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 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