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How to Export Pro-Life Activism November 26, 2001

Interview by Anto Akkara

Father Matthew Habiger--a Benedictine priest by vocation, a moral theologian by training--became involved in full-time pro-life work in 1990 after he "realized the how vast the problem was." Since that time, the crusade against the "culture of death" has taken him to over100 nations.

The president of Human Life International (HLI) from 1994 to 1997, Father Habiger is now the chairman of the board for HLI-USA, and serves as the organization's primary advocate in the developing countries. In the capacity he undertakes frequent speaking tour through Asia and Africa. In January 1999, for example, he led an HLI delegation in a three-week visit to India, addressing more than a dozen conferences and seminars, and meeting with local bishops, priests, and religious to encourage their pro-life activities. Toward the end of that visit, Father Habiger paused to speak with a correspondent for Catholic World Report.


The prime concern for the pro-life movement is the "culture of death." How strong is this culture around the world?

Father Matthew Habiger: The death culture is very alive in the so-called First World: America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. Their, fertility rates and population growth rates are below replacement level. The average family must have 2.2 children if the population is to be replaced. In all the educated countries, population is shrinking.

Even in the United States, if not for the immigration of so many people, we too would be below the replacement level. In the US, one of every three babies is killed by surgical abortion. In Europe the figure is even higher. In some countries like the former Soviet Union, more babies are aborted than allowed to be born. And this is only part of the problem.

Worldwide, 60 million babies are aborted surgically every year. This is apart from the chemical abortions caused by contraceptives, IUDs, Norplant, Depo Provera, and other drugs.

What is the situation in the developing world?

Habiger: In the developing countries, where 85 percent of all humanity lives, the culture of death is strongly promoted through population control programs, according to the theory that anything is permissible if it is done to keep the numbers down. That is the situation in India and most countries of Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Population experts argue that the world is faced with a population explosion, and that the welfare of the Third World in particular is harmed by the "intolerance" of the Catholic Church, and the failure to respond to this population boom. How do you respond to such charges?

Habiger: The "population explosion' is one of the best perpetuated myths ever foisted upon mankind-- in this case, by the population controllers. In fact, the world is badly served by the misinformation, and by the questionable intentions of demographers and population controllers who will use any excuse to advance their cause. They align themselves with international organizations and interfere with the exercise of the most elementary right of married couples-- namely the right to decide the size of their own families and the number of their children. They reduce persons to mere objects. They do not talk about babies and human beings, but only about numbers. Anything done to keep the numbers down is acceptable to them. What right has International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) got to tell governments, "We want your numbers down, because your population is getting out of control?" Yet Planned Parenthood is forcing governments to place restrictions on the family.

Unfortunately, their arguments have been used in the media, in schools and on billboards. A very methodical strategy is used by the population controllers to shape public opinion toward their way, which is the culture of death.

The Chinese government has realized that draconian measures to control population growth are very dangerous to the health of women. So now they are looking for humanitarian methods of family planning. They favor natural family planning (NFP) instead of those horrible pills, IUDs, sterilizations, and mandatory abortions. They admit that these methods do great damage to women, physically and emotionally.

Do you believe that the pharmaceutical lobby is behind the population control campaign?

Habiger: Yes, clearly they are. Who is to benefit from the promotion and sale of condoms? There can be no free condoms; no pharmaceutical company will manufacture these and distribute them freely. They want people to buy them. They do not care who pays for them as long as they are paid. There is big money behind all these.

Could you provide any figures on the size of that market?

Habiger: I do not have exact figures. The contraceptive industry in US is a multi-billion dollar industry. The international companies involved in contraceptive business are much larger, because this is a great, big market.

There are groups and organizations that provide funds for population control. The International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) receive their funds from the government. In 1997, one third of the $180 million budget for IPPF came from the US government, one third came from foundations, and one third from the provision of their so-called services-- especially the sale of contraceptives.

None of the population control groups give money without strings attached. The condition set by international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is simple: no grants without mandatory family planning. The population control lobby has convinced the international financial institutions to cooperate with them in their drastic plan.

This sort of family planning is not free; this is not voluntary. This is coercion of the worst kind. This violates very basic human rights. Couples should find morally acceptable as well as effective means of responsible parenthood. NFP suits their needs perfectly. Many people claim that it is impossible to have economic development in Third World nations without first checking their population growth. Is there really a link between population control and economic progress?

Habiger: That argument that is often used: that you cannot have economic growth or development unless you keep the numbers down. So attack the babies, and curb the fertility rates, and everything will be all right.

