I was somewhat apprehensive about taking my invited place at the workshop on biological extinction of the Pontifical Academies of Science and Social Sciences at the end of February.  Right wing Catholic websites were loaded with outrage and lies about my invitation, and that of John Bongaarts from the Population Council, and more than 10,000 people had signed petitions to get me (or us) excluded.

My apprehension was unnecessary.  The view of the Academies, backed by the Vatican, was that “all voices should be heard.”  The workshop, arranged by my old friends and colleagues Peter Raven and Partha Dasgupta, was one of the most productive and informative I have ever attended.  It was an assembly of stars, and everyone was treated with dignity, respect, and fine hospitality.  The presidents of the two Academies, Werner Arber and Margaret Archer, and their Chancellor Msgr. Marcelo Sánchez Sarondo were open and friendly.  The papers (which will be published commercially), were (with a single exception) excellent, as was most of the discussion.  Everyone emphasized the grave danger extinctions pose both to human life-support systems and the ethical duties of humanity to preserve “the creation” –the only life-forms we know of in the universe.  There was essentially complete agreement that the drivers of the now-underway sixth mass extinction were human overpopulation, overconsumption by the rich, and inequity (poverty).

The only issue that was carefully avoided was contraception.  Everyone there, like virtually everyone, wanted abortion to be extremely rare.  Since it was not in our charge, there was no point in having a discussion of methods of birth control, but everyone was aware of the view, which I share with all of my colleagues (including many Catholics), that contraception should be available to all, as a major tool in both the needed reduction in birth rates and avoidance of abortion.

All in all it was an encouraging experience.  The Catholic Church is the only one with scholarly academies charged with providing unbiased information.  As a result, for example, it has led the way in the battle against climate denial and long ago accepted the overwhelming evidence for evolution.  In a civilization facing existential risks, it should be praised and supported for this attitude toward science.

The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • Rose Bronwen


  • carn

    “All in all it was an encouraging experience. The Catholic Church is the
    only one with scholarly academies charged with providing unbiased
    information. As a result, for example, it has led the way in the battle
    against climate denial and long ago accepted the overwhelming evidence
    for evolution. In a civilization facing existential risks, it should be
    praised and supported for this attitude toward science.”

    Nice to hear someone acknowledge, that Catholic Church is not generally anti-science or anti-rational.

    And i truly hope that this experience opens your mind to consider the possibility that the antagonism of the Catholic Church to the killing of unborn living members of the species human might also not be that anti-rational or anti-science as many claim it is, but might even have a rational basis.

    And hence, that maybe, indepent of the good reasons to limit population growth, abortion especially abortion under pressure by the state as it is or was at least done in China is to be avoided even if it seems like a potential option to reduce population growth.

