278. Memorandum From the Executive Secretary of the National Security Council (Kimmitt) to the Executive Secretary of the Department of State (Hill)1


  • International Conference on Population

Attached is a draft position paper for the International Conference on Population in Mexico City, August 6–13, 1984. The paper was prepared by the White House Office of Policy Development, in coordination with our staff.

Please provide your comments or concurrence by Wednesday, June 13. Please respond jointly to Robert C. McFarlane and John A. Svahn, Assistant to the President for Policy Development.

Robert M. Kimmitt

Tab A

Draft Position Paper Prepared in the National Security Council2

DRAFT Statement

For many years, the United States has supported, and helped to finance, programs of family planning, particularly in the less developed countries. This Administration has continued that support but has placed it within a policy context different from that of the past. It is sufficiently evident that the current exponential growth in global population cannot continue indefinitely. There is no question of the ultimate need to achieve a condition of population equilibrium. The [Page 779]differences that do exist concern the choice of strategies and methods for the achievement of that goal. The experience of the last two decades not only makes possible but requires a sharper focus for our population policy. It requires a more refined approach to problems which appear today in quite a different light than they did twenty years ago.

First and most important, in any particular society today, population growth is, of itself, a neutral phenomenon. It is not necessarily good or ill. It becomes an asset or a problem only in conjunction with other factors, such as economic policy, social constraints, need for manpower, and so forth. The relationship between population growth and economic development is not a negative one. More people do not mean less growth; that is absurd on its face. Indeed, both in the American experience and in the economic history of most advanced nations, population growth has been an essential element in economic progress.

Before the advent of governmental population programs, several factors had combined to create an unprecedented surge in population over most of the world. Although population levels in many industrialized nations had reached or were approaching equilibrium in the period before the Second World War, the baby boom that followed in its wake resulted in a dramatic, but temporary, population “tilt” toward youth. The disproportionate number of infants, children, teenagers, and eventually young adults did strain the social infrastructure of schools, health facilities, law enforcement and so forth. It also sustained strong economic growth and was probably critical in boosting the American standard of living to new heights, despite occasionally counterproductive government policies.

Among the less developed nations, a coincidental population increase was caused by entirely different factors, directly related to the humanitarian efforts of the United States and other western countries. A tremendous expansion of health services—from simple inoculations to sophisticated surgery—saved millions of lives every year. Emergency relief, facilitated by modern transport, helped millions to survive flood, famine, and drought. The sharing of technology, the teaching of agriculture and engineering, the spread of western ideals in the treatment of women and children all helped to drastically reduce the mortality rates, especially infant mortality, and to lengthen the life span.

The result, to no one’s surprise, was more people, everywhere. This was not a failure but a success. It demonstrated not poor planning or bad policy but human progress in a new era of international assistance, technological advance, and human compassion. The population boom was a challenge; it need not have been a crisis. Seen in its broader context, it required a measured, modulated response. It provoked an overreaction by some, largely because it coincided with two negative factors which, together, hindered families and nations in adapting to their changing circumstances.

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The first of these factors was governmental control of economies, a pathology which spread throughout the developing world with sufficient virulence to keep much of it from developing further. As economic decision-making was concentrated in the hands of planners and public officials, the ability of average men and women to work towards a better future was impaired, and sometimes crippled. Agriculture was devastated by government price fixing that wiped out rewards for labor. Job creation in infant industries was hampered by confiscatory taxes. Personal industry and thrift were penalized, while dependency upon the state was encouraged. Political considerations made it difficult for the economy to adjust to changes in supply and demand or to disruptions in world trade and finance. Under such circumstances, population growth changed from an asset in the development of economic potential to a peril.

The worst consequence of economic statism was that it disrupted the natural mechanism for slowing population growth in problem areas. The world’s more affluent nations have reached a population equilibrium without compulsion and, in most cases, even before it was government policy to achieve it. The controlling factor in these cases has been the adjustment, by individual families, of reproductive behavior to economic opportunity and aspiration. Economic freedom has led to economically rational behavior. As opportunities and the standard of living rise, the birth rate falls.

That historic pattern would already be well under way in many nations where population growth is today a problem, if short-sighted policies had not disrupted economic incentives, rewards, and advancement. In this regard, localized crises of population growth are evidence of too much government control and planning, rather than too little.

The second factor that turned the population boom into a crisis was confined to the western world. It was an outbreak of an anti-intellectualism, which attacked science, technology, and the very concept of material progress. Joined to a commendable and long overdue concern for the environment, it was more a reflection of anxiety about the unsettled times and the uncertain future and disregard of human experience and scientific sophistication. It was not unlike other waves of cultural anxiety that have, over the centuries, swept through western civilization during times of social stress and scientific exploration.

