Total Pageviews

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Pollution, food and Reproductive Rights: Go Green and be Eco-friendly With Birth Control

The general topic of this paper is reproductive rights . And the two major questions of this paper are is it ethical to legally restrict the number of children a person or a couple have (conceptually); and is it unethical if we (as in those who inhabit the planet) do not legally restrict the number of children a person or a couple has? To establish this we will need to find what the link, if any, there is between reproduction and the primary rights of health, safety and autonomy; then, we need to discover whether unlimited reproduction can potentially negatively impact those rights; and, if so, is that a current or eminent problem for us. If it is ethical to restrict the number of children a person can have, then it might be beneficial; if it is beneficial and necessary to protect future or present health, safety and autonomy, then we are ethically bound to legally limit the number of children a person has. There are, however, some significant accusations against legally limiting the number of children a person can have. Two are that are the most significant are that reproduction is a fundamental right, and, also, that legally limiting the number of children a person has constitutes a eugenics policy. To deal with these problems we will need to ask, if it is indeed the case that these restrictions can be ethical and beneficial, then in what cases it would become unethical. For instance, when would it violate a fundamental right?

First, what are rights? Rights according to Mill are “When we call anything a person's right, we mean that he has a valid claim on society to protect him in the possession of it, either by the force of law, or by that of education and opinion”, which, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2009) calls “Those things which ought to be so protected were, in his view, those which concerned the fundamentals of human well-being. In this essay, we’ll stick with Mill’s and Stanford’s definitions. The keys to this definition are a valid claim to protect and fundamental to human well being. So what does it mean to be ethical or unethical? We’ll define anything that violates this right—which is that valid claim or something fundamental to human well being—as unethical, and anything that maintains or promotes a right as ethical.

Now, is unrestricted human reproductions a right? Reproduction, in general, might be a right because it might be, and in many cases surely is, necessary to human well-being. Reproduction might be vital to autonomy in the pursuit of happiness and mental health because the parent role may be one some humans are programmed by nature to fulfill, but this is a psychological question, one that psychologist would need to answer. However, at this point, we can say that it is not as primary as the need for food, or medical care, or safety, or the freedom of individual to seek those. Because, many live without children in healthy, safe and autonomous way, but no one can live, or live healthfully, without food, medical care and safety. And, furthermore, we can say that unrestricted reproduction is not a right at all because it might reduce the overall utility, the rights of the many, for the uninhibited expression of the few.

How could it reduce the utility—which is the overall distribution of rights—of the many? Well, consider this thought experiment. Imagine that all there are hundreds of people, men and women, who volunteer to live in a giant room with a class ceiling (literal not metaphorical)—and live there forever. This room is equipped with ample housing for the hundreds of people there and ample water which renews once a day from a pipe into a huge basin, which is far more than enough for the current population. They are also given tons of sunshiny space in this room to plant different crops, and the crops are booming from this oh so fertile soil even though the skills of the new farmers are week. After a time, these people start having children, lots and lots of children, and the more food they produce through innovation the more children they have. For years, no one can see anything but prosperity in this giant room. But, soon, the population grows so much they have to start conserving water and conserving food, just so everyone can live. Even with their innovations, the room-community isn’t able to keep up; they have reached the level of diminishing returns and have started to strip the soil irreparably. And, soon, the housing is too little and they have to encroach on growing land just to support keep people in adequate living. But, people just keep having babies, cause they love children. Would it be ethical for the room-community’s leaders to legislate how many children are born. It surely would. Because if they keep having children, then they will soon damage their land too much to support their population at current levels, no one will get enough water, there won’t be enough housing, and there won’t even be space to move if it keeps up, so all health, all safety, and all autonomy will be compromised because the people did not govern the number of children they had when it was at an optimum level. Every couple might have been able to have two children, and maintained an optimum level of living, if they had possessed the foresight to consider they were in a closed room earlier.

