Openness to Life is at the Center of True Development
Solving the world’s problems – serious poverty, hunger, war, disease, etc. – is a complicated business, to say the least. To make even a tiny, lasting dent in a single one of these problems typically requires vast amounts of careful thinking, planning, research, money and time. Even then, there’s always the risk that a seemingly “brilliant” plan will go tragically awry when it comes face-to-face with the unforeseen complexities of the concrete world, or that an approach that works well in one locale will fail catastrophically when applied somewhere else.
It’s no wonder then, that even well-intentioned philanthropists often fall prey to the temptation of the “short-cut” – the cookie-cutter, one-size fits all, blanket “solution” to some enormously complex problem. Unfortunately, the consequences of giving in to this temptation are often disastrous…or worse.
Nothing demonstrates this reality more bleakly than the long and gruesome trail of horrors left by the eugenics movement. Many early eugenicists were well-meaning people, who sincerely desired to reduce or eliminate human suffering. However, enamored by the newly-discovered science of genetics and new technologies, and a grossly over-simplified or erroneous understanding of human nature and human rights, they pursued the diabolical path of eliminating suffering not by eliminating the source of the suffering, but rather by eliminating the people who suffered.
In the end, the eugenicists also increased suffering. The systematic murder of the mentally handicapped, or physically disabled, in Nazi concentration camps is clearly the starkest example: but we ought not to forget the suffering (still ongoing in places like China and India) of the countless poor and vulnerable who were forcibly sterilized, or forced to abort their unborn children; not to mention the suffering of the innumerable unborn babies murdered in their mother’s wombs in the name of a better world.
Melinda Gates’ “Soft” Eugenics
Unfortunately, the demon of eugenics has not yet been exorcised from Western thinking. It has only gone underground or assumed more “compassionate” guises. The basic temptation is still with us: for it is still true that it is far easier to eliminate the poor and the suffering, than it is to eliminate the complex and tenacious sources of their poverty or their suffering.
These thoughts have been on my mind as I have been reading about the misguided philanthropic efforts of self-proclaimed “devout Catholic” Melinda Gates and her husband, Microsoft-founder Bill Gates.
Earlier this month, thousands of participants took place in the fifth Women Deliver Conference, self-described by the organizers as the “world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women in the 21st century.” As in past Women Deliver conferences, Melinda played a prominent role at this year’s event, and gave several interviews to media in conjunction with the conference. Melinda has also been in the public eye quite a bit lately, due to the recent release of her new book, “The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World.”
Melinda, and her husband, have made “women’s issues” one of the top priorities for their philanthropic work. A portion of what they do involves truly valuable and praise-worthy efforts to improve the lives, well-being and health of women. Unfortunately, some time ago Melinda also made the decision to elevate contraception-promotion and population control as arguably the single-most important part of her work.
In 2017, the Gates Foundation pledged $375 million for “family planning,” with the goal of providing contraception to 120 million women around the world, particularly in developing countries. This was merely the latest of the many hundreds of millions that the Gates Foundation has previously spent on promoting contraception. Melinda defends her foundation’s emphasis on contraception by claiming that there are hundreds of millions of women with an “unmet need” for contraception. In other words, she claims that she is merely providing something that women are demanding, and that her foundation’s efforts always respect women’s freedom.
However, it’s long been known that statistics touting an “unmet need” for contraception are totally bogus: they’re an invention of contraception-providing, pro-population control activists and organizations to justify their overwhelming emphasis on providing plastic and pills, rather than the nutrition and healthcare that many women in third world countries are actually demanding. Included in UN-generated “unmet need” statistics, for instance, are women who could easily access contraception if they wanted to, but who don’t want to, whether for personal or religious reasons. What a joke!
Unfortunately, Melinda has also repeatedly and publicly touted her status as a “devout” Catholic, while simultaneously dismissing Catholic moral teaching on sexual matters as outmoded, and even fatally dangerous to women. In an interview earlier this month with David Rubenstein, for instance, Melinda described contraception as “the greatest anti-poverty tool we have,” and repeated the misleading claim that “200 million women” are asking for contraception, stated “we weren’t delivering it.” In response to a question about how she squared her decision to focus on contraception with her Catholic faith, Gates responded that “it was a difficult decision for me because of my Catholic roots.” “I am still Catholic,” she said. “But when I met so many women around the world, and they would discuss with me that this was literally a life and death crisis for me as a mom … I had to wrestle with my Catholic faith and ask myself, what do I believe in? I believe in saving lives. So, this was the right thing to do.”
