THE VATICAN AND WORLD POPULATION POLICY
An Interview with Milton P. Siegel
by Stephen D. Mumford
There is a growing consensus among international public
health leaders that the gains made by their earliest practitioners
are about to be lost as a result of overpopulation. The hideous
scourge of premature death in Africa that we have been witnessing
on our television screens for the last decade is spreading
throughout the continent along with civil war.
Somalia is presently the focus of our attention, but there
are many other African countries which are all but certain to slip
into chaos. CIA director Robert Gates has predicted that, within
the next year, there will be 30 million people starving in Africa
A December 20, 1992, article from the National Geographic
News Service identifies the fundamental problem in Africa: "Along
with war and drought, the third horseman of the African apocalypse
has been overpopulation. There are simply more people trying to
live on the land than the land can support." The article goes on
to observe: "There doesn't seem to be any long-term solution short
of transporting millions of Somalis out of there and leaving
enough space for the people and cattle that remain." But no
country will accept these millions of Somalis and the tens of
millions of other Africans who face the same prospect.
The result will be an explosion in premature deaths, just as
some of the delegates who shaped United Nations health policy in
the late 1940s had predicted. These leaders in public health
recognized that the choice was not whether population growth would
be controlled but how. Would birth control be implemented along
with "death control," or would population-growth control be left
to implacable nature through starvation and starvation-related
diseases? They argued that this was the real choice they were
making as they shaped World Health Organization policy. These
leaders understood that, in the not-too-distant future,
overpopulation would be a major--and preventable--cause of death.
But these people of vision lost that debate in the 1940s, and
now premature death on an appalling scale is just getting underway
in Africa. It is reasonable to predict that more than half of the
Africans alive today will die prematurely, and that a substantial
majority of African children born in this decade will die either
in this decade or the next.
Because of his position and the length of his tenure, Milton
P. Siegel is considered among the world's foremost authorities on
the development of World Health Organization policy. In this
videotaped interview (available from the Center for Research on
Population and Security, P.O. Box 13067, Research Triangle Park,
NC 27709, for $19), he reveals the influence of the Vatican in
shaping WHO policy, particularly in blocking adoption of the
concept that overpopulation is a grave public-health threat--a
concept which, in WHO's early years, enjoyed a broad consensus
among member countries.
Without this separation of population dynamics from WHO
public-health policy, the Vatican would have found it much more
difficult to subsequently manipulate governments on such issues as
family planning and abortion. National leaders would have been able
to refer to the international consensus, as demonstrated by WHO
policy. WHO, they could have insisted, has determined that family
planning and abortion--like clean water, good nutrition, and
immunizations--are necessary to protect public health.
Professor Siegel has now decided to speak out on the subject.
As he was involved in the World Health Organization at an early
stage, his personal experience provides ample evidence that the
Vatican influenced WHO policy development from the outset, during
the early period of the Interim Commission in 1946. In its 44-year
history, this international health body has had a deplorable
record in family planning. Its commitment has been minuscule, and
even today family planning accounts for only a tiny fraction of
Professor Siegel joined the World Health Organization in
1946, when it was still in its formative stages--under the
umbrella of the United Nations, created just the year before.
Because of Siegel's earlier work in North America and the Middle
East, he was asked, in effect, to be one of WHO's "founding
fathers." So he came on board on the senior staff of the Interim
Commission. Dr. Brock Chisholm of Canada was the executive
director of the commission. The Interim Commission set up the
permanent organization with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland,
and Dr. Chisholm was chosen to be WHO's first director general.
MUMFORD: In your role as assistant director general of WHO,
you were in a position to know all of the essential facts that
went into all WHO policy-making decisions, weren't you?
SIEGEL: I feel it might be useful for me to point out my
participation in, first, the creation of the World Health
Organization, and my role as assistant director general for 24 years,
which is when I reached retirement age. I attended every meeting of
the World Health Assembly and every session of the executive board.
The board met twice a year. The Health Assembly met annually. and I
was present, exercising my functions at these meetings. I didn't miss
a single one.
