Orders of the Day — World Health Organisation (Population Problems)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 18th July 1952.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Butcher.]

4.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

The matter which I wish to raise this afternoon was referred to by two hon. Members in the debate on the United Nations Specialised Agencies on 19th June. One was my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Sorensen), whose remarks to which I am referring are recorded in c. 1649–52 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, and the other was the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), whose remarks appeared in c. 1656.

They asked the Minister some questions but got no answer. I am not complaining of that because I am sure that had the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health been replying to the debate they would have received answers. As it happened, the Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs replied, and he did not deal with the questions which they raised.

The matter concerns the proceedings and discussion on population problems at the fifth World Health Assembly in the Committee on Programme and Budget on 13th, 15th and 19th May this year, and the part taken there by the United Kingdom delegate. On 13th May the Committee on Programme and Budget discussed two draft resolutions concerning population problems and the rôle which the World Health Organisation might play in their solution.

The first resolution was submitted by the Norwegian delegate, and it requested the establishment of an expert committee to examine and report on the health aspects of the population problem, this problem being of fundamental importance under present world conditions. The second draft resolution was brought forward by the Belgian delegate, and was supported by the delegates from Italy and Lebanon. This stated that the problem of surplus population was essentially an economic and social one. Pointing to the fact that a World Population Conference is to take place under United Nations auspices in 1953 or 1954, the resolution suggested that its findings should be awaited, and declared that from a strictly medical point of view the demographic problem called for no specific examination on the part of the World Health Organisation.

The Norwegian Resolution was moved by Dr. Evang. He stated that the Committee should deal with two major tasks —first, to list and define the health aspects of population problems in order to help prepare for the World Population Conference, and second, to consider the relations between rapid population growth and health conditions, including mortality and morbidity, working capacity, and other factors.

The Norwegian Resolution was supported by the delegates of India, Ceylon, Sweden, Mexico and the Philippines. The Indian delegate stated that experts felt that the acute problem of over-population would bring disaster within 20 years unless adequate measures were taken. He said that this was a problem which must be faced before it got out of hand, and he added that technical guidance from the World Health Organisation expert committee on the point was necessary and would not commit any country to actions which it might not wish to undertake.

The point of view of the Indian delegate was strongly emphasised by Mr. Kushwant Singh in a very courageous broadcast made in the B.B.C. Home Service and reprinted in "The Listener" on 10th July of this year, in which he said: There are two aspects of planning in India. For obvious reasons, the official plan has less to say about one than the other. We have a population of over 350 million which goes up by 4 million every year. No speed of industrialisation can hope to keep pace with this rate of increase. It is a menace of the first magnitude, but instead of being shouted about, birth control is only whispered with the most spinsterish of propriety. —whatever that may be. He added: It will take many years to familiarise the people with the idea of controlling the birth rate and then getting over their prejudices to practise it. Opposing viewpoints were expressed at the Committee on Programme and Budget of the World Health Assembly by other delegations, including Italy, the Lebanon, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and France, and they supported the Belgian resolution. The delegate for Ireland had some strong things to say about birth control in principle and said that calling an expert committee might give rise to great opposition if it took a line objectionable to so many persons. Later in the discussion which took place on the subsequent two days the delegate for Ireland went even further and suggested that if birth control were included in the permanent programme of the World Health Organisation, that body might lose not only good will but some members.

What did the United Kingdom delegate, Dr. Mackenzie, have to say in all this? All he did was to support the Chairman's proposal made at a late stage in the day's debate that consideration of the question be postponed, suggesting that the committee reserve the possibility of introducing the proposal of the delegate for Norway at a later date; and postponed it was. But on 15th May the debate was resumed, and the United Kingdom delegate played a small part in the resumed proceedings when the Chairman announced that, following a proposal made by the delegate for Sweden. he would put the Norwegian draft resolution to the vote by secret ballot in accordance with Rule 63 of the Rules of Procedure. But Dr. Mackenzie considered—I am quoting from the official report—that: … in view of the fact that the delegates present were representing their governments rather than expressing their personal views, it would not be desirable to take a vote by secret ballot. However, to agree to a secret vote it would require a decision by the committee, and if this were suggested he would move that a roll-call vote he taken to ascertain which members wished to vote by secret ballot. Other delegates expressed the view that the time had not come to decide whether a secret ballot should be taken or not, and the discussion was continued and was further resumed after an adjournment on 19th May.

