National Catholic Register


Don’t Let Them Distract You From Life

BY J.R. Morse

December 5-11, 1999 Issue | Posted 12/5/99 at 2:00 AM


Pro-life advocates face a variety of obstacles in their conversations with their neighbors. While some people truly advocate the culture of death, far more of our neighbors and countrymen have merely acquiesced to it. Many of them never quite make it to seriously considering the core issues of life and death, because of what I call “decisive distractions.” These are issues that are really peripheral to the main issues of concern to the pro-life movement. Unfortunately, many people find the arguments on issues like overpopulation so compelling that they never quite give the fundamental issue a fair or complete hearing.

There are many such distractions. “If we don't have aggressive population control, we will completely destroy the environment.” ... “Overpopulation is the cause of poverty.” ... “If the U.N. doesn't fund birth control programs, Third World women will have no choice but to remain poor, destitute and uneducated.” ... “If you are against abortion and birth control, you must be in favor of women being barefoot and pregnant.” ... “Children are better off in small families.” … And so on.

We try to respond to these objections by saying that, no matter how serious these problems may be, killing innocent people can never be a permissible solution. All too often, the people we are talking with accuse us of changing the subject and tell us we only care about the fetus — not about the people who are already with us. We end up talking past each other.

There are too many decisive distractions to address in a single column. But it behooves us to inform ourselves about as many of these issues as possible. Today, I just want to consider one of these — the claim that there are already too many people in the world. Accept this premise, and it's easy to go along with the argument that aggressive population control is necessary, perhaps even a moral good, for both individuals and society.

Many people who live in densely packed urban areas find it easy to believe that the country is overcrowded. An overpopulation scare story is plausible to a person trapped in the daily traffic jam around the Washington Beltway, or on California's Highway 101, or on Chicago's Dan Ryan Expressway.

We should agree with our opponents where we can, and this is one such case. We feel that we are crowded, and many of us are. But the fact is, a lot of us are crowded into a few places — a very small percentage, in fact, of the available land. The solution to overcrowding is not to reduce the total number of people, or prevent new generations from taking their place in the world, but to spread out existing people.

According to the National Center for Policy Analysis in Dallas (, three-quarters of the American population lives on just 3.5% of the land. Only about 5% of U.S. lands are developed. More than three-quarters of the states have more than 90% of their land dedicated to rural uses. More than five times as much land is set aside in national parks, wilderness areas, federal forests and federal grazing lands than has been developed for housing and industry.

So the solution to the very visible irritant of city congestion and traffic gridlock is not necessarily fewer people. The solution involves figuring out why we are all bunched up like a bunch of bananas while most of the country sits empty. This focus leads to a whole series of new questions.

Why are people moving to the cities and suburbs? Are they moving from the farm sector in truly rural areas? Or are they moving from small towns? What policies might encourage people to move back to some of those less crowded, more livable environments?

Depending on the answers we find to these questions, we might have some very different policy options to talk about. For instance, some analysts advocate reducing or even eliminating the inheritance tax for farm families as a way of encouraging family farming. Many families must sell the farm in order to pay estate taxes on the property that provides the capital for their livelihood. People tend to move to large urban areas for the jobs. Perhaps some of the movement from small towns toward larger urban centers is generated by the expansion of large conglomerates at the expense of smaller businesses. There are probably many possible reasons for the proliferation of mega-businesses, and many policies that could curb it. Many labor market regulations have penalized small businesses at the expense of larger ones. Maybe larger businesses find it easier to comply with the whole panoply of regulations and case law that might threaten to put a smaller concern into bankruptcy. But people don't even ask these questions. Instead, we are stuck in traffic, nodding in agreement whenever National Public Radio runs one of its predictable overpopulation-scare stories.

These issues might seem peripheral to the main business of the prolife movement. In a sense, they are. But we have to face the fact that our opponents have been successful in part because they have inundated the culture with their assumptions and presuppositions. Christian civilization has been pecked to death in these minor skirmishes. It is not that there is a Catholic position on urban sprawl, or that the Pope should write an encyclical letter on the optimal size of business establishments. It is just that half the intellectual battle is framing the issues in our favor. As long as people can credibly talk about an overpopulation problem, we are going to have unnecessary trouble making our case. Our opponents are framing the questions, and we are continually on the defensive.

Any college students out there looking for a research project?

Jennifer Roback Morse, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, welcomes e-mail at