MUMFORD: How did Dr. Chisholm regard family planning in those
early days as a potential concern for WHO?
SIEGEL: He considered it absolutely essential....Brock
Chisholm was a realist, and he firmly believed that overpopulation
was a threat--a security threat, if you will--to all the nations
of the world. And that steps must be taken, and it should be
considered part of health function to do something about
MUMFORD: Did you and Brock Chisholm ever discuss the
opposition to family planning?
SIEGEL: Yes, we had to. It was an issue even before I joined
the Interim Commission. l joined the commission a year after it
MUMFORD: When did you first start witnessing this opposition
to WHO involvement with family planning?
SIEGEL: Well, my first exposure to it--the initial stages of
opposition to family planning by the Catholic church--started as
soon as I joined WHO and word reached me that this was a real
problem. I was visited by one of the representatives of the Vatican
in Geneva, who wanted to know who I was and where I came from and
what I believed in. And I politely invited him out of my office,
because I did not consider that I was under any obligation to reveal
anything that I knew to someone outside the organization--whether it
was someone from the Vatican or any other organized group. So they
couldn't get any information out of me. But as a result, I had the
beginnings of conversations with my colleagues, particularly with Dr.
MUMFORD: What was the basis of opposition within WHO to the
discussion of population and population problems?
SIEGEL: Well, the position simply was that population-growth
control, family planning, or whatever you want to call it, was not a
health problem and therefore should not even be debated. That was the
position of Ireland, Italy, Lebanon, and later on Belgium. The issue
of population growth came up at every meeting WHO held.
You couldn't separate population problems from health in the
minds of most of the delegates. But these few countries--
particularly those which were dominated by the Vatican--didn't
want to see that discussed in a health organization. Because as
soon as you introduce anything under the subject of health--
whether it's peace, security, or family planning--it's pretty hard
to argue against improving the health of people. These countries
knew that, and they tried to defend themselves by saying, "These
are political considerations and shouldn't be discussed in a
MUMFORD: Wasn't the question of religion, as such, ever
raised in the discussion?
SIEGEL: Well, it was raised indirectly. Religion always was
raised indirectly one way or another. But sometimes they would
simply call it politics.
I think one can provide many illustrative examples of the way
in which politics has interfered with the progress of health. And
the influence of religion never did show itself until the Vatican
began to use its influence through the church organizational
structure, which, incidentally, probably is one of the best
organizational structures the world's ever seen.
So, one way or another, sometimes surreptitiously, the
Catholic church used its influence to defeat, if you will, any
movement toward family planning or birth control.
MUMFORD: I've read--and we've discussed--that in the second
World Health Assembly the representative from Ceylon commented that
the security and peace of the world is threatened by population
growth, and that the need for birth control must be considered
internationally. What reaction was there to this?
SIEGEL: Well, it's interesting to note the fact that the
second World Health Assembly was not held in Geneva; it was in
The environment which we were subjected to in Rome for the
second World Health Assembly made it particularly difficult for
anyone to make the kind of statement made by that man, the
representative of the country that was then called Ceylon....But
he still had the courage to get up and make that statement about
the importance of peace and security and health, and the role that
health can play with regard to population control or family
planning or what I choose to call management of population growth.
MUMFORD: Yes, I recall how action was stymied in the second
World Health Assembly. What happened at the third assembly?
SIEGEL: When we reached the third World Health Assembly which
was back again in Geneva...for the first time to my recollection a
strong effort was made in the steering committee to add the
subject of population and family planning to the agenda to be
discussed at the third World Health Assembly.
Well, the delegation of Ceylon was on the steering committee
that drafted the agenda to go to the Health Assembly for approval,
and the delegates did their utmost to argue that population for
them was an exceedingly serious problem, because they were a small
island with a relatively large population, considering the size of
the island. And they felt that population just had to be
considered by the World Health Organization, and for that reason
they were making very strong efforts to get the steering committee
to allow the subjects of family planning and population to be
added to the suggested agenda.