The conclusions of the whole debate seemed to be summarised in the Press release from the United Nations office at Geneva on 19th May, wherein it said: No further action on population problems. In a spirit of conciliation and harmony, and in order to avoid any possible prejudice to the World Health Organisation, the Committee on Programme and Budget concluded this morning its long debate on population problems, noted the views expressed and decided that no further action was indicated. The concluding session of the debate resulted in all the resolutions being withdrawn. First of all, the Norwegian resolution, secondly, the Belgian resolution and thirdly, a resolution introduced by the delegate for India who moved that the Director-General and the regional committees, if the latter so wished, should consider the matter and report to a subsequent meeting. The Committee of the World Health Assembly then dispersed on a note of mutual good will and congratulations on not having prejudiced the good will of the World Health Organisation.

What did the world's Press have to say in headlines about these proceedings? The "New York Times" said: "Vatican Scores U.N. Over Birth Control." The Montreal "Daily Star "said:" Vatican Slaps United Nations Agency." The "Times of India" of Bombay said: "No Agreement on Birth Control Question," and the "Trinidad Guardian," Port of Spain, said: "W.H.O. Group Split on Birth Control Plan."

An extract from the Montreal " Gazette " said: " Vatican Paper Charges U.N. Body Advocates World Birth Control," and the Toronto "Globe" published rather liberal extracts from "L'Osservatore Romano," which accused the United Nations of advocating birth control in depressed areas and called this a ' cynical policy.' A front page article in the Vatican newspaper said, Roman Catholics ' and all who have at heart the defence of spiritual values and respect of life must be preoccupied by these corrosive and immoral tendencies.' and much more in similar vein. Pausing there for a moment I would say that the self-righteous and even unctious abuse of contrary opinion by the Catholic Press is a study in Christian charity.

What did the Press at home say? The "Daily Express" of 16th May had a headline: "Nations 'Will Walk Out' Over Family Planning." In the "Universe" of 13th June there was a headline, "Deserved Rebuke," and it went on: Little attention has been given in this country to the attempt to use the World Health Organisation as a vehicle for the propaganda of contraception. The matter would hardly have been noticed at alt if the Family Planning Association had not accused Catholics of cowardice and advanced the comic assertion that prevention of birth is a method of saving life. The 'Osservatore Romano' in a strong article has advised the Organisation to mind its own business. It is good advice. What does the Minister say about them? He gave no answer in the debate-on 19th June, but since he has had some correspondence with the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for East Grinstead (Col. Clarke), and I am obliged to him for his courtesy and his permission to refer to the Minister's letter to him of 9th July. After an introduction and a description of the proceedings, the Minister goes on to say: Thus, the discussion at this year's Assembly strayed far beyond the bounds of the World Health Organisation's proper functions. So far as the moral, economic or social aspects of this question are concerned, we take the view that it is for each Government to decide on its own policy. Where, however, a country asks the World Health Organisation for technical help, as, for example, the Government of India has done in regard to a pilot experiment in the 'rhythm method' of birth control, we consider that it is within the province of the Organisation to give such assistance purely as a technical consultant, as, in fact, it has done. There are two points on that reply. One is: Did this year's Assembly in fact stray far beyond the bounds of the W.H.O's proper functions? If it did, why did not the United Kingdom delegate say so when he had an opportunity? Moreover, I would draw the attention of the Parliamentary Secretary to the preamble to the constitution of the World Health Organisation where it defines "health" in very broad terms as: a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares: Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care. It goes on to say: Health is not just a medical matter. It is a social goal. I contend that the definition of health which I have quoted refutes the suggestion that the World Health Assembly has to consider the health aspects of population and birth control in a narrow medical sense.

On the second point, regarding the Minister's statement that the Government take the view that it is for each Government to decide its own policy, I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary: What is the Government's policy? Where do the Government stand on this question, if they stand anywhere at all? Was the negative attitude of the United Kingdom delegate in this Committee an indication of the difficulty of the Government in deciding on its policy?

