Autonomy and Overpopulation – Can They Co-exist?

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.

Implanon - Ciell
The contraceptive implant Implanon. Photo: Ciell (wikimedia)

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.

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10 thoughts on “Autonomy and Overpopulation – Can They Co-exist?

  1. Thanks for the interesting article.

    It is my understanding that the US population was on track to have stabilized at about 250 million around the year 2000 or so if it were not for the last 40 years of open-borders policies. That earlier pathway to stabilization was in the face of considerable public awareness of the problems with rising global populations, and a good deal of planning on the part of individuals to have smaller families. None of that stabilization was the result of coercive policies. That was also at a time of generally better public education for many and far less general political polarization, so an understanding of the consequences of population pressures may have been more readily assimilated into individual action. I wonder what the authors think about any prospect of a return to that situation of individual restraint? Thanks again!

    1. You are correct, since US fertility rates have been well below replacement rate since the 1970s. Continuation of pre-1965 immigration levels post-1965 would have led to a stable or declining US population, peaking around 250 million people.

      Instead, annual immigration levels were deliberately increased, from about a quarter million in 1960 to over one million annually today. That has led the US population to balloon to 330 million, with no end in sight to continued growth.

      For details on the impact of immigration policy on past and future population numbers, and the impact of population numbers on environmental impacts, see the Environmental Impact Statement on U.S. Immigration Policy from PFIR, published in 2016, website here:

      and here for the full document:

  2. Demonetisation has much to recommend it. By making the entitlement to children personal and non transferable society, on a global scale, would obtain the maximum benefit from the combination of the genes of two individuals and avoid the issue of the rich propagating excessively. With a replacement date of 2.1 there would still be many generation before species decline became an issue having started management at the eight billion mark.

  3. A possible starting point might be to eliminate income tax laws that force families with three or fewer children to subsidize with tax payments families with four or more children.

  4. There are better solutions, bypassing the inequality issue. In Egypt, the Justice and Development for Human Rights organization (JDNR) in the governorate of Minya have proposed that newlywed couples would be given a five year license from the government that allows them to have only one child within this period, which could then be renewed for another five years, allowing the couple to have one more child.

    1. Interesting. Egypt has an unsustainably large population already, which is rapidly growing, and widespread malnutrition and hunger. It will be interesting to see if such an approach is considered at the national level.

  5. In the UK, with its rapidly expanding population, a change to the child benefit rules might achieve results: the full rate payable for the first child, a reduced rate for a second child, and none for any additional children.

    Make it taxable to protect those families on low incomes, of which there are many, especially now, as the lockdown measures have pushed many people into hardship and an uncertain future.

    Undoubtedly there would be objections, notably from religious bodies and human rights activists, but the consequences of ever increasing population pressure must be addressed , sooner rather than later.

    In the aftermath of the covid panic which continues to grip the UK, there must also be a review of the open borders, low wage casual model which we have relied on for far too long.

    Reducing family size will be a hard sell, but in these unprecedented times, if it could be aligned with a firm commitment to invest in better training, educational and employment practices, the public might be persuaded to look at the long term benefits: less crowding, more open spaces, flourishing wildlife and better work prospects and opportunities.

    The reliance on large scale migration must stop and countries of origin will need to adopt similar measures to reduce their own burgeoning numbers and thus provide better life prospects for their citizens.

    I don’t honestly think that mandatory administration of contraceptive implants will work, mainly because of adverse side effects and the authoritarian implications of such programmes.

  6. As an endangered species biologist who graduated from undergraduate studies in 1971, a year after the first Earth Day in which it was declared that ‘no matter what your cause its a lost cause unless we stabilize the human population’ . And then in disbelief, I observed our business and political leaders sabotage the decision of my generation to have a replacement, average 2 child family size, via their undemocratically increasing immigration 500-1000% (so our business owner nobility could have more customer “bodies” and workers to increase their profits and power) … it is indeed heartening to see serious discussion of actual physical means to stabilize unsustainable human populations by the 2 authors and Ayaka Paul.
    However, I believe another crucial factor needs to be discussed and changed – the alleged unrestricted ‘right to found a family’ or reproduce that the world’s political and business elites insured was inserted into the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Unfortunately what this did was to disconnect the ability of prospective parents and the local or global environment to adequately support the children that parents produce. Instead, what we have now is many producing children without first getting an education and working to find an adequate income, and then whether they are cognizant of it or not, they then essentially use the children as hostages to extract resources from the rest of their society. Resources that often end up not being available or of low quality, and then children are gravely injured due to this predictable scarcity and poor parenting of parents who are not sufficiently mature or responsible to raise them into healthy adults.
    Philosopher Onora O’Neil has courageously exposed this unsustainable rights claim by stating that ‘the right to reproduce comes with a RESPONSIBILITY for the parents to have a PLAN to raise the children to an adequate level …’ Accordingly I think we need to seriously consider that an effort to create a global ethic of responsible reproduction could largely eliminate the problem of the rights infringing mandating of birth control implants that the authors expressed much concern about. For in a slightly different world where prospective parents are socialized to prepare themselves psychologically and economically to be good parents before they actually have children is a world in which persons of reproductive age would voluntarily seek out semi permanent birth control in order to insure that they had children when they by choice were prepared to raise them.
    Another extremely unjust and unsustainable dimension of the current no-responsibility right to reproduce status quo is that it constitutes a massive subsidy to business owner elites and authoritarian political classes who benefit from ever more “bodies” via perpetual population growth manipulations like this one. While they can simultaneously largely pass the massive social costs and environmental degradation caused by unplanned and irresponsible reproduction off on to the majority of not rich tax paying citizens in their respective countries.

    1. Very well said, and I’ve been pointing out for many years now that the overweening promotion of rights over responsibilities has led us to this sorry state of affairs.

      Human responsibilities should now be promoted, urgently, as a guide to the maturity which our essentially infantile,must -have -it -all,culture, needs to address.

      Human rights has gone unchallenged for far too long.

      Further to my earlier comment I also suggest that the rights-driven, consumerist approach to fertility treatment and surrogacy should be reviewed and challenged. Again, a hard sell, but part of any future solution.

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