Whose freedom of choice?

By Jan van Weeren

Last month, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) presented its report The Power of Choice, declaring that every woman should have the right to decide freely and responsibly whether, when and how often to have children. This right complies with article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stating that men and women have the right to found a family.

However, according to article 29 there can be limitations in the exercise of personal rights if they are in conflict with the rights and freedom of others and the general welfare. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family (UDHR, article 25). So, if the right of a woman to procreate is likely to infringe the right of others to an adequate standard of living, then this right should be subject to limitations. This could be the case if the carrying capacity of a region is unable to sustain its population or if there are not enough means of existence to ensure an adequate standard of living for all.

The possibility of limitations is underlined by the insertion of the adverb ‘responsibly’ in the mentioned right ‘to decide freely and responsibly’, first of all in statement 16 of the Proclamation of Teheran, Final Act of the International Conference on Human Rights, 1968. Note that in this Proclamation there is mention of the parents’ right instead of the woman’s right, as in The Power of Choice. We will come to that later.

The power of choice

The addition of the word ‘responsibly’ implies that procreation is not an unlimited right. If an adequate standard of living of others comes under pressure, then the freedom of choice concerning the number of one’s children could be restricted. This is clearly the case if a couple is unable to feed its offspring and if there are no additional provisions available. It is also the case if the natural resources of a region are bound to be depleted by a growing population and severe food or water shortages are imminent. The UDHR does not explicitly mention future generations, but the justified question can be raised whether the rights and freedom of others and the general welfare as mentioned in article 29 of the UDHR do not pertain to people yet to come.

The right to determine freely the number of one’s children is not only questionable in poor countries with arid land and a lack of natural resources. It is especially questionable in rich countries that exploit natural resources far beyond their own boundaries. High consumption levels in these countries are based on imports from abroad. Globalisation of trade is basically liable for deforestation, monocultures, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity, expropriation, child labour and greenhouse gas emissions. The excessive exploitation of other countries’ resources is responsible for a growing ecological overshoot which seriously threatens the rights and freedom of others and the general welfare of present and next generations.

As a rule, rich countries have lower fertility levels. Women in these countries often report that they do not have as many children as they would like, according to The Power of Choice. Childbearing is delayed because of the costs of raising a child, a long period of study, later marriage, lack of housing and the building of a career. Accordingly, the period of fertility is shortened and the chance of becoming pregnant diminishes.

However, should the governments of rich low fertility countries try to boost births by providing paid parental leave, tax breaks, child allowances, cheap child care or other bonuses if these countries are already in a terrible ecological overshoot? By doing so they adhere to the paradigm of endless economic growth, thus exacerbating the problem of overconsumption and pollution.

There is a second problem with the woman’s right to decide the number of her children, as granted to her in The Power of Choice. Typically, if you are granted a right, it must have been granted by somebody else. By proclaiming the UDHR a number of country representatives gathered in the United Nations General Assembly have granted a series of rights to humanity. It is the responsibility of the associated national governments that these rights are protected. As we have seen, one of them is the right of men and women to found a family (article 16). This would imply that having children is a common right of both. This common right is also included in the Proclamation of Teheran, where it is the parents’ basic right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children. To put it bluntly, it takes two to tango. In essence, man and woman are obliged to negotiate about their family planning. According to the UDHR, the decision on having children is not an exclusive right of a married woman. In cultures where manhood requires a numerous offspring some pressure could be laid on a woman to have more children than she actually wants. Demographic and health surveys in 52 developing countries between 2005 and 2014 processed by the Guttmacher Institute show that about a quarter of the married women wanting to avoid a pregnancy report resistance against the use of contraceptives in their inner circle.

To conclude: the right of a woman to determine freely whether, when and how often to have children can be overruled by the right of others to an adequate standard of living. This is clearly the case in a situation of overpopulation, when natural resources are either insufficient or are exploited at the cost of others, humans or non-humans, and nature.

Secondly, as family planning is a right of both parents, man and wife should be addressed together, if the exercising of this right comes in conflict with the rights and freedom of others and the general welfare. As a consequence, it is not the woman that has to convince her husband, nor is it her sole responsibility to determine whether the rights and freedom of others as well as the general welfare are threatened by procreation. ‘The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society’ (UDHR, article 16), and both heads of the family are equally responsible for its planning and the taking of appropriate contraceptive measures.

The author, Jan van Weeren is the secretary of The Ten Million Club Foundation, The Netherlands

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7 thoughts on “Whose freedom of choice?

  1. What does “responsibly” mean? At first read, it seems in conflict with the word “freely”. Does it apply to a responsibility to all mankind or to the planet? Or perhaps a man’s responsibility to his wife? Or perhaps a couple’s responsibility to their children? I will get back to this question after some background:

    The sources you cite are echos of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo Egypt in 1994. At that time, the world TFR (fertility rate) was 3. Today it is 2.4. If we can lower the fertility rate by just a half a child, we can make a big difference in total projected population.

