Saturday, May 8, 2010

Overpopulation, Eugenics, and Reproductive Rights

It is widely assumed that people have a right of reproduction.  This right is often believed to include the right to have as many children as one wishes.  It is typically construed as a matter of personal choice, including the right to use birth control, for both sexes, as well as the woman’s right to choose to abort a fetus.  As such, it is juxtaposed most sharply against the official Roman Catholic Church viewpoint, in which one is obliged to have children, insofar as interference with conception is considered sinful.

Having Children, on the Individual Level

The assumed right to have children is commonly extended to a right to decide what sorts of children one will have.  This assumed right of perceived reproductive quality is commonly considered to include such measures as choosing high-quality sperm donorschoosing the sex of one’s child, using fertility treatments and other assisted reproductive technologies, and deselecting fetuses with congenital disabilities.  These sorts of “designer eugenic” measures, taken without coercion or financial incentives, have also been called “backdoor eugenics” and “laissez-faire eugenics” (Rothstein, Cai, & Marchant, 2009, p. 59).  The assumed right of perceived reproductive quality has been extended controversially, as in the McCullough-Duchesneau decision to deliberately create a child with a disability that the parents do not consider a disability.  Through genetic engineering, the assumed right of perceived reproductive quality is poised to give parents vastly greater and more precise control over the characteristics of their children. In one form or another, voluntary eugenic measures seem to be broadly embraced as means of giving future generations genes that will make their lives better and/or preventing them from getting genes that will make their lives worse (Rothstein et al., p. 61).

Like most rights, the assumed right to have children is at least sometimes construed as entailing certain responsibilities.  For instance, the case of Nadya Suleman, more notoriously known as “Octomom” because of her decision to seek and give birth to octuplets, has generated criticism arising from the medical risks and cost of their delivery and her financial inability to raise them without government aid.  The case has also led to condemnation of the doctor by California’s state medical board on several grounds, including “allegedly failing to refer Ms. Suleman for a mental health evaluation” (El-Rahman, 2010).

Dillard (2009, p. 373) poses the matter in terms of “the procreative rights of criminally unfit parents.”  Criminal unfitness, in Dillard’s analysis, means bringing children into this world in “situations where the law forbids them to be,” as where a court orders a crack cocaine addict not to become pregnant.  Short of criminality, Dillard (p. 380) suggests that a prospective parent must meet a test of fitness, understood as “the minimum (that is, the necessary, but not sufficient) moral and legal competency required for parents to maintain custody of their child.”  This test, he says, is “most likely the legal standard required for a state to terminate parental rights.”  Hence, “We can view a temporary no-procreation order as equivalent to a court temporarily depriving unfit prospective parents of the custody of their prospective children.”  For instance, such an order could be appropriate, Dillard says, when the parent has been repeatedly found unfit for previously born children and shows no sign of having changed (pp. 381-382).  Lawmakers have also become involved in preventing harm to future children in cases involving incest, unsafe pharmaceuticals and medical devices, surrogacy contracts, trusts (as where e.g., a guardian ad litem is appointed to represent the interests of the unborn), prisoner procreation, statutory rape, parental abuse, and failure to pay child support (pp. 390-396).

References to parental fitness, like references to (especially negative) eugenics, can be disturbing to those who have studied, observed, or experienced third parties’ abuses of the power to control choices related to reproduction.  This power has been exercised in such areas as racial purity laws in the United States and in Nazi Germany (Scales-Trent, 2001), forced sterilization of undesirables in the United States (Rothstein et al., 2009, p. 59), restrictions on adoption by gay or lesbian couples, and restrictions on marriage of people with mental disabilities (Matloff, 2009).  As Dillard's (2009) examples suggest, however, the fact that such restrictions can be taken to extremes does not justify elimination of all restrictions on the assumed right to have children.

Having Children, on the Global Level

The foregoing remarks have addressed the situations of individuals who may be unfit parents, or who are procreating beyond their ability to provide.  There is, however, an entirely different concern that also has potential impact on the assumed right of reproduction.  This concern has to do with population growth; it is oriented, not toward individual procreators, but rather toward humanity as a whole.  As such, it sidesteps questions of whether gay people, people with disabilities, or other special targets of attention should be governed by special rules in their decisions to procreate, adopt, and so forth.  It asks, instead, how continued population growth might impose upon everyone’s decisions.

