LAFAYETTE, Colo. — Wal-Mart promises to roll back prices, but Zero Population Growth wants the world's largest retailer to roll back its ban on Preven — a so-called “emergency contraceptive” drug that prevents or ends pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of intercourse.

But some observers are puzzled that the campaign has been launched at all, given that the U.S. fertility rate is already below the level required to maintain a growing population.

Activists with Zero Population Growth, a Washington-based group headed by former congressman and Clinton administration official Peter Kostmayer, are traveling across the country to stage small rallies in Wal-Mart parking lots.

“They may stock Viagra, but if you're a woman who needs a prescription for emergency contraceptives filled at your local Wal-Mart, you can forget it,” said Kostmayer, a former seven-term U.S. representative from Pennsylvania and a senior Environmental Protection Agency official under Clinton.

Kostmayer spoke recently at a Wal-Mart in suburban Denver, standing beneath a huge color banner that says “Wal-Mart is Rolling Back Women's Rights and We're Not Smiling!”

The rally was largely ignored in Lafayette, Colo., a community with a large population of Hispanic Catholics who oppose birth control.

Although Kostmayer's banner espouses “women's rights,” he told reporters the thrust of his opposition to Wal-Mart's ban on Preven involves concerns about too many people.

“We don't need to worry about too much population in the United States,” said Sarah Dateno, publications editor of the Population Research Institute in Front Royal, Va. “All recent statistics from the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau show exactly the opposite — that we should be concerned about dwindling population here and around the globe.”

In the United States, Dateno said, fertility is below replacement rates and the nation would be in economic crisis if it weren't for legal and illegal immigration.

Recent U.N. studies have warned that by mid-century, population will plummet in many developed countries, causing grave social and economic problems.

“Japan's social security system is collapsing because fertility rates have declined below replacement for years,” Dateno said. “Their economy is suffering, and they don't have the benefit of immigration to offset it.”

Added Dateno, “It's ridiculous to suggest that Wal-Mart needs to sell next-day ‘contraceptives’ because of overpopulation. It's just silly nonsense.”

Bogus Numbers

Kostmayer didn't refute Dateno's charge that U.S. population is threatened with decline, rather than over-population. But he said Dateno failed to view the world as one unit and look at the overall growth in global population.

“You can find countries, cities and states in which population is declining,” Kostmayer says. “But then you're just talking about distribution. I'm talking about global population, and globally the population of the world increases by the equivalent of New York City every single day.”

In fact, the actual increase in global population is only a tiny fraction of that figure. The population of New York is slightly over 8 million — meaning that if Kostmayer were correct, the current global population of 6 billion people would be increasing by more than 2.9 billion people annually.

According to the U.N. Population Division, the actual increase between 1995-2000 was only 78 million people per year, or nearly 40 times lower than that claimed by Kostmayer.

Kostmayer is just as confused about future trends as he is about the present growth rate, said Bob Sassone, author of Handbook on Population, a popular demographic resource among bureaucrats, politicians and U.N. diplomats.

“By the year 2030, fertility will likely be in decline worldwide, if we merely continue the current trends,” said Sassone. “I have studied all the important demographic data and I've visited at length with all of the leading researchers on both sides of this issue, and I'm convinced beyond doubt that the population explosion is more baloney than bang.”

It's definitely “baloney” in the United States, continued Sassone.

“People born in the United States have fertility rates far below replacement,” he said. “We're below replacement even with current immigration trends.”

When pressed further on the issues of declining domestic population growth and projections that worldwide population will reach overall decline in 30 years or less, Kostmayer changed the subject.

“People say Wal-Mart should be able to sell whatever they want, because it's a private company,” Kostmayer said. “Yes, but they should not be able to discriminate. Nobody would tolerate it if Wal-Mart decided to refuse to sell drugs designed for people with AIDS or sickle-cell anemia. But with their ban of emergency contraceptives, they've decided to discriminate against women of child-bearing age.”

Workplace Morals

Wal-Mart's official explanation for the Preven ban is that it's a “business decision” based on projected slow sales of the drug, which when taken within 72 hours after intercourse either delays ovulation to prevent fertilization, or acts as an abortifacient to kill an already fertilized embryo.

Kostmayer said he suspects Wal-Mart banned Preven because of moral concerns expressed by pharmacists. Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in the world, has a written policy to “respect the pharmacist's right to object to the dispensing of medication based on their personal beliefs.”

Wal-Mart did not respond to repeated requests for an interview for this article. But Mimi Eckstein, director of the Respect Life Office of the Archdiocese of Denver, said WalMart's policy is in harmony with Church teachings that Catholics must respect life in the workplace.

“Vatican II was all about the laity taking their faith life into the real world, including the workplace,” Eckstein said. “We are supposed to know our faith well enough that we can present facts and defend it. If Wal-Mart says this is a business decision, that's fine. But it probably means someone in that company made a persuasive argument regarding the truth about these drugs, and that's what we, as Catholics, are called to do.”

Added Eckstein, “And it could very well have been a business decision. I can imagine there are a lot of bottom-line business concerns regarding the sale of a dangerous abortifacient with potential harmful side-effects.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.