  • Max Kummerow

    It’s been a while since I looked at the encyclicals (I think there are three that address birth control and abortion, plus John Paul II’s “theology of the body”) but I believe I am correct in saying that even as late as John Paul II and Benedict XVI the popes were saying that having sex without possibility of conception is a sin (and a serious sin, not trivial) while intercourse with possibility of conception is a legitimate and positive aspect of the sacrament of marriage. This already strikes me as nonsense because one can’t tell–the act looks and feels the same in both cases. The sin too much resembles the sacrament. How could we be held responsible for somebody else being infertile? Do we have to stop bonding after menopause? How about sex during pregnancy? For that matter, now that we can make some pretty good guesses about when a woman has ovulated, why wouldn’t sex during infertile parts of the cycle be a sin by the pope’s reasoning? I may be butchering the Catholic jargon here but the essence of the argument is that contraception is wrong because it prevents pregnancy. So it follows that the Church leaders think sex is for reproduction. Period. No fun allowed. But, in fact, there is plenty of science that says sex has other biological functions in our species, mainly as a means of reinforcing the couple bonding of parents. Oxytocin and endorphins are produced (measurable chemicals observable by science) that tend to bond couples who have intercourse, whether or not contraception is used. Unlike most female mammals, women are sexually receptive when not capable of conception. Sex without procreation is not only natural and normal, it is essential for human childrearing. Bonding is extremely important for childrearing in our species and for maintaining family life. So one fact the Church doesn’t seem to have absorbed is that it is ok to have sex without possibility of pregnancy. It really is. And then there are a whole series of arguments about the welfare of children and families. The term “kwashiorkor” I’m told, means “displaced one.” Too close birth spacing increases infant mortality, especially in poor countries where this protein deficiency syndrome (swollen bellies, sticklike arms and legs) leads not only to death in many cases, but also to permanent mental impairment and physical stunting. To tell poor people who cannot afford to feed their existing hungry children that they cannot use modern contraception without sinning is itself, in my opinion a mortal sin. A Church blind to that reality ignores facts. And another fact, the “natural methods” of family planning endorsed by the Church have such large failure rates that they cannot be relied on to prevent conception. The failure rates of these methods are scientific, measurable facts. And, on a more macroeconomic level, compare the fates of countries like Haiti, Guatemala and the Philippines where the bishops have derailed family planning efforts, to countries like Singapore, Korea and Japan where fertility transitions have occurred via use of modern contraception and abortion. Look up the statistics. Life expectancies are 10 to 20 years longer in the low fertility countries, incomes five times higher and there is less violence. Will the popes own the higher infant mortality in countries where modern contraception is not practiced. That’s another fact they ignore.

    As for the metaphysics of personhood, that’s a load of nonsense. How do you know what God is up to? Where do the souls come from and go to in the 20% of fetuses lost by miscarriage? The idea of ensoulment as some sort of magical vapor that appears from somewhere when an egg and sperm join is sort of akin to expecting to see angels with wings sitting on clouds. Let me know when you spot them and then we can go looking for souls in 8 cell blastulas or little embryos with tails. You are welcome to construct moral stories that require respect for persons, but the stories should reflect the nature of reality as we see it. a) life does not start at conception, life comes from life, all of the genetic code was there before conception and most of it (999,999,999 sperm out of 100 million) is discarded. Discarding a fertilized egg happens naturally in the half of fertilized eggs that don’t implant. b) At some point the new individual was clearly part of the parents and later it can live independently (after 24 weeks or so of gestation), but it is morally feasible, in my opinion, to regard the process as a continuum, with the baby acquiring more personhood little by little. And that there are many reasons why life (lives of other children, lives of parents, lives of the fetus itself or its later siblings born at a more propitious time) can all be enhanced by abortions. Biology is not perfect. Not all fertilized eggs can survive. If they did the world would soon find life habitat limited. It is really habitat that determines how many humans can survive, not number of conceptions. Too many people can destroy life by destroying habitat. That’s what Malthus figured out and it happens to be fact. There is no nonsense about personhood that can make a baby survive without food. Get over it. Look at life as a wonderful process taking place in an interdependent community with ecosystems the key to enhancing and respecting life. Of course individuals are sacred and important, but individuals cannot survive without a world to live in and feed them. An ecological perspective and understanding of the imperfections of reproduction and behaviors offers a far solider moral foundation than blathering about mystical, unobservable personhoods. In a world where half of pregnancies are unintended, we need abortions to avoid condeming us all to an immoral world. Jesus has not yet returned (and no one knows the hour of his coming) and we live in a world of imperfect, but wonderful life processes. Abortion can be the best choice, the moral choice, based on respect for persons and understanding of their circumstances.

  • Richard Grossman

    I’m curious, Paul. You write: “The only issue that was carefully avoided was contraception.” Was that mandated by the organizers of the workshop?