I want to know whether Dr. Mackenzie had any instructions. Since he opposed the taking of a secret ballot on the ground that delegates would be speaking for their Governments, he must presumably have been ready to speak for his own Government. Why did he take no opportunity to speak, and say what the Government's policy was? Since Dr. Mackenzie failed to state the United Kingdom policy in the Committee, perhaps I might ask the Parliamentary Secretary to do it for him. It is astonishing that the United Kingdom delegate had so little to say on a subject which concerns this country and the Commonwealth so very deeply. Only again yesterday the problem of growing pressure of population on food and on the resources in the Colonies and throughout the world was referred to in debate.

There are not only health, moral and social aspects of this question, but there are sectarian aspects and views on the matter. I admit that there is a religious approach but there is also a secular approach. We must respect religious opinion, but that does not mean that we must be silent under it. much less that we should submit to it. I believe that disease, misery, death and starvation are infinitely more immoral than any form of birth control. The longer the policy of the Government is dominated by fear of Catholic opinion, the longer the nations of the world ignore the likely fate of millions, the greater will be the eventual disaster—

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

I am coming to the end of what I have to say and the Minister wants time to reply, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way. I conclude with this appeal. I plead for courage and for a bold lead from the United Kingdom on the imperative need for population control—birth control if you like, I do not shrink from the term. I have no spinsterish inhibitions about defining this in terms of birth control. I plead for a courageous policy in regard to this matter, because I am convinced that it is one of the battlefronts in the war on want.

4.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Walter Edwards Mr Walter Edwards , Stepney

I happened to see this rather interesting Adjournment debate down for today and I wondered whether it was meant to be an attack on the Vatican and the Catholic faith of this country. It appears from the remarks of my hon. Friend that it is such an attack. So far as his speech is concerned, I think he was dealing mainly with the floating millions in India and not with the floating millions in Great Britain. However, I want to oppose strongly any move by this Government, which certainly was never taken by the Labour Government, to support the principle of birth control by interfering in India and other places. In this country we have been able to do it properly by education, and if we can pass that method on to other countries, that will be the best way of dealing with world over-population.

I could not sit here and listen to what was a definite attack upon the Catholic faith of this country and on Catholic principles without saying something in reply to my hon. Friend. He can leave the Catholic Church to look after itself. The Catholic Church wants no assistance in any way. We shall do our job in a legal way, in the same way as we have always done it. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will say that she supports the attitude at the World Health Organisation, that it is for those countries to decide for themselves what they wish to do about the restriction of birth, and not for us to tell the Dominions or the Colonies what they have to do in that respect.

4.23 p.m.

Photo of Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith , Chislehurst

I find myself in some agreement with the remarks made by the hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. W. J. Edwards), particularly in regard to the fact that there has been no change in the policy of Her Majesty's Government with regard to the World Health Organisation on this topic. Had I been given the time, I had hoped to go through the varying resolutions that had been passed, not only at the conference mentioned by the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton), but at previous conferences during the time of his own Government, and to give in detail what had happened, but the clock is against me.

I will deal with the general principle upon which our delegates have operated at all these conferences. From the outset it has been the policy of the World Health Assembly and of the World Health Organisation that birth control is primarily a sociological and not a medical question, and that the World Health Organisation would be competent to advise only in regard to the medical aspect of that problem. We felt that to introduce the economic side or the sociological side would do grave harm to a new organisation which has an immense field of work in health welfare to do which it is doing in the most co-operative spirit. It is doing an enormous amount of good in fighting disease throughout the world, and if a matter as violently controversial as this topic were brought into this organisation, it would have meant the secession of several of the nations who now work in co-operation with us.

Perhaps I may deal with the conference in May, 1952, to which the hon. Member referred. The subject was first introduced by reason of the address from the Food and Agriculture Organisation representative, who pointed out the difficulty of feeding the growing populations of the world, particularly in the food exporting countries. It was followed by the Indian delegate giving a report on the experiment in the "rhythm" method of birth control, in which the World Health Organisation has collaborated, and is still collaborating, at the request of the Indian Government, giving purely medical guidance. It is fair to point out that the request for that guidance was conditional upon the experiments being restricted to the use of the "safe period" only and without the use of mechanical contrivances.

