The influential economist who tried to reverse Church teaching on birth control

In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae (PA Archive/Press Association Images)

I note that my colleague, Jack Carrigan, has reviewed a recent biography of the late writer and economist, Barbara Ward, in last week’s Herald. Thirty years after her death not many people remember her, yet in her time she was hugely influential: the friend and adviser of presidents and politicians, she was prescient about the need to bridge the divide between rich and poor nations. She raised awareness about the environment at a time when “Green issues” were hardly considered. She was also one-time president of the Catholic Women’s League and a founder member of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace. The Times obituary on June 1 1981 described her as “one of the most outstanding and admired women of her generation”.

So should Barbara Ward be counted among the great and the good? Journalist Geoffrey Lean, who reviewed this same biography by Jean Gartlan in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday, December 18, 2010, definitely thinks so. Citing all her achievements he writes: “She came to the environment (as I did) from that same concern over poverty, motivated by the plight of people more than of animals and plants. The co-author of the book [Economics as if People Mattered] that set the scene for the seminal 1972 Stockholm conference, she brought together ecology and economics, pioneering the now almost universally accepted concept of ‘sustainable development’.” It is not Barbara Ward’s fault that in recent years the Green movement has been hijacked by a more sinister ideology (described by William Oddie in his blog earlier this week).

Yet I still have my reservations. Lean writes approvingly that Ward tried “in 1967, as a prominent Catholic, to get her Church to reverse its birth control policies”. So much can be inferred from this small sentence. It was the year before Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, Humanae Vitae, so Ward probably thought there was still time to influence the outcome, indeed, to instruct the Holy Father about the reality of the world’s expanding population, a subject on which she knew a great deal and he, not being an economist, very little. At the World Congress of the Laity in Rome in 1967 she helped draft a resolution calling for a reversal of the Church’s teaching on contraception; in Only One Earth (1971), she wrote about “the critical issue of slowing down the world’s present untenable speed of population growth” and approved of China which “appears to have reduced its rate of increase – until recently producing 15 million more Chinese annually – to under two per cent a year”.

This was written before China’s one-child policy, introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1979, two years before her death. Yet in the same book Ward mentions “abortion under proper medical supervision” – an ominous phrase. Did she later accept the brutalities of the Chinese policy? At any rate, 40 years after her death, the world’s population is in severe decline in many countries, including the whole of Europe – and China has a serious demographic imbalance between men and women.