Along those lines, in a different article, Dillard (2007, pp. 44-45) contends that, in the U.S. and elsewhere, the law does not provide a limitless right to have as many children as one might wish, but rather, “Properly stated, the right [of reproduction] authorizes individuals to engage in a range of behavior between a guaranteed act of procreation or replacement, and procreation for optimized replacement, and nothing more,” where “optimized replacement” means the possibility of adjusting the rate of procreation upwards or downwards to achieve an optimal population level, rather than rigidly maintaining population at its current level regardless of whether that level is optimal.  Citing Roe v. Wade, Dillard (pp. 50-51) suggests that “Not procreating is personal,” in the sense that abortion is ultimately up to the mother, but “procreating is interpersonal” because it involves not only the mother but also the interests “of the children that will be born, those of other persons in society whose lives those children will influence, and more impersonal or collective interests.”  Privacy, he says, is “the opposite and absence of others’ rights”:  “As more persons are added, their spheres of privacy contract” (p. 56).  Population expansion requires ever-expanding rules to protect ever-increasing numbers of people from one another.  It reduces the choices that will be available to people in the future; it restricts the rights of others to natural resources (pp. 58-60).

A series of books in the 1960s and 1970s drew enormous attention to the problem of environmental degradation.  Aligica (2009, p. 74) identifies those as including Rachel Carlson’s Silent Spring (1962), Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb (1968), The Limits to Growth (1972) by Meadows, Meadows, Randers, and Behrens, and Global 2000 Report to the President (1980) by the Council on Environmental Quality and the U.S. Department of State.  Opposing this, Kahn and Simon’s Resourceful Earth (1984) offered a point-by-point rebuttal.  Aligica poses the contrast between Global 2000 (p. 1) and The Resourceful Earth (p. 2) in these excerpts:

If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now. Serious stresses involving population, resources, and environment are clearly visible ahead. Despite greater material output, the world’s people will be poorer in many ways than they are today. For hundreds of millions of the desperately poor, the outlook for food and other necessities of life will be no better. For many it will be worse. Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now – unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends.
If present trends continue, the world in 2000 will be less crowded (though more populated), less polluted, more stable ecologically, and less vulnerable to resource-supply disruption than the world we live in now. Stresses involving population, resources, and environment will be less in the future than now… The world’s people will be richer in most ways than they are today… The outlook for food and other necessities of life will be better … life for most people on earth will be less precarious economically than it is now.
Whatever doubts may have existed in 2000, it now increasingly appears that what Aligica calls the Neo-Malthusians had it right.  Malthus (1798) observed that food supplies rise arithmetically at best, while population rises geometrically -- that, in other words, population would always expand to keep ahead of food supplies.  The postwar Green Revolution -- achieving critical momentum in the 1950s and 1960s -- now seems only to have postponed the point at which population, now growing very rapidly, would outstrip food supplies (Turner, 2009; United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, 2009).  (Howe and Devereux (2004) have developed a six-step scale, from food security to extreme famine, to characterize food scarcity problems in specific locations.)

The problems posed by overpopulation are numerous and huge.  The oceans are increasingly devastated, to the point of no longer being able to recover.  Developing nations are experiencing millions of deaths each year due to pollution and contamination of food and water (Pimentel et al., 2007).  The planet is heating up and may become uninhabitably hot.  Kates (2005) identifies “a Malthusian catastrophe already unfolding in poor countries,” potentially occurring in developed countries as well, and “a serious risk of wholesale environmental collapse” as problems requiring urgent attention.

In general, Brander (2007), a business professor, feels that the Neo-Malthusian 100-year projection in Limits to Growth have not been very accurate so far, but nonetheless acknowledges serious concerns about overpopulation and environmental degradation – concerns, he said, that have been downplayed in recent years because of intellectuals' faith in technological progress.  Brander judges that, at present, it could go either way:  humanity in the 21st century can rise to the challenge, or it can overpopulate itself to oblivion.  Either way, though, he concludes that Malthus did correctly identify the basic problem.

Population problems are going to be especially pressing in developing nations.  Goldstone (2010) identifies several problematic prospects for those nations.  Notably, they will account for the large bulk of the population increase; the growth in population will be especially concentrated in relatively unstable (poor, young, and heavily Muslim) countries; and most of the world’s population will become urbanized.