When that hit the assembly for its approval of the agenda, it
was the delegate from Ireland--Dr. Hourihane--who made a rather
strong, forceful statement (in the style which was the one style
he could handle extremely well), saying there were two major
religions, and his country was one of them--that is, the major
part of its population was one of the religions--which absolutely
refused to permit its delegation to participate in any meeting
where the problem of family planning was being discussed.
When the vote came on the subject of whether to put
population and family planning on the agenda, the vote was 30
against, one in favor, and there were somewhere between four and
MUMFORD: So Ireland simply intimidated just about everyone.
While the Catholic opposition was developing earlier, how did Dr.
Chisholm react? Was he concerned?
SIEGEL: Oh, he was very concerned because he was beginning to
feel pressure from the member states of WHO that were
predominantly Catholic in all respects--politically and in the
development of their programs. And they were putting pressure on
Brock Chisholm as director general of WHO to do as little as
possible about family planning. Then later on, as time went by,
when they weren't very successful in influencing the development
of the program, they became extremely difficult and put
considerable pressure on the director general to do NOTHING about
family planning. It took them about three years before they could
get the kind of resolutions or consensus in our annual meetings of
the Health Assembly to prevent the director from proposing
programs that included such things as family planning.
MUMFORD: It took whom three years? You're talking about the
Catholic church's representatives?
SIEGEL: Well, they had to work through government
representatives because they couldn't speak officially; they
didn't have the prerogative of being recognized to speak at a
meeting of the World Health Assembly or any of its subsidiary
bodies unless they were invited. So they operated through the
countries where they knew they had influence. I think it's a
well-known fact who those countries are. The two outstanding ones
are Ireland and Italy.
Then later on, the Belgians became very much involved, and it
was the Belgian and Irish delegates--the chief delegates--who went
to Brock Chisholm and demanded that he make a clear statement to
the assembly that he would not propose any family-planning
programs in any of the annual programs and budget of the
organization. They threatened that, if he didn't do that at the
then-ongoing Health Assembly, which was, I think, the third
(1950), they would withdraw from the organization and take steps
to destroy the organization. They went so far as to use these
words threatening him--that, if he didn't do what they wanted him
to do, they would first withdraw and then create a new organiza-
tion altogether and destroy the World Health Organization.
Among the people Chisholm talked to was myself. Who else he
talked to, I don't know, but I think I was the only one of his top
policy-makers with whom he discussed this. I told him that he
should not allow himself to be virtually blackmailed into taking
the action they wanted him to take. "Let them go ahead and
withdraw and see what happens." I advised.
Well, he did not want to do that because his term as director
general only had a couple more years to run, and he didn't want to
leave that problem in the hands of his successor. He knew that he was
not going to remain for a second term as director general, having
already served two years as executive director of the Interim
So he made a statement to the Health Assembly in full
complete session that he would not, as long as he was director
general, do anything to include family planning in the programming
of the organization. And that put a stop to anything that had been
going on previously.
Now the only thing that was going on previously was a program
in India which took place almost from the outset of the
organization--because the then-minister of health of India was a
woman, not a doctor, who was formerly secretary to Mahatma Gandhi,
and she was a converted Catholic dead set against any kind of
family-planning programs in India. The Vatican would accept the
idea of the use of the rhythm method but no contraceptives.
We provided an expert, whose name was Abraham Stone, to go to
India to try to set up a program for the rhythm method, together with
the minister of health--whose name, incidentally, was Rajkumari
Amrit Kaur. She was a princess; that's what rajkumari means. I knew
her well, and she was a charming person and certainly a great
supporter of WHO; but her being a converted Catholic made her more
Catholic than the pope, and she refused to support any kind of
family-planning program. When the rhythm method failed miserably--it
produced absolutely no results--then there was nothing else that
was acceptable to her. It was only after she retired as minister
of health that India began to do something about family planning.
MUMFORD: How very sad. At last, Chisholm felt he had to
SIEGEL: After what had happened at the third World Health
Assembly, the fourth--which was in 195l in Geneva--didn't even
touch the subject. It was almost taken for granted that it would
simply be a repetition of what had happened at the third
assembly--and therefore let's not waste time at the fourth.
