At the end of last month a three-day workshop was held in the Vatican on the sombre topic of “Biological Extinction”. The event was jointly sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and reflected Pope Francis’s curious personal penchant for environmental alarmism.

Among the participants was the notorious population control enthusiast Paul Ehrlich, who had predicted in 1968 that hundreds of millions would starve to death in the 1970s and that England might well not make it to the millennium. Ehrlich has not been much chastened by the failure of his prophecies. Nor is he a friend of the Catholic Church. In a book published as recently as 2014, he describes “the Pope [he may have been referring to Benedict XVI] and many of the bishops” as “one of the truly evil, regressive forces on the planet”. Ehrlich is also well known for his support over the years for mass sterilisation, contraception and abortion.

But the presence of an advocate for abortion in the precincts of the Vatican was not the only striking incongruity. Anxiety about population growth could not have been discussed in a more unsuitable venue. Just across the invisible line, in Italy, it is not overpopulation, but a shrinking population that is causing acute concern.

Last September, the Italian government scheduled a national Fertility Day to encourage citizens to breed, having noted that the previous year had seen the smallest number of live births since the 1860s.

A massive advertising blitz had been planned for the occasion. One poster, responding to the fact that the average age for an Italian mother to have her first child had risen to 31, showed a woman with an egg-timer and the slogan “Beauty has no age, but fertility does”; while another exhorted “Get a move on. Don’t wait for the stork.” Male responsibility for the baby shortage was duly acknowledged in adverts featuring a flaccid banana and a man with a cigarette alongside the caption “Don’t let your sperm go up in smoke.”

But despite this even-handedness between the sexes, Italy’s feminists erupted in fury. Women’s wombs, some argued, should not be treated as if they were national assets; while others implied that emancipation from childbirth was one of the most important and hard-won social gains women had achieved during the last hundred years. The adverts and website were pulled, the government minister responsible mumbled apologies, Fertility Day flopped.

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