The act of having children is interpersonal rather than personal, however, it has long been treated as a personal and isolated decision. This dysfunctional parent-focused model is at the heart of our ecological crises and was created by governments to ensure population growth and evade collective responsibility to invest in kids and our ecological communities. The right to have children must be balanced with the obligations towards these children, as well as to the rest of the living world – both current and future – through a humane family-planning model.
Humane Education is a field of study and an approach to teaching that draws connections between human rights, animal protection, and environmental sustainability. The goal of humane education is to prepare people to be compassionate, dedicated problem-solvers, able to identify unjust, inhumane, and unsustainable systems and create solutions that enable people, animals, and nature to thrive. From this framework, our unjust and unsustainable family planning policies and the resulting population pressures have enormous impacts on human rights, animal protection, and environmental preservation. In this blog, we explore how our underlying worldview of anthropocentrism drives planet-destroying, growth-addicted policies and unsustainable cultural traits such as pronatalism and consumerism. We show why the attainment of existential justice and freedom requires us to consider just and equitable procreation as our first obligation, through a humane family-planning model.
Human-supremacy or anthropocentrism is a widely shared, unconscious worldview that humans alone possess intrinsic value and that the more-than-human world – nature and non humans – hold value only in their ability to serve humans. Such a worldview tells us we are superior to the rest of nature and thus entitled to have absolute power of life and death over nonhumans, both domestic and wild, as well as to have aggressive control over all natural and geographical space. This growth-induced domination is not limited to the non-human world. The fact that billions live in poverty while millions have enormous wealth is perhaps the greatest social inequity on the planet. Global consumerism, fueled by inequitable capitalism has emerged as the organizing system that most quickly converts resources into consumer products – along with enormous amounts of waste and pollution. It rewards the minority on the planet who have ‘capital’ i.e., resources and money. The fundamental fallacy infecting unabated consumerism is that unlimited growth both of population and the economy is possible on a finite planet. This unsustainable and unjust system of growth violates multiple human and non-human rights like the Children’s Rights Convention, environmental rights, the right to equal opportunities in life, the right to an influential role in one’s democracy, the right to wilderness, the rights of nature, etc. while foisting its costs – including the loss of freedom – on future generations as well as the more-than-human world.
Unabated growth creates short-term benefits for a variety of systems: businesses and corporations benefit through the need for more workers and consumers; politicians gain more taxpayers, religious leaders, more members, and military leaders, bigger armies. The pursuit of these growth-dependent goals, that have spanned across centuries, relies on a continual increase in the number of people, with the unfortunate end goal of treating people as numbers rather than self-determining individuals. These pressures take the form of pronatalism, a set of socio-cultural, ethno-political, religious, and patriarchal pressures that encourage, incentivize, or coerce reproduction.
Current social norms promote motherhood as a necessary part of a normal adult role for any person who identifies as female. Pronatalism operates from a place of power and fear rather than a genuine care for people and their potential children. Pronatalist pressures, overt and subtle, are often driven by political, religious, and nationalistic agendas. They show up in the form of myths and superstitions that promote or glorify reproduction, fatalistic beliefs that deflect the act of procreation from being a choice to being a religious duty or fate, and are even institutionalized through incentivizing births or actively preventing access to family planning education, contraception and abortion services. In fact, social pressures for childbearing remain far stronger than social pressures to control births. This is why challenges to population stabilization and reduction attempts which point to population control abuses of the past must be put into perspective. Pronatalism is a more prevalent, more pervasive, and an equally egregious form of population and reproductive control and is at the heart of our unchecked population growth.
An understanding of the pervasive nature of pronatalism should put to rest the notion that procreation is a purely autonomous act. However, there is a second argument why procreation is hardly a personal or isolated decision or right. Anything we might do under the banner of a right – to speak freely, to terminate a pregnancy, to defend our property – those things are preceded by the act of procreation that created us. That act, and whatever right protects it, always comes first. We are before we do. In other words, whatever norm accounts for our creation precedes anything we do, and the subsequent norms that account for those things. And when we start to define the right to procreate – to have children – we immediately see that it’s more interpersonal than personal: it has a profound impact on both the child who is born and the world into which that child is born. One cannot create a child without determining their relative position to some other child, their ecology, their welfare, and the political structure in which they will be living.
However, the current isolation model of family planning is one in which potential parents are seen as individual entities apart from their prospective children and the communities in which they live. The rights of prospective children are not recognized, and the voices of communities are not heard. This current normative model of family planning is unsustainable, antisocial, and based largely on subjective parental choice, which is often influenced by strong pronatalist forces. It does not adopt a holistic and objective focus that includes the rights of prospective children and their communities – human and ecological – who have just as much, if not more, at stake in family planning. It ignores the thoughtful, carefully constructed, and limited right to found a family ensured by Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and instead creates an ad-hoc and arbitrary model that ensures would-be parents the unfettered subjective right to choose the timing, number and spacing of their children. The direct result of this model is our unsustainable population growth, a documented threat multiplier, which contributes to catastrophic climate change, unprecedented flooding, pandemics, ecosystem destruction, groundwater depletion, mass extinctions, and environmental degradation. Worsening inequality, in large part driven by our growing population, is also a grave threat to democracy and political stability across the globe.