And so we get to the fifth World Health Assembly, in 1952. I
have equated the fifth assembly in my own mind with the death
knell of WHO's involvement in population--primarily because of the
pressure put on the director general by, particularly, the
governments of Ireland and Belgium.
MUMFORD: So I gather Dr. Chisholm's capitulation at the third
World Health Assembly wasn't quite the end of it, was it?
SIEGEL: The representative of Ceylon at the fifth World
Health Assembly was Dr. Wickremsinghe, and, in referring to the
population problem, he said: "We must therefore always regard the
population problem as a vital one, and see how, without violating
any religious beliefs or moral standards, we could solve this
problem in a scientific and careful manner." This then led to a
proposal by one of the outstanding members of the delegations that
came to WHO meetings--Dr. Karl Evang from Norway. The Scandinavian
countries, as most people know, have almost always been in favor
of doing something about family planning. This has particularly
been true of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.
Dr. Karl Evang was an outstanding public-health person in the
world and spoke absolutely perfect English. He proposed, after
hearing what the representative from Ceylon had to say, that it was
time to establish an expert committee to examine the problem and
report on the health aspects of the population problem.
His proposal met with the support of representatives of a
number of countries; I won't take the time to list them all, but,
of course, one of them was Sweden and another Ceylon. The group of
countries under the influence of the Vatican proposed another
resolution: that, from a purely medical standpoint, population
problems do not require any particular action on the part of WHO
at the present time.
In the meantime, the delegate from India, whom I knew quite
well (incidentally, he was a gynecologist and obstetrician from
Madras, India), proposed a resolution that an expert committee
should be set up with the aim of acquiring knowledge with regard
to the spacing of children and birth-control problems as well as
the other health aspects of population.
MUMFORD: So, two countries proposed expert committees?
SIEGEL: After heated debate, discussion was closed, and it
was time to put the resolutions to a vote.
One of the members said he didn't understand what was taking
place, because, as he understood it, discussion of the subject had
already been declared closed and he didn't see why it should be
reopened. The chair of the committee, being mindful of what the
problem was growing into, suggested that, in the interest of harmony
and conciliation, the best procedure would be to withdraw all the
resolutions. And that was accepted by consensus.
MUMFORD: What was the implication?
SIEGEL: Well, the implication of that was that nothing
happened; the discussion was closed and there was no resolution.
Therefore, the director general having already made his statement
that he would not include family planning in any program as long
as he was director general--but he only had another year or two to
go--the result was that the organization did absolutely nothing
about family planning for a period of somewhere between seven and
That gave me an awful lot of problems; every time I'd go to
New York, I'd be jumped on at the United Nations because of WHO's
failure to take what the United Nations considered to be the kind
of action that WHO was the appropriate organization to deal with.
The failure of WHO to be able to do anything during this
period to which I referred--seven to nine years--was clearly the
result of the very effective job done by the Vatican and its
representatives, not only at WHO but at meetings of the United
Nations and other organizations.
The United Nations itself, first by its division of social
affairs, tried to do something about the population problem and
was very disappointed that WHO had been placed in a position where
it was virtually stopped and prevented from doing anything. That
probably had a great deal of influence in the United Nations on
the establishment of the United Nations Fund for Population
Activities, which it set up because WHO had miserably failed to do
what the United Nations had hoped it would do.
MUMFORD: Do you think the Vatican exerts pressure on WHO even
SIEGEL: I believe that the Catholic church still has
considerable influence on WHO's policies and program development.
Stephen D. Mumford, Ph.D., is the director of the Center for
Research on Population and Security. Much of the history covered
by Professor Siegel in this interview about the intrusion of the
Catholic church into the development of WHO population policy is
also covered in _The_United_Nations_and_the_Population_Question_
by Richard Symonds and Michael Carder, a Population Council book,
published by McGraw-Hill in 1973.
The above interview first appeared in the March/April 1993 issue
of The Humanist.
(c) Copyright 1993 by Stephen D. Mumford
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