How many children are ethical?

This has been an interesting couple of weeks for considering the ethics of reproduction. Last week, it seemed like there were suddenly people everywhere talking about how it just might be a great idea if Americans (and everyone else in the world, really) were encouraged, or possibly required, to have only one child.

As near as I can tell, a lot of the discussion got started with this article: Global Swarming: Is It Time for Americans to Start Cutting Our Baby Emissions? It is, in its turn, a review of the book The World Without Us, which is mostly about what the world would be like, environmentally speaking, if all the people disappeared. How long it would take the Earth to “recover” to a pre-human level, so on and so forth. But the author doesn’t really want to wait for people to suddenly become extinct; he’d like to see us start doing something that might conceivably save the planet in a way that people could still be around to enjoy it. The article summarizes his call for action like this:

Let’s cut the birth rate to one child per couple, for a few generations at least. The population would dwindle by about 5 billion people over the next century, he says, ensuring the habitability of the Earth for the 1.6 billion who remained. At that point, they could all reap the rewards of a more spacious planet, sharing in “the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful.”

Jill at Feministe responded in this post: Cutting back on babies to save the earth? While she doesn’t object to the idea that people should choose to have fewer children, she feels she can’t really put her full support behind making this into a concerted movement, for the following reasons:

I realize that the article is about voluntarily having fewer children. But at some point, if this catches on, the conversation will move past “This is a good, environmentally-friendly choice.” At some point, public policy will come into play. It’ll shift to a discussion of how we can incentivize people to make the fewer-children choice, and incentives easily shift into coercion. The people who are most vulnerable to coercion are often the ones who have the least power. Hopefully I don’t have to spell out what that means in a society as inequitable as ours, with a history as ugly as ours.

That (*ahem*) spawned a response from fellow feminist blogger, Amanda at Pandagon: At least trying a bit of voluntary population control. She objected to Jill’s rejection of the idea due to the possibility of coercion because she thinks the issue is too important to ignore. She says:

At this point in time, the experiment of creating incentives and social pressure to limit your children to one or none hasn’t even been tried, so we have a great opportunity here. There’s tremendous social pressure on women to have two or more children, and if we could just counter that message through incentive programs, we might be able to dramatically reduce the American birth rate without even getting close to being pushy. Or we could fail miserably, of course, but that could happen with any plan of action and I think a genuine attempt at voluntary population reduction would be the likeliest to work without creating pushback.

And then I started seeing general discussion in another online community I frequent, in which someone had made the inevitable leap to suggesting that the only environmentally ethical solution would be for the government to impose regulations on the number of children people are allowed to have, using China as an example. Which is why I laughed when I saw this week’s 3-part series on the BBC about China’s “One-Child” policy:

Part 1: Has China’s one-child policy worked?

Part 2: China’s ‘perfect child’ generation

Part 3: Grey areas in China’s one-child policy

Revealingly, from the third installment, an explanation of how China’s policy actually works, more or less:

“China’s family planning policy is absolutely not a one-foetus or one-child policy,” said Wang Guoqiang earlier this year when he was a vice minister at the National Population and Family Planning Commission.


“There are different guidelines and different government policies,” he added.

Mr Wang explained that only 35.9% of the population is limited to having just one child. These people live mainly in urban areas.

Many rural couples, accounting for 52.9% of the population, are able to have two children if the first one is a girl, he said.

In other provinces, parents can have two children regardless of the sex of the first child, and in a few areas the rules are even more relaxed.

Not to mention the (wealthy) families that just decide to have more children anyway, and pay the fines. So perhaps China isn’t really the best example after all. The other parts of the series emphasize some of the human rights issues that have come up related to the policy, such as forced abortions; the gender imbalances that are showing up in these modern generations, since boys are still more desirable than girls; and the way all the pressure families now put on their only children can be rather unhealthy.

And then, of course, there are the countries with falling birthrates, such as Russia and Japan, who are trying to boost their population numbers. In fact, September 12 was Conception Day in one Russian region.

The hope is for a brood of babies exactly nine months later on Russia’s national day. Couples who “give birth to a patriot” during the June 12 festivities win money, cars, refrigerators and other prizes.