The combination of these two factors—counterproductive economic policies in poor and struggling nations and a pseudo-scientific pessimism among the more advanced—provoked the demographic overreaction of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Doomsday scenarios took the place of realistic forecasts, and too many governments pursued population control measures that have had little impact on population growth, rather than sound economic policies that create the rise in living stan[Page 781]dards historically associated with decline in fertility rates. It was the easy way out, and it did not work. It focused on a symptom and neglected the underlying ailments. For the last three years, this Administration has sought to reverse that approach. We recognize that, in some cases, immediate population pressures may make advisable short-term efforts to meliorate them. But this cannot be a substitute for the economic reforms that put a society on the road toward growth and, as an aftereffect, toward slower population increase as well.

Nor can population control substitute for the rapid and responsible development of natural resources. In responding to certain Members of Congress concerning the previous Administration’s Global 2000 report,3 this Administration in 1981 repudiated its call “for more governmental supervision and control. Historically, that has tended to restrict the availability of resources and to hamper the development of technology, rather than to assist it. Recognizing the seriousness of environmental and economic problems, and their relationship to social and political pressures, especially in the developing nations, the Administration places a priority upon technological advance and economic expansion, which hold out the hope of prosperity and stability of a rapidly changing world. That hope can be realized, of course, only to the extent that government’s response to problems, whether economic or ecological, respects and enhances individual freedom, which makes true progress possible and worthwhile.”

Those principles underlie this country’s approach to the United Nations Conference on Population to be held in Mexico City in August. In accord with those principles, we reject compulsion or coercion in family planning programs, whether it is exercised against families within a society or against nations within the family of man. The United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959) calls for legal protection for children before birth as well as after birth; and the United States accordingly does not consider abortion an acceptable element of family planning programs and will not contribute to those of which it is a part. Nor will it any longer contribute directly or indirectly to family planning programs funded by governments or private organizations that advocate abortion as an instrument of population control. Efforts to lower population growth in cases in which it is deemed advisable to do so must, moreover, respect the religious beliefs and culture of each society. Population control is not a panacea. It will not solve problems of massive unemployment. Jobs are not lost because there are too many people in a given area. Jobs are created by the conjunction of human wants and investment capital. Population growth [Page 782]fuels the former; sound economic policies and properly directed international assistance can provide the latter. Indeed, population density may make the latter more feasible by concentrating the need for both human services and technology. But as long as oppressive economic policies penalize those who work, save, and invest, joblessness will persist.

Population control cannot solve problems of unauthorized migration across national boundries. People do not leave their homes, and often their families, to seek more space. They do so in search of opportunity and freedom. Reducing their numbers gives them neither. Population control cannot avert natural disasters, including famines provoked by cyclical drought. Fortunately, world food supplies have been adequate to relieve those circumstances in recent years. Problems of transportation remain; but there are far deeper problems as well, in those governmental policies which restrict the rewards of agricultural pursuits, encourage the abandonment of farmland, and concentrate people in urban areas.

It is time to concentrate upon those root problems which frequently exacerbate population pressures. By focusing upon real remedies for underdeveloped economies, the United Nations Conference on Population can reduce demographic issues to their proper place. It is an important place, but not the controlling one. It requires our continuing attention within the broader context of economic growth and of the economic freedom that is its prerequisite. Most of all, questions of population growth require the approach outlined by President Reagan in 1981, in remarks before the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia: “Trust the people, trust their intelligence and trust their faith, because putting people first is the secret of economic success everywhere in the world.”4 That is the agenda of the United States for the United Nations Conference on Population this year, just as it remains the continuing goal of our family planning assistance to other nations.

  1. Source: Department of State, Country Files, Miscellaneous Population Files, 1974–1992, Lot 93D393, Background Papers 1980–1984. No classification marking. A copy was sent to Svahn. Forwarded to McFarlane under a June 6 covering memorandum from Hill which reads: “We have received your draft position paper for the International Conference on Population, and are preparing comments. We have passed the draft to AID, to Ambassador Kirkpatrick, and to Ambassador Gavin for their comments. In addition, we recommend that you circulate the draft to the Bureau of the Census, CIA and Defense for their clearance.” (Ibid.)
  2. No classification marking.
  3. Reference is to the Global 2000 Report to the President released in 1980 by the Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of State.
  4. See Public Papers: Reagan, 1981, pp. 937–944.