Sarah Conly is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Bowdoin College. She is the author of Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism, Cambridge University Press, 2013, and One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? forthcoming (publication expected in November, 2015), Oxford University Press.
My most recent work has been on whether or not we have a right to have more than one child. The claim is that if growth in population seems sufficiently likely to harm the environment in a way that will cause present and future people to suffer greatly, we don’t have a right to have more than one child.
This will strike people as controversial, of course, since we generally think that childbearing is and should be a personal issue, one up to the parents to decide. Insofar as we do see moral constraints on childbearing, it is generally in reference to the particular welfare of the child who will be born—if we foresee that a child will have a miserable life, and the parents have the ability to avoid having that child, we may feel it is wrong to have that child. Even there, though, most people seem to think the parents have the right to have the child, even if morally they shouldn’t—no one is justified in stopping them. In my new book, One Child: Do We Have a Right to More? (Oxford University Press, forthcoming, 2015) I argue that the moral constraints on childbearing are broader than this picture suggests. Even if the child itself will be happy, there are occasions when parents do not have a right to have a child, and this means that the state can legitimately sanction them (in appropriate ways) for having one. Population pressure that threatens the welfare of others is one reason a state may legitimately interfere in what we normally think of as the personal choice as to how many children to have.
Rights are commonly believed to be grounded in either of two ways. (There are other theories of rights, but I think these two are the most widely accepted.) On the first view, rights may be grounded in interests. If we absolutely need something to have a decent life, many believe we then have a right to it. This kind of thinking lies behind the claims that we have a right to food, or to health care. I argue that even if we accept great need as a foundation for rights, childbearing doesn’t fit this picture. We can live very well, even if not exactly as we would wish, without children, as many people do. Having a child is not necessary to living a good life. However, since we do want the human race to continue, and since there is not reason to restrict childbearing to one group rather than another, we can say that equality gives us a claim to have one child–but no more.
A second theory of rights grounds them in our status as autonomous beings. Insofar as we have the capacity to reason and choose, and insofar as that capacity is what gives us (on this view) the value we have, our choices should be respected. Thus, we have a right to live in accordance with our own choices. My choices may not necessarily promote my interests, on this view, but they should still be respected as an expression of autonomy. However, even if we accept this reasoning, we know it has limits: our autonomy doesn’t give us the right to greatly harm others. This is generally accepted: we say we have the right to free speech, for example, but that we do not have a right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. On this view, it is not that we have to promote others’ welfare, but that a certain degree of harm to others is beyond what we have a right to do. If we are in danger of overpopulation that will severely harm others, we don’t have a right to have more than one child.
Are we in such a dangerous situation at present? It’ s hard to say. If the population will otherwise continue to rise as it has, then yes, the danger is certain. If enough people refrain from having children, or from having more than one child, then perhaps it will not be harmful for others to have more than one (although one might argue that they are then free riders on others’ restraint, and there is certainly a question whether they have a right to that.) I argue, though, that even when the danger is not certain, if there is sufficiently probability of great harm occurring through unrestrained childbirth we have no right to subject others to that risk.
It’s true that part of the problem is consumption—it’s not just our numbers, but the way some of us live that is so destructive. We have been extremely resistant to cutting back on consumption, though, while fertility rates are relatively responsive to economic and cultural pressure. And, if even if we did cut back on consumption, a sufficient rise in population would still have devastating consequences. In any case, even if population is not uniquely the cause of the environment destruction we are witnessing, that doesn’t mean it can be ignored. Your lighted match by itself may not burn the house down, but if you know that the house has been doused with gasoline, and you still toss in your match, you are responsible, even though you were not the sole causal factor in the conflagration.
Saying that you have no right to have a second child, though, does not mean any and all sanctions are legitimate. You don’t have the right to steal, but that doesn’t mean it’s okay to torture you if you do. Forced abortions or sterilizations go beyond the legitimate means a state can take to discourage people from childbearing. The most palatable means we could take would be increasing costs of childbearing, by financial disincentives like extra tax burdens or fines. We know that at present costs play a role in how many children people have, and thus we have reason to think that this would be sufficiently effective. A sliding scale could avoid differential impacts on people of different income levels.
There are a number of issues in this policy that are controversial. The most significant of these, of course, is that it implies that we do not have an absolute right to control our bodies, including our reproductive capacities. We are familiar with the long struggle to obtain the legal right to abortion, and aware of the fact that much of the argument for that right rested on the fact that a woman should be able to control her own body. Since I am arguing that in fact you don’t have the right to do things with your body that significantly hurt other people, I undercut that general argument for control.
I don’t think my argument weakens the argument for abortion, though, or at least not in any foreseeable real-world situation. I think the strongest argument for abortion is that the fetus is not a person. Since the fetus is not a person it has no claim on us, and we do no one grave harm when we have an abortion. So, I don’t think abortion in the world we know violates rights or is wrong in any way. However, I have to admit that on my account it is at least imaginable that there could be circumstances in which a particular abortion would be morally wrong, so wrong that we would have no right to it. For example, we can imagine that a given pregnancy will result in a baby that we, in some impossible way, know will bring about enduring World Peace, and we also know that this peace won’t otherwise come about. I don’t think the woman in this case (typically) has the right to have an abortion. So, it does follow from what I say that the right to abortion is not absolute—there are situations in which other claims can override it. I don’t see, however, that there will be many, if any, such situations in the real world.
This is a controversial topic, for this and for other reasons discussed in the book. We don’t like giving up what we think of as rights, and particularly not in such a personal realm as childbearing. However, we need to remember that what might once have been harmless can, in the modern world, be extremely harmful. My goal is not so much to bring about state prohibitions of childbearing, which after all is pretty unlikely, as to promote the idea that when a population is the size that our is, and places the pressure on the environment that ours does, childbearing is no longer a private matter. What you do in terms of children has a great and lasting effect on other people. Sometimes people put this as a question of justice to future generations, but that is sadly over-optimistic: the effects of environmental degradation are being felt now, by present people, and will be felt even more by those who are now young as they age in a world in which population and consumption combine to destroy much of what makes the planet livable. We just don’t have a right to be that destructive.