I’m not really sure there’s a grand best solution to this. It seems to me that if a person is at all pro-choice, a one-child policy is just as bad an idea as an anti-abortion one, because it’s still infringing on choice. Nor should the government really be involved in incentives either for or against having children, because that way lies the institution of official policies and laws. At the  most, the government could, and in my opinion really should already, promote truthful and informative sex-ed curricula, in addition to making access to contraception easy and without stigma.

My best idealistic “solution” would be a global redistribution of population through a well run, completely honest and uncorrupted international adoption system, the idea being that families that want more children in countries with lower population could adopt them from countries with higher population, rather than simply reproducing on their own again. But then we would not only need to promote the idea that choosing to give birth to fewer children is a good choice, but also that adopting is just as good a choice as having our own genetic offspring. I’m not optimistic we could inspire such a cultural sea change very quickly.

In any case, it was an interesting thought exercise, but ultimately not very revelatory, since I’m already in the group that would choose adoption before reproduction. I assume other people will have differing thoughts, so comment away.

-posted by Dana


4 Responses to How many children are ethical?

  1. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Dana, are you assuming that families that have 5 or 9 children but can’t support them well would consider putting some of their children up for adoption? I’m not sure the worldwide number of orphans or children presently available for adoption makes up a significant number of the world’s children for their redistribution to have a significant impact on global population.

    Another fairly successful “method” of birth control is the education of girls and women. According to this policy piece from 2003 (which doesn’t directly cite its source), “women who have completed high school tend to have fewer children and to give birth later in life than women who have not. Both effects reduce birthrates, improve maternal and child survival, and slow the growth of population.” Further, increased employment opportunities for women give them a significantly greater range of options as well as means of support for their children and leverage against their spouse.

    Many argue that child-unfriendly policies which force women to choose between working and childrearing have also reduced the birthrate from Sweden to Japan. This is not something I would recommend, however 🙂

  2. Dana says:

    poetloverrebelspy, yeah, I know that bit about the higher level of education of women. I actually had it in this piece earlier, but then I rewrote the ending to be more concise and cut it out. I suppose I was hoping that idea would be covered under the idea that everyone should be provided with accurate sex-ed (and therefore education in general), but that’s assuming a lot, I know. It was heavily discussed on the other blogs’ posts anyway.

    I’m not assuming that people with more children than they can support are actually putting their children up for adoption, but I do wonder how much that is because the parents know it wouldn’t do any good. Putting children up for adoption only seems like a good idea if you think someone is actually going to adopt them, and there really isn’t a very strong culture of adoption worldwide at all. I didn’t say it was an actually viable solution; I said it was an idealistic one.

    I’ve seen a great many articles in Japanese news blaming the lower birthrate on women (and men) who have discovered that remaining single and having a pet as their only dependent is a preferable situation to the expected married-and-totally-family-oriented roles they would feel forced into otherwise. Hence the rise in the popularity of dachshunds in sweaters. (This is an excellent example proving the idea of higher levels of education + more economic freedom = fewer children.)

  3. Sonetka says:

    The trouble with guidelines is that they tend to become rules; while it’s very unlikely that I’ll ever have five or six children, I feel a bit cold at the idea of being told that I CAN’T do so, for the good of humanity. Sacrificing your immediate good for a possibly-never-to-exist Greater Good is not something I can get behind, aside from the moral implications of the fact that people WILL inevitably conceive when they’re not “supposed” to, and how those pregnancies will be dealt with.

    Adoption’s a tricky thing all around; it’s really gained a lot of acceptance (in the US, I mean) over the last thirty years at the same time that the number of available US children has really plummeted. (Older child adoption is another tricky issue; people make remarks sometimes about how potential APs only want “healthy white babies” without considering that first, it’s not that simple, and second, that older adoptable children tend to bring a hell of a lot of baggage with them which they may not be qualified to handle). I think in this country it’s not an issue of thinking your newborn wouldn’t find APs as just the fact that giving your baby up would be damned difficult and society isn’t pushing it heavily under certain circumstances anymore. Other countries I know tend to look at adoption as very much a second-rate kind of thing; one universal truth is that it’s undoubtedly more of a hassle than just conceiving biologically, if you can do it.

    Sorry, am going on a bit. Adoption really needs its own post, once I get about 80 of my current obligations discharged!

  4. Mike says:

    The Sightline Institute, a Seattle environmental think tank, tracks family rates across the Northwest, essentially on the theory that more people are bad. They add a “low fertility = women’s freedom” angle as window dressing for what is obviously a hard argument to make.

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