    The ICPD Programme of Action, which was adopted by 179 governments in 1994, and the Key Actions for its further implementation, which were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in July 1999. The Cairo Conference, held from 5 to 13 September 1994, was the largest intergovernmental conference on population and development ever held. A total of 11,000 participants — from governments, the United Nations, intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations and the media — contributed their expertise to make the Conference a critical success.


    “All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so.” http://www.un.org/popin/icpd/conference/offeng/poa.html

    This was the original statement of this mandate, slightly different from the sources you cited.

    Who has the right? “Men and women” or “couples and individuals” or simply “women”? There is difference.

    From PRB (public radio):

    A turning point in international discussions on population was the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo. Whereas earlier world conferences on population had focused on controlling population growth in developing countries, mainly through family planning, the Cairo conference enlarged the scope of policy discussions.

    Governments now agreed that population policies should address social development beyond family planning, especially the advancement of women, and that family planning should be provided as part of a broader package of reproductive health care. Underlying this new emphasis was a belief that enhancing individual health and rights would ultimately lower fertility and slow population growth.

    The Cairo conference was also far larger and more inclusive than earlier world population conferences. It brought together 11,000 representatives from governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, and citizen activists. The diversity of views contributed to the unprecedented international consensus achieved in 1994.

    A central feature of the Cairo Plan of Action (PoA) is the recommendation to provide comprehensive reproductive health care, which includes family planning; safe pregnancy and delivery services; abortion where legal; prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections (including HIV/AIDS); information and counseling on sexuality; and elimination of harmful practices against women (such as genital cutting and forced marriage).

    The PoA also says that reproductive health care should enhance individual rights, including the “right to decide freely and responsibly” the number and spacing of one’s children, and the right to a “satisfying and safe sex life.”

    Under the Cairo guidelines, the donor/ developing country breakdown would have translated to $5.7 billion and $11.3 billion, respectively, in 2000. In fact, the UN estimates that donor funding levels in 2000 were less than half the required amount.


    Why is it always just about family planning? Often missing from the equation put forth by those who are population-concerned, is women and girl’s empowerment, education, and especially girls education. And so very often, another contributor to slowing population growth is not mentioned: funding. Without women and girl’s empowerment, education, and especially girls education, and without funding, progress is ever so-much slower.

    Suggested: look up Drawdown.org solutions to climate change.

    Here is more on the ICPD PoA: from the U.N. Population Division:

    Marriage must be entered into with the free consent of the intending spouses, and husband and wife should be equal partners.

    Everyone has the right to education, which shall be directed to the full development of human resources, and human dignity and potential, with particular attention to women and the girl child.

    All States and families should give the highest possible priority to children. The child has the right to standards of living adequate for its well-being and the right to the highest attainable standards of health, and the right to education. The child has the right to be cared for, guided and supported by parents, families and society and to be protected by appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sale, trafficking, sexual abuse, and trafficking in its organs.

    The empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of their political, social, economic and health status is a highly important end in itself.

    Improving the status of women also enhances their decision-making capacity at all levels in all spheres of life, especially in the area of sexuality and of life, including family and community life, and to encourage and enable men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive behaviour and their social and family roles.


    I support the development and sustainability of a Maasai community of 1,300 people in Tanzania. When I started, women didn’t have access to family planning, and even then, men would beat their wives if they used a method. There were very few kids in school and child marriage was high (With no reduction in child marriage, high fertility rates alone will raise the global number of women married as children to 1.2 billion by 2050. https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/where-does-it-happen/). Women were begging for food in times of drought.

    Now, $20K later, the community has 100 children in preschool, 85 children in Class 1 and 2 primary school (walking 8 miles a day); the percentage of girls going to school has more than doubled; the percentage of girls married has almost halved (a woman in school 12 years will have four to five fewer children than a woman with little or no schooling); a health clinic has been provisoned with family planning methods and reproductive health care; family planning has doubled; some women are doing bee-keeping, groups of women are earning enough money to feed their family and pay back their loan (which goes back to the next group), and a young woman I sponsored in medical college is now teaching health classes, gender equity, family planning, early marriage/pregnancy, ending FGM/C, and sex education. We are still working on men beating their wives, but most women now have a way to do it behind their husband’s back. (Unfortunately, not the younger child brides)

  2. Too little writing addresses the “responsibility” part of human procreation, so it is good to see this article. Responsibility is often lacking in reproductive decision making. Reproductive decisions are usually based on personal reasons and do not consider social consequences, or perhaps more importantly biological consequences. The author mentions the impact of reproductive decisions on the standard of living of other humans but is silent on the deleterious impact of human numbers on other species, whose are threatened with extinction, loss of habitat, sharply diminished population numbers and much else.

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