  • Max Kummerow

    The Catholic Church’s position on birth control and abortion resembles it’s opinion on Galileo’s observation that the earth is not the center of the universe. They’ve got the facts wrong, so it follows that the ethics comes out backwards. Long discussion but summarize as two points: First, In humans (unlike most mammals) sex is not just for procreation (a majority of sexual intercourse could not result in pregnancy, sex is for bonding, for family solidarity, to reinforce love). Second, abortion is not the same as murdering a person. 50% of fertilized eggs fail to implant, 20% of pregnancies spontaneously terminate through miscarriage. (If God opposes abortions, why does he do so many of them?) Reproduction in all species results in potential population growth that must be checked by lower fertility or higher mortality. There are limits to growth. Opposing birth control and abortion is the same as choosing higher mortality, that is, shorter life expectancy. Abortion has the moral high ground.

    • Stephen_Phelan

      Curious… which facts does the Catholic Church have wrong? There are many places where the Church points to the two mutually required ends of sexuality that you mention, so that can’t be it. Second, on abortion, you seem to conflate scientific fact (presence of a member of the human species) with metaphysics (whether that being is a person). There is no scientific debate about the fact that a new, radically dependent but genetically complete, human being is present at conception/fertilization. Though many, like you, dismiss this fact, and change the subject. The debate is about personhood and value, and which human beings can be killed for what reasons.

      Now, you can say that some human beings can be killed for the reasons you approve, though that puts you in some pretty unsavory company as an honest look at history will reveal. In doing so, you literally claim for yourself “the moral high ground” without an ounce of self-awareness or humility.

      To condescend on the basis of factual and moral superiority while butchering facts and ignoring moral precedent for your argument is just bad form. Do try again.

  • Susan M Gere

    I have to say, Pope (I almost wrote Saint!) Francis is one of the few bright spots in the world scene whose leadership could make a real difference. Thanks for taking a chance and participating in their workshop. I still wish I understood why, deep down, birth control is such a powerful boogeyman in American politics.

    • We agree that eating is not just about nutrition, but about tasting and conviviality. But how would you feel about eating when all possibility of nutrition was excluded?

      • Susan M Gere

        I think the your parallel would be accurate should every snack you consume potentially deliver the ‘nutrition’ of a meal. If one of ten packaged treats adds the caloric value of a quarter of your recommended daily intake (not implausible in the reality of today’s food industry!), you would soon be morbidly obese. This outcome would not be healthy for you, or society.

  • Mike Hanauer

    Thanks You Paul Ehrlich! Perhaps, in the end, with will be the Catholic Church that shames so many other (so-called) environmental organizations that they can’t be true to their missions if they continue to ignore our overpopulation.

    • We agree that eating is not just about nutrition, but about tasting and conviviality. But how would you feel about eating when all possibility of nutrition was excluded?

  • Mike Hanauer

    Thanks You Paul Ehrlich. Perhaps, in the end, with will be the Catholic Church that shames so many other (so-called) environmental organizations that they can’t be true to their missions if the continue to ignore our overpopulation.

  • AxeChop

    Luvs Youz Dr. Paul … (you know, standard human love: easier from a distance.)

    Major Props for all your efforts over the years.

    Here’s a voice, albeit from the past. Frank Zappa, circa 1984:

    He asked me, a young evolutionary aberration; another hubris-endowed, Disneyfied suburban idealist: “Are you gonna catch the bomb before it comes down?”

    He said this, too:
    “My recommended approach would be this: you can bet everything will come to an end. It’s going to be ugly and it’s going to be a mess, and it’s going to be something that somebody did in the name of God, okay? Whether it’s us saying that God’s on our side because we’re tremendous Christians and we’re protecting our religion and our flag, or whether it’s a Moslem saying that the infidels must die or whether it’s a communist saying that there is no God and we’re doing this for the people.

    The point is that they’re going to do it in the name of something greater than themselves but you can bet your ass they’re going to do it. There’s no way around it. That is, I’m sure mathematics would bear me out on that. The statistics are staggering. That is what is going to happen. So the question is, what do you do with your spare time until you’re a cinder? And the answer is, you do whatever you can that makes your particular life more beautiful and you get involved in art. ‘Cause that’s what makes things beautiful.”