III Publishing

Do People Have a Right to Procreate?
January 15, 2021
by William P. Meyers

Site Search

Popular pages:

U.S. War Against Asia
Democratic Party
Republican Party
Natural Liberation

Rights need to line up with reality

Do people have a right to procreate? Do people have a right to have children, perhaps an unlimited number of children? To ask in another manner, do societies, through governments, have the right to limit the number of children people can have?

The reason this question is up for debate is human overpopulation. The earth is approaching a human population of 8 billion. At least since it hit 1 billion, the environment has become increasingly degraded. At times there have been famines resulting in mass starvation. Some nations, notably China between 1970 and 2015, limited the number of children families could give birth to. I will return to the relation of the population issue to the right to procreate, or not, further down.

Compare to the right to birth control and abortion. Before 1960 a minority of people in the United States, or in the world, thought women had a right to use birth control or have an abortion. Women's rights, long an issue, came to be tied to the right to not get pregnant because of the negative impact of unwanted children on women's lives. With the advent of birth control pills and the Roe v. Wade ruling in the United States, it became well established that women have a right to choose whether or not to become or remain pregnant. It has been argued that freedom for women also, therefore, includes the right to have children, and as many children as are wanted. By that logic everything is determined by the individual choices of individual women, perhaps consulting with their male or other partners.

If giving birth to children as an unlimited right, but overpopulation is a problem, it helps to consider how low numbers of births might be achieved. The laws passed in China are portrayed in the U.S. as inhumanly rigid, as part of general anti-Chinese propaganda. In particular some specific examples of harshness are made to seem to have been the normal practice. In fact points of flexibility were numerous. About half of the parents in China, between 1979 and 2015, were allowed to have a second child. Rural parents whose first child was a daughter were allowed to have a second child (an allowance for old patriarchal practices favoring males). Ethnic minorities (non-Han) also were largely exempt from the limitation. The main penalty for a second child was an annual child-raising fee.

In the United States and other industrialized nations there are a number of ways public policy could nudge people towards cooperating with a one-child goal. Tax breaks for a first child might not be made available for subsequent children. The same for parental leave and other benefits. It would even be possible to start giving an income subsidy to women, once they reach childbearing age, which they would lose after having a child or becoming pregnant with a second child. So far the main form of encouraging having fewer children has been the availability of birth control and abortion. The desire to have a career has also tended to coincide with women minimizing their number of children. However, given the magnitude of the ecological crisis and the resulting need to move the human population towards sustainable numbers, these nudges may not be adequate. This is especially the case when large numbers of people are in denial of reality. Sterilizing men and women after their first or second child is probably the point where, for most people, there are doubts about the rights of individuals versus the rights of society. If people have a right to procreate, involuntary sterilization would violate that right.

One of the common arguments against policies limiting reproduction is that they may be unfairly applied. In particular, reproduction control is decried by some people in the United States as racist. Certain historical pro-choice figures, for instance Margaret Sanger, have been accused of racism. Even aside from racism in America, historic rivalries between nations or ethnic groups have led to unfair laws, unjust wars, and atrocities throughout history. However, there are also many cases where previously unfair practices were ended, resulting in benefits for all groups. Voting rights in the U.S. are a good example, even if problems still arise. Proponents of limiting the number of children a person can create should be able to devise a reliable system to ensure the rules are enforced fairly.

Ethics are context sensitive. People often view ethics as absolute even as they find they need some flexibility for their own lives. An activity, like gluttony, that is ethical in a time of plenty may not be ethical during a famine. Reasonableness and ethics are braided together. Before 1800 (when many women died in childbirth, children often died in infancy, the global population was sustainable, and the growth rate of the population was slow) governments had good reason to try to promote reproduction and policies that led to children surviving to become adults. In an era when death of women from childbirth is rare, the vast majority of children born survive to become adults, and the population has grown to be 8 times what is sustainable, there is good reason to ask that women limit the number of children they give birth to. Much of ethics concerns greed. If it is greedy to grab food that you do not need from someone who does need it, clearly it is greedy to demand to have more children than is good for society and the health of the planet.

One way to determine what is ethical, or what is a right, is considering what a good person would do voluntarily. Rights do not generally establish a right to bad behavior. Rights imply a spectrum of good behaviors that people can choose from. Thus the right to free speech includes most speech. But planning a crime is a crime, so if the planning includes speaking, that speech is not within a person's rights. Specific cases can be complicated and tricky, but the general principle is clear. Again, good behavior depends on the real world context. Killing a buffalo in 1400 in the continent not yet known as America was considered to be a good thing. It fed people, clothed people, and provided materials for tools and weapons. Buffalo, as a species, were in no danger. But killing a buffalo in 1910 was no longer considered a right because the species had almost been wiped out and alternative sources of food were available.

Good people usually do consider which acts are good and which are not. Good people do not assert a right to do something bad. If having more than one child is bad, or more than two children, then good people will not assert a right to have too many children. And if good people do not assert that right, then society should not recognize it as a right. Which makes the whole question independent of a woman's choice to use her biological powers whenever she wants. The right to procreate is dependent on the needs of society within the context of the need for an ecologically healthy world for we and our descendants to live in.

Some people argue that the world is not overpopulated. This is similar to the argument that there is no human-caused global warming. It is a lie, but one that appeals to people who do not want change their ways.

Some forms of ecological destruction, including species extinction, appear to predate civilization. Agriculture, even in its primitive form, changed landscapes even before civilization arose. With the onset of civilization the size of the human population began to expand. Sometimes the expansion was dramatic on a local level, though generally it was slow on the global level. Human population was always eventually limited by the food supply. That changed in the decades around 1800. Industrial methods, improved medical understanding and practices, and the expansion of agriculture into large areas previously uncultivated all combined to allow the human population to begin growing rapidly. In retrospect it is clear that major, global ecological degradation was taking place by 1900.

Between 1900 and 2020 the scale of ecological destruction grew exponentially. The litany of destruction is well documented: loss of wild habitat, loss of species, loss of population of most non-human species, pollution, carbon dioxide increases, global warming, destructive weather events, and melting ice caps. This corresponded with a booming human population. There were about 1 billion people alive in 1800 and less than 2 billion in 1900, but there are nearly 8 billion alive now. On average the consumption of each individual also has increased, especially in the advanced industrial nations. Everything taken into account, including the degradation that might take centuries to heal even under the best-case scenario, the earth cannot sustain a population of 8 billion people. An exact sustainable number is subject to many known and unknown factors, but 1 billion a reasonable target, subject to revision.

This real world situation requires that rules and regulations for the common good of humanity and the other species of the earth include gradual but substantial human population reduction. The fair way to achieve this is to limit how many children are born, in total. The fair way to achieve that is to limit women's and couple's right to procreate. Limitations should apply equally to all. Nudges are preferred to hard rules and harsh punishments. Permanent birth control for those who have already procreated is not a harsh punishment because a good person would do it voluntarily.

One could say the question is not do women have a right to procreate. The question is how many children does one woman have the right to procreate. The exact answer depends on how fast we want to get back to a sustainable human population.

III Blog list of articles
Copyright 2021 William P. Meyers. All rights reserved.