Featured Philosop-her: Sarah Conly


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.

Overpopulation and the Right to Childbearing

Sarah Conly

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.

16 responses

  1. This is very interesting Sarah, thanks! So I have a couple of questions:
    (i) You say that we don’t want the human race to end and that this is why adults have a right to have one child. Do you mean that each person has a right to parent one child, or a right to procreate once? Because procreating and parenting may come apart, we might need some people (i.e., surrogate mothers and gamete donors) to procreate more than once if we think that everyone has a right to parent at least once. And if that is the case, then it seems like the right to parent is grounded on more than just a desire to avoid the end of the human race since we could easily continue the human race without having to support infertile and homosexual couples in their desire to parent.

    (ii) Isn’t there a compelling interest on the part of children to enjoy the goods of family life robustly which should be factored into our thinking about intergenerational justice? If everyone only had one child, then once these children became adults and their parents and grandparents passed away, they would be left with no family life unless they married and/or had their own child (since they would have no siblings, uncles, unties and cousins). But given that not everyone is willing and capable of successfully building a family, I worry that one upshot of your account is that many people would therefore lack the important goods of family life after the death of their parents and grandparents. Now of course this is a price worth paying if we have no other way of averting dangerous climate change. But if we could avert dangerous climate change by discharging a combined duty of significantly lowering consumption and having (say) no more than two children, then that seems to be a better way of proceeding given our interest in enjoying family life robustly.

  2. These are both very good questions. As to the first, I do discuss the difference between procreative and parenting aspects of childbearing in the book. Since I’m interested in overpopulation, though, I am focussing on the procreative aspects of parenting–how many people we can reproduce. I’m measuring that against the harm it will do to others in terms of environmental destruction. Parenting is, of course, different. On the one hand,( good) parenting per se isn’t harmful. On the other hand, no, I don’t think it’s a right one can claim in the way that might lead one to think we should supply the biologically childless with children to raise, either at present or in the situation in which we do try to reduce the number of children we have. While it can be a great thing, I don’t think it qualifies as a basic interest, in the way that food and health care do.
    As to the second question,again, I don’t think we have a right to a sufficient number of relatives to guarantee us biological relationships for our entire lives–after, as you say, our parents and grandparents die. Claiming a right to biological relatives implies that those who at present have only one child may be wronging their children by not endowing them with siblings, if cousins etc. are not at hand, or are violating their rights by not living close enough to the relatives to maintain relationships, etc. I find it unlikely that kids can claim these specific relationships from us. I think we have an obligation to supply our children with nurturing households, but there are many ways to do that without piling on the siblings (or cousins, etc.) After all, we know that families with only one parent can function very well. We see at present that there has already been a social restructuring as family has changed ( as there are more single parents, as adults no longer live near their parents or siblings, and as we have many fewer siblings than we did a couple of generations ago.) We cultivate relationships for ourselves and our children outside the family. If we all limited ourselves to one child, the same thing would continue–ways of forming relationships other than through shared DNA.

  3. Posted on behalf of Sarah Bracke: Hi Sarah, thank you for this very thoughtful piece. One thought came up while reading: I assume when you make your argument about not having the right to more than one child, that there’s an implicit understanding of one child per couple – am I right? Or in other words, I assume that the couple functions as an implicit norm throughout your argument. Yet it seems to me that a more traditional (by which in fact I mean modern…) notion of the couple is losing some of its purchase on the ways in which kinship and reproduction is organized. I am thinking among other things of the different albeit overlapping worlds of recomposed families, queer family formation, and assisted reproductive reproductive technologies (ART). Some of the developments in these realms go well with your argument, as they precisely underscore the point of new forms of relationships that are not based on shared DNA. But there also seems to be a tension between your argument and the increased use of ART (including surrogacy motherhood) by individuals – not couples. One child per couple or one child per individual clearly makes a substantial difference – obviously in numbers, but also in the place the couple occupies in the argument. Have you given this any thought? I’d love to hear your reflections on this.

  4. Thanks Sarah — That helps! Just to clarify my point: I didn’t mean to suggest that parents who only have one child might be wronging their child. My point was simply that there is something morally regrettable about a world without cousins, uncles, aunties and siblings, given that these relationships can be quite valuable to so many people. But of course, if this is the only way we can avert dangerous climate change, then so much the worse for these relationships.

    I look forward to reading the book!