This should not be taken to imply that the U.S. is safe from population-related concerns.  Many saw the projected population of 300 million, which is now the reality, as cause for deep concern back in the 1960s, when the population was around 200 million (e.g., Hoff, 2010, pp. 30, 39-40).  Projections generally seem to expect the U.S. population to grow at least until 2050, reaching the range of 400-450 million (e.g., Orgman & Guarneri, 2009).  Kolankiewicz (2010) contends that the U.S. has far exceeded its ecological carrying capacity.  Similarly, Kates (2005) lists a number of concerns (including deforestation, mass extinction, and water shortage) as grounds for endorsing a global population reduction to 2 billion and an American reduction to 200 million, with each nation “making its own trade-off between consumption and population size” (p. 267).  Powledge (2010, p. 265) states that food insecurity will be a global concern for the next 50 years and beyond.  This prospect appears likely to be especially problematic for lower-income households, given the expectation of substantial food price increases in coming decades (Hubert et al., 2010, p. S-2; see Ivanic & Martin, 2010).

Aside from the question of how people will be able to afford their food, there is also considerable evidence that, with some exceptions in certain subpopulations (e.g., young adults) and certain places (e.g., Manhattan), Americans generally prefer to live in circumstances of relatively low population density.  Numerous studies corroborate this.  For example, while Williams (2009, p. S84) notes that people view population density as both positive and negative, depending upon a variety of cultural and personal preferences for neighbors and social interactions, perceptions of safety, health supports, and other considerations (see also Hur, Nasar, & Chun, 2010, p. 57), he also observes (p. S90) that most people in the UK prefer, or aspire to, lower-density living.  Hur et al. (pp. 53, 57) found, similarly, a preference for openness (i.e., “vistas with open views and the lack of spatial enclosure”) in a study of homeowners in Franklin County, Ohio.  Helliwell and Barrington-Leigh (2010, p. 11) likewise found a strong positive link between subjective well-being and low population density in British Columbia and in the Atlantic provinces of Canada.  Across the U.S. as a whole, McGranahan (2008, p. 237) found, in a study of migration patterns and topographical features, that
[E]lements of preferred landscapes described by Ulrich (1986) – a mix of open land and forest, water, and topographic variation – have a strong bearing on recent migration in the rural areas of the U.S.  Migration is an important behavioral indicator of substantial preferences – people “vote with their feet” (Tiebout, 1956), often at considerable economic cost and at the expense of social ties.
Berry and Okulicz-Kozaryn (2009) find life dissatisfaction higher in big cities in Anglo-Saxon countries but lower in big cities in Asia.  Even so, among several large Asian cities, Lai (2009, p. 731) finds that Hong Kong, with its high population density, crime, and other urban difficulties, yields high levels of worry, stress, and depression for its older population.


Surely there should be places like San Francisco.  Surely people should be encouraged to enjoy them and make the most of them.  But on the whole, as the famous poem says, good fences make good neighbors.  Overall, steadily increasing population is not conducive to lifestyles that are more enjoyable or affordable.  There is substantial evidence that the people of the world (including the United States) have seriously exceeded the human capacity to use the Earth in a sustainable way – that is, without exhausting the availability of clean air and water, and with enough capacity to survive drought and hard times safely.  Having children in the present increases the likelihood that people in the future, potentially including one's own descendants, will experience lives that are short and/or nasty by today's standards.

Under such circumstances, it is neither moral nor reasonable to continue (intentionally or negligently) to add to the human population.  The point at which it will once again be moral and reasonable to do so depends upon how soon and how effectively humanity can get its numbers and its demands back in balance with its resources.  The question of choosing the characteristics of one's child is moot.  The assumption that everyone has a right to reproduce him/herself will be morally and logically untenable for at least the next ten years, and possibly for the next half-century or longer.  What's done is done, as far as the past is concerned; but future decisions need to be made with much greater awareness of people other than oneself.

This is very good news for a number of constituencies, including particularly the children who have been treated like cattle, to be herded into schools that will process them, but who cannot safely wander alone in their own neighborhoods for fear they will be lost to vicious predators.  When the ratio of adults to children increases, and especially if the number of unemployed adults increases, neighborhoods may once again become places where there is always someone around to keep an eye out, to make sure the kids are OK.  It is also good news for the cattle themselves, who at some point may be returned from industrial farms to actual pastures of their own.  And it is good news for people with disabilities, old people, and others who need viable neighborhoods in order to survive and thrive.  When every middle-aged adult can excuse him/herself from civic involvement with the rationale that s/he has to worry about his/her own family first, there aren't many people left to care about the community as a whole.

Much can change for the better, if people can be weaned from the idea that they are not real men and women until they have reproduced themselves.  This is an idea that can become as antiquated as the notion that you aren't a real man until you have gone skydiving or pulled some crazy stunt, or that you aren't a real woman until you have joined the official job market and have dedicated yourself to a corporation somewhere.

There will always be a need for reproduction of the species; but it can be done differently, and it can be done better.  The time has arrived to learn more about that.