The ongoing environmental crisis has prompted philosophers to examine the ethics behind limiting procreation in an overpopulated world. A paper published recently by Greg Bognar of Stockholm University aims to demonstrate that anti-natalist policy stances need not violate procreative liberty and personal autonomy.
By Ayaka Paul
In his new paper, “Overpopulation and Procreative Liberty,” Professor Bognar revives two policy proposals developed in the textbook Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment, written by Anne Ehrlich, Paul Ehrlich and John Holdren. Both proposals, Bognar claims, could be accepted by political liberals, since, contrary to common belief, they would actually increase people’s overall liberty and autonomy.
The first proposal revolves around the idea of implementing long-term mandatory contraception. Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren envisioned a capsule which could be implanted under the skin at puberty and release hormones to prevent pregnancy in women and cause the infertility of sperm cells in men. In actuality, this type of birth control already exists for women and includes products such as Nexplanon, Norplant, and Implanon. The proposal would make this type of long-term birth control the ‘default’ for all men and women. As Bognar writes:
Crucially, they are reversible: no one is prevented from becoming a parent. What they would do, however, is change the ‘natural default’ of human reproduction. Getting pregnant would entirely be a matter of choice, rather than chance. Unintended pregnancies would become a rare phenomenon. Women would gain complete control of their reproductive capacity, and do it without making an effort. If anything, the implants would protect and expand procreative liberty.
With everyone on this type of birth control, overall population numbers can be monitored, while procreative freedom is protected. These implants could be removed in any situation where two people would like to become parents. Bognar imagines them providing “a safe and reliable method of birth control without any side effects.” He speculates that such contraceptives would likely eliminate the need for most abortions, which would be beneficial for women’s health, and would free up medical resources for alternative uses. Most importantly, it would cut down on unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, thus driving fertility rates down and hopefully alleviating the need for any more intrusive measures.
The second policy proposal would involve the distribution of tradeable procreation entitlements; it could be put into effect if the first proposal did not reduce fertility sufficiently or fast enough to attain ecological stability. This proposal was first suggested by economist Kenneth Boulding back in the 1960s. Bognar’s version introduces the idea that every person is issued an entitlement to ¾ of a child, with each couple entitled to 1 ½ children. This means that for any couple, their first child is “free.” But if a couple would like another child, they would have to buy another ½ child entitlement on the market set up for that purpose. If they would like a third child, they would have to buy another full child entitlement, and so forth, up to whatever number of children they want as they expand their family. Individuals who forego procreation, and couples who remain childless or only have one child, would be able to sell their excess entitlements on the same market. Incentivizing smaller families in this way would likely lead to smaller families, which is the explicit goal. Furthermore, governments would be able to buy up entitlements in the procreation market, if that became necessary in order to reduce populations to an ecologically sustainable level.
A system like this, Bognar argues, would make it unnecessary for governments to set limits on family size, as they can aim for general population targets by controlling the amount of distributed entitlements on the market. The government would have more direct management of population size than under the first proposal, allowing it to decrease excessive populations (granted there would be a time lag in retrieving this data and acting on it). At the same time, people could have as many children as they wanted—provided they purchased sufficient entitlements. Bognar argues that however strange such proactive or coercive policies may sound, we should recognize the potential need for them. At a certain point, governments may be confronted with the reality that their nations are too populous to feed themselves or avoid ecological disasters, and try to decrease their numbers relatively rapidly.
What should we think about these proposals?
Regarding the first one, long-term mandatory contraception, we need to ask whether this method wouldn’t infringe on people’s autonomy and whether it would be the best course of action for controlling population. Currently existing contraceptives like this do not have very long life-spans and the process to get one is an intrusive surgical procedure. Would it be right for the government to demand this from their citizens? Forcing people to have birth-control implants seems invasive within their personal lives. Additionally, can this lack of control over what is put into the body to regulate hormones still be considered a method that doesn’t take away from personal autonomy?