  5. Sarah (Bracke): I’m glad you asked this question, because I’ve racked my brain over it. Yes, I think there is a right to one child per two parents, not two for two. Of course, the two don’t have to be a “couple” in a romantic or domestic sense. As is the case now, an individual can make an arrangement with another individual with whom they have no prior relationship (as in a sperm donation) or with a friend, or whatever works. That said, it will presumably be easier for people who are in a romantic or domestic relationship with someone of the other sex to have a child. That’s true now, of course, but it will foreseeably be even more difficult for single or gay and lesbian people when there are fewer children to go around. For this reason I initially thought it would be best to promote a rule of two children per two biological parents, since it would presumably be easier to get a sperm donation from a man with who one has no relationship if he knew he could also have his “own” child, or to have a woman act as a surrogate who could also have her own. Unfortunately, the population predictions at present just don’t make this a viable alternative. While two kids per two adults would eventually result in the population ceasing to grow, this wouldn’t be for quite some time, given demographic momentum (that is, given that there are so many young people now would be having their own two kids, who’d be having their own two kids, etc.) the population would continue to grow pretty spectacularly for a while. (Estimates vary as to when, and at what level, it would even out.) Further, and more the point, it’s not at all clear that we have the capacity to maintain the population we have at present. We are doing a lot of harm now, and using up more and more resources, so at anything like the consumption we now have it’s not a sustainable number. So, sadly, I came to the conclusion that two children per two biological parents is just too harmful. I think there are ways this might be managed to be as little disadvantageous as possible to people without other-sex partners, but I can’t deny that, even as it is now, procreation without an other-sex partner would be more difficult than for those who happen to have that.
    Luara: I don’t doubt that something of value would be lost. Unfortunately, I think even more will be lost with uncontrolled population growth, as you suggest. Would that it were not so! But it is.

    Thank you both for your comments!

    • This may seem a little simplistic, but perhaps one child per female of legal and childbearing age world wide. Some won’t have a desire to have any children, and some won’t be able to because of medical conditions and in those cases it only helps with the overpopulation problem. There are plenty of children available for adoption for homosexual or infertile couples or anyone else who isn’t straight or monogamous. Either way, I think the social aspect is going to be absolutely crucial to make any of this happen in the real world. Right now, at least here in the US, the general attitude is still that having children is the natural and “right” thing to do, especially in a monogamous marriage. It is an expectation that parents here have of their daughters. Mothers and parents in general are given special privileges like maternity/paternity leave, tax credits and so on. There is even a stigma against adoption. People will opt for expensive IVF procedures or surrogates. We have to find a way to change the attitudes behind these things before anyone will “give up” their “right” to have as many children as they want.

  6. Thank you for the interesting post and discussion. Perhaps you discuss this in the book, but I am curious why you came to the conclusion that it is better, all things considered, to reduce population than to reduce consumption per capita (especially in light of your last answer to Luara, acknowledging there is something to be regretted about smaller families etc.) Is there a principled reason for this? Or is there a pragmatic reason – for instance, an assumption that it is politically more feasible to curb population than consumption?

  7. I do think we should reduce consumption, and I do discuss this in the book. However, there is a lot of evidence that we are not going to reduce consumption–we produce more and more greenhouse gases, rather than less and less, despite the various agreements we make to reduce output. So, when we produce children it looks as if we have to assume that consumption will not diminish much, in which case having too many children is injurious. Having children on the grounds that the consumption rate should drop, when we know it won’t actually drop, is self-indulgent. At the same time, we have shown ourselves willing to reduce the fertility rate–since we have done so. In places where contraception is readily available, fertility rates have dropped a great deal over the past couple of generations. So: we should reduce consumption, but we can’t rely on that actually happening.

  8. Why should I even read this? Demographic trends being what they are, most of the western world, China, and Japan will all be shrinking significantly over the next 50 years. This is a simple fact. We are not facing a population bomb, but a population implosion in most cases. You can talk about this issue hypothetically, but it is NOT happening. I just don’t see the point in even having this discussion as western nations have birth rates well below replacement.

  9. On your reasoning to disqualify the second grounding of the rights to bear children(autonomy) … I find this logically to be flawed.

    Very simply put, your idea that having a child – might in the future poorly affect the people in the world could also be applied to one child or any child … as the woman who had Hitler ruined many people’s lives. The potential hurt other people’s lives isn’t a reason to invalidate a right.

    You could also go back to middle school, where we give up our autonomous rights in exchange for social contract to co-exist.

  10. I would like to take this claim even further. In my opinion, child bearing should be not a right, but a privilege. To get a child-bearing rights, those who are going to be a parents, should prove that they have all necessary knowledge and experience to raise and nurture children.

    I have read too many stories about ignorant/cruel/unsympathetic parents, who damage their children permanently and scars them for life.

    Only those who proved that they are really ready and capable to create another human being and not put it into despair and misery due of ignorance or , but provide it with adequate care, should get the right to become parents. This may be done in form of exams or tests.

    I understand that this is a highly controversial topic and most likely not to be implemented in near future decades or even centuries. However, common logic cries that in countries where a human needs to pass exams to get a driving license (ensuring that (s)he is able to not harm others on the road), getting total control over another human’s life also need some kind of exam (ensuring that (s)he is able to not harm this dependent and defenseless human).

  11. This is one of those things so ridiculous it’s hard to know how to respond. The idea that the state has a right to interfere with a person’s reproductive decisions is on the face if it repugnant and your rational for suggesting it is based entirely on speculation about possibilities that are currently no more valid than any given scifi novel.

    This is the kind of thinking that creates Nazi eugenics, Stalinist states, and the horrors of the Chinese one child policy. A country has already tried this experiment. It created everything you decry. Forced sterilization. Eugenics. Forced abortion. The complete destruction of the family unit.

