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22 November 2020updated 12 Oct 2023 11:16am

From the archive: The great birth control debate

12 December 1959: How to solve world population growth.

By Paul Johnson

In this 1959 article, written in the language of the time, Paul Johnson (who would go on to edit the New Statesman from 1965 to 1970), explored the issues of world population growth and the need for a reliable method of birth control. Though it was a topic much avoided in the public sphere, the situation had quietly been changing, he wrote, with many religious groups abandoning their opposition to artificial methods. The Roman Catholic church remained an obstacle, though, Johnson wrote, “it is impossible here to set out the official Catholic position in detail – it is traced back, somewhat tendentiously, to the Biblical castigation of the sin of Onan, ‘who spilled his seed upon the ground’”. The first contraceptive pill would, of course, be approved for use in the US the following year.


For the first time, the problem of world population growth has become a public issue in the United States. For many years, expert warnings of the dangers of unfettered population increase have been growing more strident. But they have been largely ignored, at least in public, by politicians, because any discussion of the problem involves taking up positions about the means of solving it – above all, the use of artificial methods of birth control. The politicians have not been the only ones to dodge the issue; so have the big newspaper and magazine chains, and the TV networks, indeed, everyone open to the pressure of organised religious groups. And what is true of America applies also to other Western democracies.

Yet the situation has been changing, probably faster than most people realised. Many of the nonconformist religious groups have long abandoned their opposition to artificial birth control – have even advocated its use in certain conditions – and their example has recently been followed by the Anglican church. There is evidence that the use of such methods has steadily increased in the West, even among members of churches which still forbid them.

According to an authoritative University of Michigan survey, 90 per cent of women aged 30 or over, who have already had one child, use birth control; for Roman Catholics the figure is 80 per cent, and of this latter group 57 per cent use forbidden methods.

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Meanwhile, the population problem has been growing more serious. Except in Japan, where growth has been stabilised, the population of Asia has continued to expand rapidly. North Africa and parts of the Middle East are now going through a demographic revolution, and there are signs that this is spreading to Sub-Saharan Africa.

In a paper read at this year’s meeting of the British Association, Dr Harrison Matthews, director of the London Zoo, said that world population will double in the next 40 years. At present rates of increase, there will be one person for every square yard of the Earth’s surface in little over 1,000 years – over 3 million to the square mile, everywhere.

In the past it has often been comfortably assumed that growth of world food supplies would keep pace with the population curve. The Roman Catholic church, for obvious reasons, still clings to this view. It may be that the use of totalitarian methods, in China, for instance, will succeed in producing food quicker than mouths to consume it – though the experience of Soviet Russia is not encouraging. In general, however, it has proved far easier to teach backward peoples modern methods of hygiene, and to equip them with basic medical services, than to teach them efficient agriculture. All the postwar efforts to raise living standards in the underdeveloped areas have foundered on this simple paradox. Indeed, it is probable that, outside Europe, the lavish outpourings of US foreign aid have added to the sum total of human misery. A further example is Algeria, where the introduction of efficient French health services has released a demographic avalanche and so engulfed both nations in a senseless war whose dynamic is poverty.

A growing consciousness of the dangers of economic aid which lacks a basis of long-term social planning has led to some heart-searching in Washington. Last summer, a presidential study committee on foreign aid, under the chairmanship of William H Draper, acknowledging that US aid might be actively promoting population growth in some countries, suggested – somewhat timidly – that the same programmes should also include information on birth control. So far, according to the International Cooperation Administration, not a penny of US aid has been spent on such schemes, and “no such action is contemplated”; the suggestion, said its spokesman, was therefore “very academic”. But it has served to bring the controversy into the open, where it belongs, and thus begin the process of educating western public opinion about a problem which, as Arthur Krock of the New York Times put it last week, “carries a portent for humanity graver than any save nuclear international war”.

[see also: From the NS archive: Women’s rights in restaurants]

Nor were the public reactions to the suggestion entirely predictable. It is true that the assembled Catholic cardinals and bishops have not only denounced the use of public funds for any such purpose, but have even categorised discussion of the problem as a smoke-screen behind which moral evil may be foisted on the public. But not all the Catholic politicians, and notably Senator Kennedy, have tamely fallen into line. On purely pragmatic grounds, Kennedy urged caution. He sensibly suggested that the US should in no circumstances include birth control as part of a foreign aid package deal: “I think it would be the greatest psychological mistake for us to appear to advocate limitation of the peoples whose population is increasing no faster than in the United States.”