The Indian delegate at that conference made it very plain that it was not his wish under any circumstances to give any cause for any delegation or country to feel regret or offence at the measures that had been, or might be, taken. He also stated that a result of the visit of the W.H.O. expert was only to give limited advice on technical medical aspects of the question.

The Norwegian delegate, in introducing the resolution referred to by the hon. Member for Sowerby, asked that there should be an expert committee to examine and report on the health aspects of the population problem. That request received support from some delegations, and was most strenuously opposed by a substantial team of delegates who held opposing views. One of the reasons against it was that if such an expert committee produced a report,. undoubtedly such a report would have been taken as the policy of the World Health Organisation.

If some of the Press extracts which the hon. Member has read on the supposition of what transpired at that conference are anything to go by then, quite obviously, any report of such a committee would have been taken as World Health Organisation policy. Such a statement might well have weakened the support of nations whose co-operation we need in the real fight against disease and in the field of health, which is the main work of the W.H.O.

At the same time, to set up an expert committee, which would have had only a very limited time in which to conduct its surveys before the proposed population conference in 1954, would merely have meant that the job was either half done on that the committee could not possibly report in time for that population conference, whose proper function this subject is.

In an attempt to avoid controversy, the India delegate put in an alternative resolution. That, as the hon. Member has pointed out, was followed by one from Belgium, the Lebanon and Italy. Finally, after the most heated discussions—and I assure the hon. Member that the delegates whose opinions I have had on this matter report the great acrimony and the tremendous opposition which is not reflected in the very brief minutes and reports that come out from these committees-and with agreement all round and a realisation that the World Health Organisation is too big to be split on this topic at this time, the motions were withdrawn.

I should like to point out the part of my Ministry in this matter so far as health is concerned. Under the National Health Service, under Part II of the Act, we in this country provide that the gynaecological department of a hospital may be used to provide advice on contraception in any case where the avoidance of pregnancy is considered necessary on medical grounds.

Also under Part III of the Act married women attending local health authority clinics as expectant or nursing mothers may be given birth control advice if the doctor in charge of the clinic thinks that a further pregnancy should be avoided on medical grounds. But we do not believe that it is any part of the duty of the World Health Organisation to interfere with or impose policy on economic grounds, that is very much the concern of the individual sovereign Governments and whatever policy they personally may pursue.

In answer to the charges against the United Kingdom delegate for not taking part in this debate, I say that his position was quite clear. We have consistently held that this was not a subject for decisions by the World Health Organisation. The representative of Her Majesty's Government did not enter into discussion because he felt it ranged far beyond what he thought could be introduced by the W.H.O. Therefore, I see nothing inconsistent in Dr. Mackenzie's attitude in confining his contributions to the debate to suggestions on various procedural points. His position was clear, and, frankly, I think he did well to let the warring factions continue their discussions and maintain the neutrality we have on this question—

Photo of Mr Douglas Houghton Mr Douglas Houghton , Sowerby

Is he an honest broker, because he said nothing to indicate the view taken?

Photo of Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith Miss Patricia Hornsby-Smith , Chislehurst

I suggest that that remark is uncalled for as concerning the distinguished representative of the Government on that Organisation. The Government have an open mind in regard to practice in territories over which we have no jurisdiction. I cannot help thinking that perhaps the hon. Member has not given full weight to consideration of the implications arising out of the policy he advocates. We recognise that very strong views are held by other countries. We consider that it would be a disaster if this World Health Organisation were broken over an issue of this nature.

We also have great responsibilities of our own towards native populations under our jurisdiction. Her Majesty's Government have set themselves against imposing anything of this nature on any territory under our control. Hon. Members will be in no doubt how readily such a policy would be misrepresented as an attempt to control native populations to the advantage of white minorities. Hon Members must be well aware of the dynamite such a policy would carry. Her Majesty's Government do not consider that the W.H.O. is competent to discuss or express views on the social, economic, or ethical aspects of birth control. It must be remembered that W.H.O. is not a world Ministry of Health and has not direct power over the component—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Twenty-Seven Minutes to Five o'Clock.