Interpreted correctly, Article 16 should have been exercised in a way that protected all generations, those in the middle of the 20th Century and those in 2050 equally. It should have also been interpreted consistent with other human rights obligations, like the Children’s Rights Convention, FP2030, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals. Because of the conditions that we are creating today, 40% of young people have expressed concerns about exercising their right to found a family. In other words, the UN failed to administer Article 16 correctly. In fact, it succumbed to member state pressures to maintain large and unsustainable families and population growth rates in the 20th century – epitomized in the UN’s Cairo Consensus – that created a high arc of population growth.
The UN’s Cairo Consensus also failed to account for the insidious nature of growth-induced pronatalism which deems reproduction as a necessary, natural, and normal part of a woman’s identity, thus making motherhood and the right to unlimited reproduction central pillars of women’s reproductive autonomy as well as the sexual and reproductive health and rights advocacy. These norms failed to consider that to guarantee rights for all – which include prospective children, as well as current and future human and non-human entities – reproductive rights must be balanced with reproductive obligations. Instead, these norms came at the expense of externalizing all costs and ignoring child welfare, reproductive and social justice, ecological sustainability, and democratic barriers. They ensured a bubble of wealth in the hands of a few, instead of distributed more broadly into future generations. The misreading of Article 16 enabled pro-growth economic and pronatalist pressures to directly undermine the UN’s clear commitment to the rights of children, sustainable development, and intergenerational justice.
Interpreted correctly, Article 16 would have started with rights like the Fair Start approach where decisions around founding families, rooted in liberated, informed and child-centric thought, consider every child’s right to a fair start both ecologically and socially.
With this framework of considering present and future people / populations which are dynamic (constantly being born or dying,) we can exchange the noun “population” for the verb “constituting”. Because humans do not live in a value-neutral way, constituting also reflects our desire to self-determine relative to other people or “populations.” But unlike the concept of population, which may be focused on quantity, the verb constituting captures the actual complexity of the matter – the quantity, quality, and relative positioning to each other and our ecologies.
If we are to take government “by the people” seriously, we have to be constantly and physically “constituting” (def: limiting and decentralizing power) a group of people capable of a functional plenary constitutional convention before we can even come up with content for a constitution. In other words, we have to know we are constituting – a verb – before we can ever think of a static list of rules, like a constitution. And in that process, we would have to start with nature or point zero, the relative absence of human power, and start reducing self-determination each time we add another person, ensuring life conditions that enable everyone to be empowered politically. That is how we define relative self-determination. Instead of counting people, we start making them count.
This dynamic process unifies values like justice, relative autonomy, nature, freedom, equality, etc. at the most fundamental structure of human power. It’s also a pathway to determining optimal populations, qualitatively, using very specific – and current – legal standards to determine those values. We simply cannot create a person without simultaneously impacting all of these values, which are qualitative in nature. By seeing freedom as akin to the dynamic emancipation of children, we eliminate false generations of rights that divide values like development and welfare from liberty. We find that truly becoming a citizen requires – at a minimum – regarding other people, more-than-humans, nature and natural spaces, and future generations, in order to constitute future democracies.
One test for whether we are living in a true democracy is whether we could assemble the people into a constitutional convention and organize ourselves in that process to make the fundamental rules under which we live. That is a condition of democracy because the power of government derives from the people. Imagine doing that in the United States today. It’s almost a ridiculous idea. It might not be ridiculous for smaller countries, like Costa Rica. And that’s not just because of the number of people, but also because of lack of trust, common cores, education, etc.
How did having family planning policies that promote growth — essentially creating people for shopping malls, rather than town halls – get us to where we are today? They were the direct cause. Instead of ensuring democracy – where the idea of assembling a constitutional convention is feasible – our policies, born of pronatalist narratives like the “baby bust,” have encouraged making people for economies. Our very democracy has been undermined. Real democracies require fewer and more highly developed citizens, not simply more consumers. We can have freedom, or we can have the free money of population-induced economic growth – but we can’t have both.
We need policies of empowerment and equity, relatively free of pronatalist pressure, ensuring a high degree of reproductive autonomy. Policies that 1) fulfill minimum levels of welfare approaching birth equity for all future children, 2) ensure each child a meaningful voice in their future democracies and stewardship of the planet. This is not about people as numbers, or population. It’s about making people matter, politically, and freeing them from the power of others or from environmental limitations – from disparate inherited wealth to ecological impacts. It is allowing them to become relatively self-determining. Again, this is not about population or consumption, it’s about becoming existentially just, and abandoning the fallacious reasoning that life is not fair because our creation is not fair – and cannot be. This shift – which means humans will matter politically – will eliminate the misconception of procreative autonomy in favor of procreative justice.
This can be achieved through a humane family-planning model, one that is rooted in an understanding of ecological and planetary boundaries and a regard for marginalized human and ecological communities. Such a model would ensure that the right to have children is balanced with an obligation toward children – both present and future, while also respecting parenthood and non-parenthood as equally valid choices, free from harmful pronatalism. A practical application of this could mean enacting universal policies that promote delayed parenthood, parental readiness, smaller families, and equitable family planning incentives/entitlements, accomplished through collective and child-centric family planning. An example of such a discourse can be found here. Taking this model seriously means starting at the beginning and limiting the power and influence our species exerts in the universe, so that we can become liberated and self-determining stewards of a rich and biodiverse planet.