To listen to Ms. Gates then, the Catholic Church must not believe in saving lives, because allowing women to have the children many wish is somehow a “life or death crisis.”
What the Catholic Church Teaches
It’s unfortunate that Melinda has such a shallow understanding of her Catholic faith.
Two things are worth pointing out: In the first place, in cases where couples have a reason to postpone having another child, Church teaching permits, and even promotes, the use of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Not only does NFP respect God’s moral law and foster growth in virtue when used in accord with the Church’s guidelines, but the Church always presents it as part of a broader message. NFP respects and promotes the natural integrity of the sexual act, the health and well-being of the woman’s body (no need for the woman to ingest unhealthy levels of artificial hormones), the nature of marriage as oriented towards procreation, the intimate cooperation of husband and wife, and the moral truth about sexuality.
Recently, even many secular healthcare organizations have begun to promote natural methods of fertility regulation, recognizing how harmful artificial contraception has been for women. Unfortunately, however, the overwhelming bulk of money and effort is still being poured into dangerous contraception that also erodes the moral fabric of society. There is a great need for significant investments to be made in developing the science of NFP, as well as creating and disseminating educational programs to instruct couples in how to use natural methods. Pope St. John Paul II emphasized this exact point twenty-six years ago while speaking to a group of teachers of NFP, boldly declaring that “the moment has come for every parish and every structure of consultation and assistance to the family and to the defense of life to have personnel available who can teach married couples how to use the natural methods.”
If Melinda truly cared about women and her Catholic faith, she could have done enormous good by putting some of her billions of dollars towards such programs that truly empower women and respect their freedom, health, and dignity.
In the second place, the Gates’ emphasis on blanketing developing countries with artificial contraception for which women aren’t asking for reeks of social engineering and paternalistic eugenicist thinking. The fact that couples in developing countries often desire and value large families means nothing to many Western elitist philanthropists: the not-so-subliminal underlying presumption is that women who desire large families simply don’t know what’s good for them. As such, they need to be educated and “encouraged” with large-scale, foreign-funded advertising companies and other forms of soft coercion.
In his encyclical Caritas in veritate, Pope Benedict XVI warned against this kind of poisoned “development.” “Openness to life is at the center of true development,” he wrote, warning that “when a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good.”
“One of the most striking aspects of development in the present day is the important question of respect for life, which cannot in any way be detached from questions concerning the development of peoples,” he added. Benedict XVI specifically denounces the fact that “some parts of the world still experience practices of demographic control, on the part of governments that often promote contraception and even go so far as to impose abortion.”
“In economically developed countries legislation contrary to life is very widespread, and it has already shaped moral attitudes and praxis, contributing to the spread of an anti-birth mentality; frequent attempts are made to export this mentality to other States as if it were a form of cultural progress.” (That certainly sounds familiar!)
The Holy Father also denounced non-governmental organizations such as Planned Parenthood International and other agencies for working “actively to spread abortion, at times promoting the practice of sterilization in poor countries, in some cases not even informing the women concerned.”
Pope Benedict XVI warned that “to consider population increase as the primary cause of underdevelopment is mistaken, even from an economic point of view.” As he explained: “morally responsible openness to life represents a rich social and economic resource. Populous nations have been able to emerge from poverty thanks not least to the size of their population and the talents of their people. On the other hand, formerly prosperous nations are presently passing through a phase of uncertainty and in some cases decline, precisely because of their falling birth rates.”
Indeed, Melinda Gates’ chosen method of international development is breathtakingly short-sighted. It is true that many of the wealthiest countries also have the lowest birth rates. However, correlation does not equal causation! The mere fact of having fewer children does not guarantee wealth. Furthermore, as many Western countries are learning, or about to learn, the hard way, fertility reduction comes with its own grievous consequences: collapsing birth rates are going to lead to painful reductions in available workers, with the inevitable result that tax revenues will fall, costly social programs will have to be slashed, and the elderly and sick will be left with no one to care for them. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
My ardent hope is that Melinda Gates will examine the moral teachings of the Church she professes to belong to, and the truth about what women are truly demanding in third world countries. Complex problems require complex solutions: solutions that respect local cultures, the freedom and dignity of women, and moral truths. Blanketing the world with hormones and latex may make Melinda feel that she is “making a difference.” What she fails to take into consideration are the unforeseen consequences that always come of violating the moral law and the truth of human nature. With a better understanding of both, Melinda could do enormous good for the world: putting her billions to work in providing things like better gynecological care, training in natural methods of fertility regulation, hygienic living conditions, nutrition, and education. That’s something we could all get behind.