Autonomy is the ability of individuals to make their own decisions about how to live their lives without undue external influence or coercion. The issue with this proposal is that to get to the ‘default setting’ everyone must get this implant in the first place. There seems to be no room for personal decisions or freedom concerning the initial choice of having these types of birth control; or at least, Bognar does not delve into situations in which young people or their parents are uncomfortable or refuse to have these implants. To forcibly mandate this type of intrusive birth control, to my mind, infringes on personal autonomy.
Another major point that Bognar does not fully consider is the health effects of these types of birth control, physically and mentally. Birth control, and all medications, affect individuals differently, so making one type the default for all people would itself undermine the autonomy (and health) of those who are negatively affected. Additionally, Bognar seems to expect that it is possible to develop birth control implants that last for the full period of time between puberty and wanting to have a child. The reality is that currently existing birth controls of this type do not last for much longer than four to five years, and they can have a range of health effects including depression, suicidal thoughts, significant bodily changes, and more. The expectation that it is possible to develop new types of implant that have none of these adverse effects, affect everyone the same, and last for a longer period of time, seems implausible at this point in time.
Personally, I think that these implants as well as all other forms of contraceptives (more of which must be developed for men to take as well) should be offered for free and should be easily accessible for anyone to use. Bognar does consider this non-coercive alternative; however, his proposal is for consideration under the possibility that accessibility, education and women’s empowerment might not be sufficient to mitigate our growing populations’ environmental impacts. Under this scenario, I am still unsure whether it would be morally incorrect to implement default mandatory long-term contraceptives. I think if mandatory contraception were to be implemented, choices should at least be provided regarding what types to take according to the optimal health interests of the individual.
Bognar’s second proposal, examining the implementation of tradeable procreation entitlements (if default mandatory contraception is not enough to limit population growth sufficiently) also requires consideration of several issues. One particular concern that Bognar discusses at some length is the exacerbation of inequality. The entitlement proposal would allow the rich to have as many children as they want, because they could afford to pay for these entitlements, while those with less money might be unable to have more than their one ‘free’ child. Additionally, those living in poverty could be forced to sell their entitlements for basic sustenance and thus forfeit the right to have even one child.
Bognar tries to address these economic issues by suggesting the redistribution of resources by the government, through the provision of vouchers or paying for entitlements on poor people’s behalf. He also considers creating a lottery system to address fairness. On this topic, Bognar also references an opinion (and seems to indirectly endorse the idea) that “ultimately it is no bad thing if relatively more children are born to better off parents than to worse off parents. Other things being equal, they are likely to have a better start at life that way.” He tries to justify this position by appeal to the principle of “procreative beneficence,” which says that “people should select the child, of all possible children they could have, who can be expected to have the best life.” However, I am skeptical of this line of thought.
Current economic inequalities stem largely from socio-political systems that have historically benefitted the rich and taken from the poor. Under such a historical dispensation, any proposal that could take away people’s freedom to have even one child due to economic circumstances cannot be accepted. Instead, proposals that consider more equal economic pressures to cut back on procreation amidst all economic classes must be sought out. A potential alternative solution is Sarah Conly’s sliding scale tax system, which aims to tax individuals in each class for any more children than one, based on what they can afford. In theory, this could pressure wealthier and poorer people equally to have fewer children. This idea could also be applied to Bognar’s entitlement approach, by charging the wealthy more for these entitlements and decreasing costs for those who are less privileged.
Given current and future environmental challenges, Greg Bognar’s two policy proposals in “Overpopulation and Procreative Liberty” deserve consideration. However, the effects of implementing these kinds of policies on personal autonomy vs. the global impacts of our growing population must be carefully balanced. It is also important to emphasize that these or other population policies should only be implemented by governments through democratic decision-making. Every country has a sovereign right to create its own policies in support of its own people. Still, given the environmental impacts, we must confront population issues. Arguably we have reached a stage where any more human population growth has become toxic to life on Earth.
Ayaka Paul is a student in the Honors Program at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is pursuing a dual major in Conservation Biology and the Biological Sciences.