In this example, it is clear and obvious that because they did not regulate one portion of their desires, they were left with no autonomy and eventually very little health, at all. But, is it the same for our world? Will there ever be a time when it is ethical to consider limiting the number of children people have so we don’t irreversibly destroy our resources and where our lack of resources—like food, water and space—cause us to lose even moderate levels of health, safety and autonomy? This again is obvious, bar new advances in space travel: we live in a close tightly interconnected, shared and closed system, like the room. There is only so much land we can use for housing without building into agriculture and there is only so much farming we can do without destroying our fragile environment (like other species) and the arability of our land.

The question is, when should we let the environment dictate our rights or should we limit some things, which we consider rights, so we can maximize the rights of the many over time? And, if so, when should we do it? And how? Remember, we defined rights as something necessary for human well being and something that a person has a valid claim for society to protect. This being the case, it looks something like this: unlimited, unlegislated reproduction causes a decrease in overall utility, or the overall human well-being, and, therefore, it is not a right; and furthermore, because government has a duty to protect the utility—health, safety and autonomy of the people—it has the duty to restrict the number of children a person has. It would be unethical for us, especially as a democratic society, to not limit the number of children we can have, if we are close to passing the optimal level of population, or we have already passed that level.

If we have are at the point where we as a world or a nation or a state need to start controlling reproduction, what would an ethical control the number of children look like? How would it be enforced? And, how would it deal with problems like twins, triplets and so on? China, who’s One Child Policy is infamous, and has been very effective, is currently facing the problem of enforcement. And, there are two major methods they use—there are many, some terrible—forced abortions and a mandatory birth control ring, which is implanted immediately after the birth of the first child, that is constricts the fallopian tubes so the egg can’t pass through (BBC news, 2000). The first, abortion, illustrates a problem in enforcement because in what was meant to preserve health is now compromising it; and, the second, that there is a way to avoid those enforcement problems through preemptive work. There are many safe (at least, safer than having a child) birth controls out there, which are permanent and can be ethically given while in an already intensive medical procedure. There then comes the problem of having more than one child at a time, either naturally or through in-vitro fertilization. Natural multiple births need not be a problem because they are rare, they are simple facts of nature and the same procedure for birth control used on all woman after their first or second child can be used after the fact—she would just have gotten lucky, or unlucky, depending on her perspective. The greater problems would come with in-vitro fertilization and the abuses it allows; however, that need not be a problem with proper oversight guidelines for doctors, as well as censures, like the loss of their medical license or fines, for abuses.

Some might argue that restricting reproduction, even in the face of dangerous overpopulation wouldn’t be a ethical or a good idea because we are always advancing and can stop or undo the damage that we caused in the mean time. However, this is a terrible way to look at a problem. It is intuitively bad if we look at it in a real world situation. What if you’re in a ship with a bunch of people in the middle of the ocean, and you’ve started to sink. Now, the ship is sinking, but the crew, if they all worked through the day and night, giving up a few meals, and just buckling down below decks working could save the ship and everyone on it. But, the captain and the crew tell you, “we’re all going to the mess hall to get something to eat instead fixing the ship cause it’s nasty work, so we don’t want to do it—but don’t worry: sometimes the Coast Guard comes by so we could be fine”. If this were the case we would all see the folly of the assumption of future technology. However, the term new technology is a glossy term that engenders the idea of power over circumstances and never having to compromise or settle. It gives the appearance of substance, but in reality it is hollow and useless for situations such as this. To say that we’re ever growing in technology will save us from any disaster is like being offered the tools to fix your car, and telling the person who offered “no thanks, I’m waiting on God because he has come through for you so many times before”. Hypothetical solutions are not solution they are potentials and nothing; we must use current, real solutions, to solve real problems.

But, are the accusations that controlling the number of children a person has is eugenics and racism? Eugenics is restricting certain populations from reproducing, or killing them, and promoting others. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines eugenics as “a science that deals with the improvement (as by control of human mating) of hereditary qualities of a race or breed”(1883). So, on the one hand the claim that it is racism and eugenics to control population numbers is unfounded because it is about promoting the human race by limiting its numbers, not by promoting one specific subset of human. However, there may be an unintentional eugenics-like effect due to the different proportions of different ethnic groups in different areas and especially if the minorities are quickly catching up with the majority through reproduction. This is an issue that will have to be dealt with fairly in any reproductive legislation. Because, while preserving earth’s resources and correspondingly our rights, it may, at the same time, degrade the social evolution of those cultures and society in general.