If you look at the budgets of USAID, IPPF, and the UN Fund for Population Activities, you will discover that instead of development, their loans are for family planning-- for population control. They have succeeded in making governments believe that they cannot improve the standard of living without attacking fertility rates.

But family planning has not brought about economic development. Brazil once had large, poor families. Massive sterilization was carried out, and more than 40 percent of women were sterilized under government's population control program. Today, there is one difference. Now Brazil has small, poor families.

And there is another dimension to poverty. Even the so-called First World is now plagued by consumerism and materialism. Economically one may be poor, but in human values, he may be rich. A peaceful state of life is what matters. The Church is concerned about the richness of the person as opposed to things. We stress morality over material progress. So there are many ways to be poor and to be rich.

What is stand of the Catholic Church regarding the issues of poverty and population growth?

Habiger: The social teaching of the Church on the questions of economic development are is elaborated in the encyclical Populorum Progressio. This teaching has been picked up by subsequent encyclicals, stressing that development is not an end in itself-- that development must affect every person. Real development is not a star in the sky, but an attainable reality.

What the Church is asking for is that we promote responsible parenthood, combined with an insistence on real economic development. In the developed countries, where economic prosperity has gone up, the parents voluntarily opt for smaller families, because they have realized that large families affect the education and future of the children. So, if family planning is promoted in non-coercive way, families will reduce fertility rates of their own.

Population controllers say new babies are a problem, that women's fertility is a problem, that they are pressures on the limited resources. But the culprit is not the baby. The culprits are those who doing the economic planning, those who should have the common good of the country as their goal. The culprits are incompetence, corruption, greed, and graft.

When the state is not doing the duty it should be doing, the Church should that point out. The Church has a clear body of thought--Catholic social teaching-- on the role of the government, economic order, social order, and cultural order. So the Church is in position to point out the inadequacies in government.

In the populous developing nations, churches have not been aggressive on the pro-life front. There are fewer pro-life groups in countries like India and Indonesia--let alone China-- than in some Western countries. How do you respond to this fact?

Habiger: The Church stands universally for the sacredness of life. No one should ever say that an American baby is more important than an Indian baby or an African baby. A baby is a baby, with a human life.

Catholic clergy and Church leaders all over the world have the duty to support human right and human dignity. There should be clarity of thought and understanding of the issues involved. We need to take a stand on this, instead of keeping quiet. There is a price to pay for silence. The babies of the country pay dearly for that silence. The morals of the youth and couples pay dearly for the silence.

How do you view the role of non-Christian religions in the pro-life movement?

Habiger: As we are reminded by Evangelium Vitae, the pro-life movement is not a Catholic movement. There is nothing Catholic about babies. The pro-life movement belongs to the human race. So this issue is of equal importance to Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and every body else.

The initiative for pro-life activity is coming from other Christian communities, not just Catholics. Yet there is great confusion in Protestant churches on pro-life matters. Even we Catholics have "Catholics for A Free Choice." This confusion shows that people are no longer following the Gospels, instead they are following the trends of the times. Yes, there is great confusion. However, throughout the world, the Catholic Church has been the most consistent, clear voice for life.

During my meeting with Archbishop Saminini Arulappa [of Hyderabad, in southern India], he told me that among almost all Indians, and especially Hindus, there is a deep respect for human life. If you scratch the surface a bit, it is there. The approach of the Church should be to tap the richness of Hindu traditions, Buddhist traditions and other traditions that respect life deeply, elaborate upon it, and show how this richness is in contrast to what is taking place. The challenge is to tap the best of all these groups, leaving the wrong inherited notions alone.

What is the greatest challenge before the Church today on the pro-life front?

Habiger: One of the greatest challenges today before the Church--for clergy and religious, including those teaching in seminaries and formation houses--is to have a clear understanding of what contraception means. They should understand well the confusion and the differences about human sexuality and fertility.

I would tell seminarians: "Do not get ordained unless you have understood Natural Family Planning thoroughly. Do not let any one call you Father unless you can tell couples how to exercise responsible parenthood."

Is there any moral difference between contraception and abortion?

Habiger: Some people are willing to admit that abortion is bad and so they would say that anything that could be done to prevent abortion is good. That is equivalent to saying that the end justifies the means. And that is only part of the story.

If you can accept the contraceptive mentality, which permits interference with fertility, then why not turn against the newly conceived child if he is unwanted? If you can dispose of the human embryo within the first few days by the use pills, then why not abort a 3-month old baby in the womb? It is the same in the family. If you can accept contraception, why not also opt to get rid of female babies? If the pregnancy is not what you wanted, why not "terminate" it.

