from the very beginning God has commanded us to have children. Children are at the heart of God's purpose for us. In the Garden of Eden immediately after he made Eve for Adam, God said to this first family:

Be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth...

And then, again, after the flood, God repeated this creation-mandate to Noah and his family:

Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.

The prophet Malachi, speaking of the purpose of marriage, wrote:

Has not the Lord made (husband and wife) one?...And why one? Because he (God) was seeking a godly offspring.
(Malachi 2:15)

The Westminster Confession, in its chapter "Of Marriage and Divorce" states:

Marriage is designed for the mutual help of husband and wife; for the safeguarding, undergirding, and development of their moral and spiritual character; for the propagation of children and the rearing of them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (15).

Which of God's commands revealed in Scripture are we to dispose of as concessions to our "modern age?" Are we still under his command to "bear fruit?" Do men and women still need helpmates? Has God finished seeking a godly seed?

A deep selfishness has taken over the hearts of many Western homes and caused Christian marriages to leave one of their God-ordained functions behind. Many who claim to be Christians today refuse to recognize the command that God has given us to "be fruitful" and to "raise a godly seed." This is nothing new; childless marriages were mourned by Bishop Dionysius in Ancient Rome. The historian, Will Durant, records that within Roman society in the first century A.D.

Childlessness was spreading as the ideal of a declining vitality...The decay of the ancient faith among the upper classes had washed away the supernatural supports of marriage, fidelity, and parentage; the passage from farm to city had made children less of an asset, more of a liability and a toy; women wished to be sexually rather than maternally beautiful; in general the desire for individual freedom seemed to be running counter to the needs of the race (16).

Down through history men and women have often rejected childbearing because of their own thinly disguised selfishness. Martin Luther condemned those "who seem to detest giving birth lest the bearing and rearing of children disturb their leisure" (17).

Today, the "population crisis" continues the long tradition of excuses manufactured to defend what is at heart a suicidal drive of desperate selfishness by those who have turned away from the teaching of Scripture and are, instead, living hedonistic lives of self-gratification.

We can't continue to use rationalizations such as "world-hunger" or the "population explosion" to justify our turning away from the clear teaching of the Bible on the centrality of children in a marriage relationship. God desires to bless our lives and our homes with children. Christians, therefore, always recognize that children--all children--are a blessing from the Lord. The following is an excerpt from and interview of Mother Teresa done by Malcolm Muggeridge.

Malcolm: Besides the sick people, you've got a lot of children, haven't you?
Mother Teresa: Yes.
Malcolm: Where do they come from?
Mother Teresa: Many of those children are unwanted by their parents; some we pick up, some we get from hospitals: they have been left there by their parents. Some we bring from the jail, some are brought to us by the police. By whatever means they are brought to us, up to now we have never refused a child.
Malcolm: Somehow you fit them in, however many may come?
Mother Teresa: We always have one more bed for one more child.
Malcolm: So you've never had to turn one down?
Mother Teresa: No.
Malcolm: Some people say that there are too many children in India, and yet you're saving children, many of whom would otherwise die.
Mother Teresa: Yes, many would die, especially among those children that are unwanted. Quite possibly they would have been either thrown away or killed. But that way is not for us; our way is to preserve life, the life of Christ in the life of the child.
Malcolm: So you wouldn't agree with people who say there are too many children in India?
Mother Teresa: I do not agree because God always provides. He provides for the flowers and the birds, for everything in the world that he has created. And those little children are his life. There can never be enough (18).

Surely if the Almighty God, our loving Heavenly Father, has commanded us to "have children," we don't need to fear for their future welfare. The Christian home in New York City, Omaha, St. Louis, or Seattle is as capable of taking in one more child as Mother Teresa's home in Calcutta.

God doesn't need men and women to remain childless or to sacrifice their babies to abortions in an effort to stave off some hypothetical scenario of mass starvation. Rather, he has said that he desires that we "produce a godly seed." And if you wonder where or by whom our children's needs will be met, "consider the lilies..."

Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one's youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.
Ps. 127:3-5a


1. P. Ehrlich. The Population Explosion (New York: Ballantine, 1968), p. 166.
2. P. Ehrlich as cited in The Chicago Tribune, 22 February 1987, sec. 5, p.1.
3. The Minutes of the 1962 General Assembly, United Presbyterian Church (USA), p. 221.
4. Advisory Council on Church and Society, Presbyterian Church (USA), "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community" and "Covenant and Creation: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion" (New York and Atlanta: The Office of the General Assembly, 1983), pp. 9, 59.
5. "From Mainline to Sideline," Newsweek, 22 December 1986, p. 55.
6. A World Review 1986, "Induced Abortion," (New York: Alan Guttmacher Institute, 6th edition, 1986), p. 3.
7. Allan Carlson, "The Population Question Returns: Depopulation Strikes the Industrial West," Persuasion at Work, vol. 8, no.12, December 1985.
8. Ibid.
9. Chicago Tribune, 2 November 1986.
10. Ibid.
11. As quoted in Harold O. J. Brown, "Not Enough Children" Christianity Today, 18 October 1985, p. 10.
12. For a good discussion of what has happened to famine predictions, see Chapter 4 of Julian L. Simon The Ultimate Resource, "Famine 1985? Or 1995? Or 1975?" (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 54-69.
13. Paul Simon, "Hunger is No Longer Necessary," Christianity Today, 6 September 1985, p. 19.
14. Allan Carlson, "Calculating the Malthusian Budget Deficit: Economic Ghosts Created by an Anti-Growth Culture Begin to Haunt the USA in 1985," Persuasion at Work, vol. 8, no. 3, March 1985.
15. The Westminster Confession of Faith: An Authentic Modern Version (Lookout Mountain: Summertown Texts, 1984), p. 42.
16. Will Durant, The Story of Civilization III: Caesar and Christ (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1935-67), pp. 211, 222.
17. Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 100.
18. Malcom Muggeridge, Something Beautiful for God: Mother Teresa of Calcutta (Garden City: Image Books, 1977), pp. 74-76.



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