That being said, it is still a question as to whether or not a policy that limits the number of children a person or couple has is needed. According to Scientific American (2009), our world is falling apart because of overpopulation. It points to overpopulation as the source of the problems of pollution, “the wholesale loss of bio-diversity”, and the loss of land and water. According to the Global Environment Outlook 4 (2007), a United Nations publication, “This assault the global environment risks undermining the many advances human society has made in recent decades. It is undercutting our fight against poverty. It could even come to jeopardize international peace and security”. And it goes on to say, “Available supplies are under great duress as a result of high population growth… The water-supply-demand gap is likely to grow wider still, threatening economic and social development and environmental sustainability… Making good on the global water and sanitation agenda is crucial to eradicating poverty and achieving the other development goals”. These concerns were raised mainly over pollution and water; however, land management is becoming a huge problem as well. And, again, it goes on to say that there is a concern about land because 11 percent of our land is already used in agriculture and in many places there is almost no room for further expansion due to land and water shortages.

We are looking at human rights and government stability breaking down because we no longer have the resources to sustain ourselves our growth. We are on the precipice of a disaster that needs more than talk and hypothetical scenarios. According to The World Population Monitoring Report (2001), our population, to many experts has already maxed out our worlds carrying capacity—the capacity of our resources to renewably sustain us—and, the median of all estimations put us around at over capacity in year 2200, when our population is suppose to be 10 billion. Our world population is forecasted to be 7 billion by 2012 and 9 billion by 2050, according to a UN press release by the Population Division (2009). We have reached a point in our history where the population is a clear and present danger. For at least two hundred years, with Malthus, we have known about this problem, and, now we are confronted with it in all its size and mass(World Population Monitoring, 2001). The consequences would be even more dire if we waited another two hundred years.

It would be unethical for us to take the imaginary, hypothetical way out instead of controlling reproduction through legislation. It is the most direct and efficient rout. Cultural change is too slow without a boost and persuasion is as well—people are too busy and tired to worrying about the world population. When faced by clear and present dangers, like this, it requires the educated, the knowledgeable and the powerful to take charge and do what is right because they are looking from a clearer perspective

. There is a cliché of saying we are building depts that our children will owe. However, we are possibly making depts that no one can ever pay back. If we don’t make the hard, ethical decision to control our population through legislation, we are very likely consigning future generations, who we share the earth with in time, to much less basic human rights, if any, than other generations have enjoyed. It would unethical to leave the problem to fix itself because we are stealing the freedom health and autonomy of future generations if we are wrong about it fixing itself and because we liked the idea of making more people for that generation.

The signs to knowing when we have maximized health, safety and autonomy through legally limiting the number of children people can have will be clear. There will be surplus of resources, lower income disparities, a far lower poverty rate, a far lower number of malnourished people, and more people who are educated and have adequate health resources—and the clearest of all: a reduced population.

To sum up, we have established that there is a link between resources and rights, and that our resources are dwindling as our numbers are growing. We have established that having an unrestricted number of children is not a right, and that it may even be at odds with ethical decision making. Also, that if we don’t solve the resource problem our rights as a society will decrease and that it is our ethical duty to maximize health, safety, and autonomy by restricting reproduction through legislation, because it is the fastest, clearest and most present approach to controlling the numbers problem. And we will know when this has been effective when we see a better allocation of resources across peoples.


"Another Inconvenient Truth: The World's Growing Population Poses a Malthusian Dilemma". Scientific American . July 28th 2010 <>.

"Eugenics". Merriam-Webster. July 28th 2010 <>.

"Global Environment Outlook 4". United Nations Environment Programme. July 28th 2010 <>.

"Legal Rights". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy . July 28th 2010 <>.

"World Population and Monitoring 2001". DEPARTMENT OF ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL AFFAIRS POPULATION DIVISION . July 28th 2010 <>.

"World Population Prospects, the 2008 Revision". United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Population Division. July 28th 2010 <>.

"China Steps Up 'One Child' Policy ". BBC. July 28th 2010 <>.

No comments:

Post a Comment