There is no clear line of distinction between contraception and abortion. All the pills, IUDs, Depo Provera-- they all are inducing abortions. That is the way these work. Contraception is not a cure for abortion. In fact, it is the cause of abortion.

The Church seems to be facing in a difficult situation in some populous countries like India and China, where Christians are very small minority. Here in India, we constitute just 2.3 percent, among 980 million people. How can we effectively stand up for the pro-life cause in such circumstances?

Habiger: When the bishops are clear and convinced, the priests will follow, the religious will follow, and the people will listen. Clarity of thought and courageous witness at the top is what is required. When there is confusion at the top, there is bound to be confusion at the bottom.

Then, pro-life activity is not something to be confined to the pulpit alone. The hierarchy has a small but powerful role to play. Our role is to teach clear moral principles on what is right and wrong. It is for the laity to practice these principles.

The pulpits are terribly important. Confessionals come next. It is here that we put the theory to practice. This is the beginning. Next, the laity must become authors of the culture or life. So far, the agents of the culture of death have not faced much opposition.

Who will be the allies of the Church in the pro-life struggle?

Habiger: Evangelium Vitae and other encyclicals clearly encourage Catholic pro-lifers to join hands with whoever is willing to work for this cause. During the UN Conference on Population in Cairo, when the population controllers were busy trying to push forward the universal right to abortion, the Vatican linked arms with the Muslims and the pro-lifers. Thereby, we succeeded in checking the introduction of brand new, worldwide human "right" to legal abortion. So, if the Vatican can link arms with Muslims, certainly the rest of us can do our best to seek other allies for the cause.

[AUTHOR ID] Anto Akkara writers regularly for Catholic World Report from his home in New Delhi.



In February, Human Life International (HLI) won a signal victory in El Salvador when the national legislature ratified a constitutional amendment which reads: "Every human being is recognized as a human person from the moment of conception."

The effort to legalize abortion in El Salvador began in 1973--the same year that the Roe v. Wade decision overturned legal restrictions on abortion in the United States. With support from the US Agency for International Development, abortion advocates were able to amend the country's criminal code, eliminating penalties for abortion in cases which involved rape, serious deformity of the fetus, or a danger to the life of the mother. In 1995 the laws were liberalized still further, allowing legal abortion if the pregnancy might result in physical or psychological harm to the mother, or if the unborn child himself was judged likely to have serious physical or psychological problems.

In 1997 the pro-life movement in El Salvador began its counterattack, and won a first victory when the legislature eliminated those "special cases" that allowed legal abortion. But with HLI at the helm, the movement sought more permanent protection for the right to life, in the form of a constitutional amendment recognizing the legal status of the unborn child. In that same 1997 legislative session, the constitutional amendment was approved, with the support of 52 members in the 84-seat legislature.

However, ratification of the amendment required a second vote in the next elected Congress. That final approval also required a two-thirds majority-- four more votes than the pro-lifers had been able to muster in 1997. When members of the leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) made another bid in 1998 to eliminate criminal penalties for abortion, their bill encountered heavy opposition, and was withdrawn. But with the FMLN controlling 27 seats in the legislature, and the other 57 seats divided among six other political parties, the task of forming a two-thirds majority looked like a difficult one.

However, in December 1998 the Salvadoran pro-life movement set to work: running advertisements in newspapers and on radio stations; visiting legislators; and collecting signatures for a petition drive in favor of the constitutional amendment. On February 3, 1999, the pro-lifers were able to announce, at a rally held outside the legislative assembly, that they had collected 500,000 signatures for their petition. On that same day, they arranged to have a doctor perform an ultrasound test on an unborn child, in the media room of the legislature itself.

The appeal to public sentiment paid dividends. After some debate, the leaders of El Salvador's major political parties announced that they would not enforce party discipline on the vote, but allow lawmakers to follow their own consciences. Fifteen FMLN members then decided to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment--even citing the words of Pope John Paul II to justify their choice. In a stunning final tally, 12 FMLN legislators abstained from voting, and 72 members backed the amendment; there was not a single negative vote.

Julia Regina de Cardenal--the president of the local HLI affiliate, Si a la Vida--welcomed the adoption of the new amendment as a major victory for the pro-life movement not only in El Salvador, but around the continent and even the world. As she put it:

El Salvador has now given strength to the battle for the defense of human beings, because it has awarded legal personhood to all human beings from the moment of conception. Our small country has defeated the anti-life movement as David defeated Goliath.