But he added that, as president, he would be guided in such matters by purely secular considerations. Adlai Stevenson, who is a Unitarian, took much the same line: no compulsion, but no hesitation either, in considering requests for such aid. Many non-Catholic religious groups went much further and deplored the stand taken by the Catholic hierarchy. From Congregationalists to Episcopalians, their attitude seems to be that population control is a secular debate to which the churches should contribute only the most general advice.

The Dean of the New York Union Theological Seminary described as “tragic” the orthodox Catholic position, “which has no sound moral or religious basis, and which has been rejected by most other Christian groups”. Indeed, the first round of the controversy has served to reveal the isolation of the Catholic church. There is no doubt that many Catholics themselves regard their position as vulnerable.

It is impossible here to set out the official Catholic position in detail – it is traced back, somewhat tendentiously, to the Biblical castigation of the sin of Onan, “who spilled his seed upon the ground”. More relevant is to examine its underlying psychology, which in some respects is common to all Christian churches. Though the controversy is a modern one, the Church’s attitude springs from the traditional and deep-rooted suspicion of the sexual act, inevitable in a celibate clergy. The Church teaches that celibacy, in both priests and nuns, is a higher spiritual state than matrimony.

But at the same time, the act of procreation is God-given and is, moreover, necessary to the survival of mankind and thus to the completion of God’s design. This apparent contradiction is resolved by making indivisible the act of intercourse and its outcome. Sex (even within marriage) is justified only when it has the express object of producing children. This seemed to be the basis of the Church’s position, in so far as it had one, when it first considered itself obliged to pronounce on the subject of modern contraceptives. The root of the objection to them was not so much that they limited the birth rate – so did sacerdotal celibacy – but that they made illicit sex easy. But the problem proved more complex than the theological experts imagined: strange phrases, such as the “safe period” and “natural contraception” drifted to the ears of the Fathers; it was pointed out to them by Catholic doctors that families could, in theory, be “planned” without resorting to artificial devices. Was this equally illicit?

Falling back upon a rule of thumb, the Fathers pronounced that, being in accord with “Natural Law”, it was not thereby blundering on to a thorny path indeed. By progressive stages, “natural” contraception has become more and more complex, and therefore more and more artificial. Today, reluctant Catholic mothers are authorised to use, among other things, a chronometrical gadget not unlike the astrolabe with which Henry the Navigator set forth upon his travels; and they are allowed, if not exactly encouraged, to consult an officially sponsored manual, complete with graphs and diagrams, which makes roughly the same demands on the intelligence as the differential calculus and which, for sheer complexity, might have been written by Duns Scotus himself.

“Natural” contraception has thus become far more unnatural than any method advocated by Marie Stopes; indeed, from the point of view of the Fathers it appears to have only one virtue: it rarely works. (The US National Committee for Maternal Health states that the Catholic-approved “rhythm” method is the least effective of all birthcontrol techniques, producing three times as many unwanted pregnancies as mechanical procedures.)

[see also: From the NS archive: A magistrate’s figures]

But having, in effect, surrendered the reality of the principle, the Church is still saddled with the theory, and thus finds itself driven into unpopular and illogical public attitudes. In Catholic Europe, where both governments and public opinion broadly favour a high birth rate, this need not matter. But in Asia and Africa, criticism, especially among the coloured clergy, is growing. Since the other Christian churches sold the pass on birth control, Catholic missionaries have been faced with what they may reasonably regard as unfair competition, especially since local authorities tend to favour those sects whose moral teachings bear some relation to current realities.

But how is the Catholic church to get itself out of the mess into which it has drifted? An agonising reappraisal, à la Lambeth, is unthinkable. Fortunately, there is at hand a casuistical device which, though a little clumsy, is already being canvassed. “Conventional” contraceptives, it is argued, must always be illicit because they involve the insertion of a physical barrier between the Means and the End. But a pill, administered orally? That is quite a different matter. The suggestion has already been made, discreetly. It will doubtless take time to mature.

But so will a serviceable contraceptive pill. Recent US experiments, carried out on Puerto Rican women, have produced very satisfactory results. So far, no adverse side-effects have been recorded; indeed, there seems a tendency for women, after treatment is discontinued, to become more not less fertile. The problem of cost has still to be solved; it will probably have to await a government-sponsored programme on the lines suggested by the Draper Committee. That the US and Asian governments will eventually have to adopt such programmes seems unarguable. And by that time, it is hoped, the Catholic church will have set its own doctrinal house in order.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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