If you're like a lot of people, you probably believe the world is suffering some form of “population crisis.” Or will very soon. You may have in your head those memorable photos of vast numbers of children orphaned through wars in Rwanda or Burundi—some no more than infants—lying or sitting on white sheets as far as the camera can see. You may be convinced by the words of Vice President Al Gore that “global warming” is a problem of “too many people” on earth. Also you may believe the equation “less people equals more prosperity and a healthier planet.”

Think again.

A careful look at demographic trends provides a vastly different and more nuanced picture. First, it is impossible to speak of one giant global “population problem.” Around the globe, there are numerous countries whose problem is shrinking population. Due to low fertility rates (families having fewer than 2.1 children), people are not “replacing themselves.”

Thirty-five European nations are suffering this problem rather drastically. This is a result of what observers call the “first demographic revolution.” It happens when infant mortality rates drop and life expectancies rise. People then decide to have fewer children. It is also a function—and Europe is a good example of this—of a “second demographic revolution” wherein, due to cultural changes, families decide to have few or no children. Such cultural changes might include the embracing of exaggerated materialism and individualism, secularism, and even a reaction to population alarmism.

Around the world, different countries, and even different regions within the same country, are at various points along the continuum of demographic change. Some have not even experienced the first demographic revolution. But even in most of these countries, fertility rates are declining. Overall, the rate of population growth globally reached its peak in 1970. Since that time, the rate of growth has slowed down. It is now predicted that global population will peak by 2050, at around 8.5 billion people—and decline thereafter. The news of which has led even the scariest of the scaremongers—the U.N. Population Fund—to begin backing off predictions of imminent disaster.

But they haven't for one second stepped back from their zealous efforts to lower population dramatically via programs of massive distribution of contraceptives and sterilization, combined at times with abortion (legal and illegal).

For the wealthy nations, controlling the populations of poorer countries is a defense issue…

This approach has massive financial backing from a growing number of rich and powerful foundations. Just in the past few months, Ted Turner of CNN and Zero Population Growth fame announced that he is giving $1 billion to the United Nations—for what else, population control. The Packard Foundation—with a mind-boggling $9 billion endowment— has also announced that it will devote about $550 million per year to population control. As for the United States, President Clinton is at present willing to withhold all funding from the United Nations unless U.S. money goes to organizations that promote abortion overseas and lobby internationally for more permissive abortion laws.

Even under the kindest interpretation, this approach reveals tremendous ignorance of population history and the real sources of poverty and underdevelopment. It has been demonstrated again and again that no country achieves prosperity primarily due to reduced population. In fact, a continually declining population is a recipe for financial ruin, not success. There is also enough evidence on hand to demonstrate that the most likely causes of underdevelopment include: corruption in political or economic systems; ethnic or racial or religious discrimination and conflicts; unjust distribution of resources; and a crushing debt burden. But here's the rub. These serious problems are more complex, and require a greater investment of time and money, than the simplistic approach of pushing contraception on the poor, and/or coercing women into sterilization and abortion.

There's a second and related reason why the real sources of underdevelopment are so rarely addressed by rich countries and foundations. It's not pretty. For the wealthy nations, controlling the populations of poorer countries is a defense issue, not a human rights or development issue at all. Recently released U.S. national security documents from the 1960s show that the impetus for U.S. “aid” to the third world in the form of birth control and abortion is to lower the percentage of “them” to “us.” All the while we cheerily assure everybody we're just “empowering” women in their reproductive lives.

The Holy See has taken a great interest in these matters. It raised its voice internationally in connection with recent U.N. conferences concerning population. And it has called on individual Catholics, particularly Catholic educators, to learn the real facts about global population. This is too important a human rights issue to be left to demographers.

Helen Alvaré is director of planning and information, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.