Action Global Conflict

Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery

Our friend has spoken of the barbarities [extreme cruelties] which have been practiced towards the Indians, and of their present condition of degradation in contrast with their condition when William Penn landed on this continent.

Lucretia Mott, 1869


After showing the film “Two Who Dared” about the Sharps, a Unitarian couple who saved thousands of children from the Nazis, Charlie Clements asked for questions. I stood and asked what current conditions are analogous to German fascism that should spur us to action.

Charlie cited Darfur. This region of Sudan has been at war for a decade now, with three hundred thousand people slaughtered. It is not the usual genocide, however, where the conflict is based on religion or race. The two warring parties are both Muslims and of similar ethnicity, but one group is semi-nomadic and the other sedentary agriculturalists. Theoretically these two groups should coexist peacefully, but that is far from the case in Darfur! It seems that this conflict is over resources in that sparse land.

Right after asking Charlie my question, I thought of another situation analogous to Nazi Germany. This human tragedy is closer to home, however.

Our European forbearers invaded a prosperous land that supported its indigenous population very well. Native Americans helped some of the European settlers when they first arrived. How did we thank them? by uprooting them, waging devastating wars and introducing fatal diseases.

Using both bullets and disease, the European invaders killed off 80 or 90% of Native Americans. We came close to wiping out the people who had first rights to North and South America.

How could the medieval Europeans justify this massacre? The roots of this tragedy go back to the first half of the second millennium of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church’s policy at that time was forced conversion of infidels (and of other enemies). Sometimes conversion was bypassed and the poor souls were killed directly. The Church ruled with fear and an iron fist.

Intolerance of diversity affected many groups. Fanaticism inspired the Crusades, resulting in the massacre of millions of Muslims. The last, Albigensian

Crusade was in Europe, against the Cathars, a Christian sect who protested the power of the Church. Cathars were obliterated in 1244 with the burning of the last 200+ of these protestants.

A single religious policy, the Doctrine of Discovery, made the conquering and massacre of Native Americans possible. Indeed, this Doctrine made it imperative that Christian Europeans conquer and convert in the name of Jesus. To quote Pope Nicholas V’s Papal Bull Romanus Pontifex of 1455, European monarchs were “…to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans and other enemies of Christ… to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery [and] to take away all their possessions and property….”

In 1823 the US Supreme Court upheld the continued right of Europeans to own and control property that once belonged to Indians in the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh. The Court maintained that the US Government, as the discovering sovereign’s successor, does have the right to nullify Indians’ interest in their lands. Thus indigenous people had no right to their own lands! This Doctrine became the cornerstone of USA Indian policy and was the basis for a Court decision as recently as 2005.

The world has changed vastly since 1455. Both the Church and secular laws have changed immeasurably. Our society is much more egalitarian; now every person has value. By today’s standards many of the dirty deeds that the Europeans did would be unconscionable. We should be careful not to judge the past by today’s values, but also must be sure that today’s laws and practices don’t perpetuate the dark past.

What should we of European descent do to make it right with Native Americans? It is impossible for us to provide complete recompense; too much has happened since 1492. For instance, many of European descent live on land formerly used by the Utes, and we are unwilling and unable to move.

            A first step is to become aware of past history. I don’t remember learning about the Doctrine of Discovery in school, yet it is a vital part of history. A public apology is in order; this essay is my personal apology. I understand that there are treaties between the Federal Government and Native Americans that the government has consistently broken. We should ask Washington to live up to its promises to our indigenous hosts. Finally, we must work to prevent similar unethical policies that lead to genocide.

                                           © Richard Grossman MD, 2013

Family Planning Population Public Health

Puerto Rico

This story started 30 years ago when we lived in Puerto Rico. Actually, the real beginning was 15 years before that, in Nicaragua.

We returned to Puerto Rico this spring after a three-decade absence. The island seemed even better than when we lived there. There was less trash, people were friendlier and now toll roads bypass overcrowded arteries.

Of course, Puerto Rico is not a separate country, but a commonwealth of the USA. Fortunately Puerto Rico keeps independent statistics, and one of them was a real surprise.

Flash back to 1968. My best experience in medical school was in the little Nicaraguan town of Puerto Cabezas, on the Caribbean coast. I learned a huge amount from the one physician, Ned Wallace, at the Moravian hospital there.

Gail (then my wife of only two years) and I lived in a tiny cabin with another medical student couple, a short walk to the hospital—and to the Caribbean Ocean. We adopted Noxa (“hello” in Miskito), a sociable green parrot.

We traveled by dugout canoe to provide the first medical care some villagers had ever received. Our wives passed out worm medicine and gave immunization shots, while we medical students saw patients in the four languages of the area—Miskito, Spanish, Creole and English. It was not the best medical care, but our patients were appreciative.

Ned was an excellent role model—he could do just about anything! I realized that living and practicing medicine in the tropics had personal advantages, in addition to helping people. At that time I resolved that, if we ever had kids, they should grow up knowing that the entire world was not like the USA, and that everyone didn’t speak English. Fortunately, Gail agreed.

In 1983 we moved our family from Durango to the little hill town of Castañer in central Puerto Rico. I practiced medicine and our two sons, in 3rd and 6th grades, learned Spanish by immersion. It was an enlightening experience in a different culture.

I was frustrated in Castañer by the number of women who wanted to limit their fertility, but lacked the money. Typically women married young and had 3, 4 or more closely spaced children. When I asked older women what birth control they used, the answer was often “my husband takes care of me” (withdrawal) or “I’ve been operated” (tubal ligation). Birth control pills and IUDs, effective temporary means of contraception, were just too expensive in this impoverished area.

Before returning to Puerto Rico this year I consulted the World Population Data Sheet ( for some demographic information. To my surprise the TFR (Total Fertility Rate—the number of children a woman has during her lifetime) was low. For a society to neither grow nor shrink, the TFR has to be about 2.1–one child to replace teach parent, plus a fraction for children who die before adulthood. Puerto Rico’s TFR is 1.6 now, far below replacement! However, it will take several decades for the population to stabilize.

What brought about this change In Puerto Rico? Did people recognize that the island is limited in size, that it has approached its carrying capacity? Is it that there is less adherence to religious doctrine?

Nobody seems to know exactly what happened. As far as I can make out, however, marriage is later and more couples choose to be childless. More women are employed, a common reason people choose smaller families.  The main change seems to be that contraception and tubal ligation (still very popular) are available with governmental aid, helping people achieve their reproductive and economic goals. Legal abortion is less common now that contraception is easier to obtain.

Puerto Ricans live in a beautiful green place of sun and ocean, but they have low incomes by our standards—only a third of the average income on the mainland. Thanks to government support, now people are able to receive the family planning services they desire. Puerto Rico has joined half of the world’s countries where women have sufficient access to family planning so that their populations will eventually stop growing. Where does the USA fit in? our TFR, at 1.9, is slightly below replacement.

Our return to Puerto Rico was lots of fun. We visited with friends and enjoyed the sun and ocean. Teaching our granddaughters to body surf was special for me. I also learned that even a poor area, if it has the will to help women control their fertility, can achieve zero population growth along with an improved economy.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2013