    You simply cannot introduce an idea and say, “of course I’d never let it go THAT far.” As if you would have any control over the genie after it is out of the bottle.

    This is both theoretically and experimentally a bad and outright evil idea. You will encourage incredible tyranny and oppression.

  12. While I applaud your work, there is a fundamental stumbling block in my estimation: rights may not exist other than as semi-arbitrary social conventions, and are likely an unsuitable framework to apply to our reasoning about this issue, because our breeding behavior is in large part a matter of biology, not social convention. Trying to apply social conventions can lead to quagmires of conflicting approaches that ultimately can only be settled by arbitrary social agreement. But the human animal has instinctual agendas that are not up for negotiation, and there are scarcely any more potent examples than our impulses to breed, which most deeply influence the courses we choose for our lives.

    Instead of attempting to couch the problem in terms of rights and prohibitions, I suggest it might avoid many pitfalls to pursue simple encouragement and discouragement, which can be explained in simple terms of the non-coercive expression of the collective preference of a society. For example, if a society faces risks from overpopulation, it is perfectly reasonable for them to decline to offer any extra support or encouragement for people who have too many kids. Stop giving them extra tax breaks, for example.

    But we can’t go too far in that direction without impacting the safety of children who are born anyways by irresponsible parents, and the children should not be made to pay the price. Instead we could pursue active discouragement. We could offer to pay men and women significant sums NOT TO BREED. For example, we hear people complaining about “welfare moms” having more babies to increase their monthly checks, so why not offer women a monthly benefit for staying on birth control that reliably prevents pregnancy? This could still be cheaper to the public than the cost of supporting the “too many” children. Similarly, it might be sound policy to offer young men, eg age 20, the option to be paid for having a vasectomy. Reversible vasectomies may be viable, but sperm could be stored as well, in order to allow the men viable options to change their minds later, which would avoid the risk of causing them any permanent harm. None of these options need to be 100% preventative in order to potentially exert a significant and worthwhile downward pressure on the total reproductive rate.

    By focusing on incentives for using birth control, we might also make better use of psychology, by appealing to people’s present-tense interests, in order to have them take the necessary steps to prevent them from succumbing to their desires to reproduce. There is ample evidence to suggest that the total rate of well planned deliberate reproduction is often not excessive (in many cultures), and that the problem lies more with habitual, unplanned and/or reckless breeding, which is likely much more driven by instinctual urges, by people who don’t care very much, and are often just following default social patterns that they have no significant reason to question or deviate from. Give them a strong reason I say. Offer them incentives to stop breeding. If they care less about breeding than taking the incentives, they will be prevented from breeding, and this will hopefully be enough to alleviate the problem we face.

    I fear that we creep towards societies that interfere and impose too much upon people by force, and too often in the form of punitive measures. The totalitarian impulse is strong and must be resisted whenever possible on principle. We see many examples where harm reduction by positive measures can be more effective than cleaning up messes that happen in spite of all the threats of punishment we care to make. Drugs are a perfect example, where prohibitive laws usually fail to actually inhibit real human beings from taking the drugs, and other urges usually triumph. In the case of reproduction, positive incentives would give people a substantial and fair reason to make their reproductive choices a matter of rational choice rather than accident (often instinct), and the fair compensation for their personal sacrifice would be less costly than the damage of overpopulation, some of which we expect to be irreparable and thus costly beyond measure.

    Let us avoid coercion and encourage people positively wherever we can.

  13. I would like to ask a question, if you don’t mind.

    Your supposition that this scheme may somewhat undercut the absolute right of women’s ownership to their own bodies, seems somewhat at odds with the supposition that such an undercutting may in turn threaten the right to abortion.

    A “person” is a philosophically non-obvious term, and although the judicial term is clearer, the latter follows the former closely…and the former may be subject to reinterpretation literally at the drop of a hat.
    Take, for instance, other forms of “non-persons”, like animals. Just because they are not considered persons, does not mean they are considered claimless on humanity. While that claim is fairly limited even in western society, it’s still there – you cannot do everything to an animal, particularly certain forms of animals like cats and dogs, that you can do to other forms of life like plants, or lifeless things that you have ownership of. Arguably, this is because we have imposed on certain animals a form of quasi-personhood – dogs and cats are like “family members”, for instance. This is not uniform throughout the world, but that just goes to underline the fickleness of relying on personhood (or lack thereof) as a defense for abortion.

    In contrast, the absolute right of women’s ownership to their own bodies is a very clear and obvious ground to stand on, when the question of abortion is at hand. Either you have it, or you do not. There is little middle ground there, and for many of us still remain the entire foundation on which the right of abortion stands on. Would you not agree with this, and if so, why not?

  14. I am far more in favor of determining a rational level of population, based on public discourse, votes and science, and then rationing out this according to democratic ballot. If the vote determines fertility is to be alloted based on good heredetary qualities (genetic or otherwise), that would be a plus.

    But we HAVE to bite the bullet and determine how much more people can be allowed to be born. This will seriously piss off various religions, as well as libertarians, but boohoo.

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