Foreign Policy Mag wonders “As Environmental Catastrophe Looms, Is it Ethical to Have Children?” Guess what the answer is.
They ask two ethics professors, one from Georgetown University and the other from Johns Hopkins. Don’t expect anything good. You must be so surprised. You thought that a professor from a Jesuit university would certainly have something at least a little Catholicy, right? No such luck. I think she does mention the term “heteronormative” in a sneering way.
Two philosophers, Travis Rieder of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins and Rebecca Kukla of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown, discuss the morality of having children in a world threatened by environmental degradation blah blah blah.
TR: But we could also ask whether that gives me some kind of moral obligation to have a certain size family. Should the global community think about adopting family planning policies that would help to drive down population growth?
Rebecca Kukla: I agree that the rate of population growth is making climate change significantly scarier, and so techniques for slowing it down, all else being equal, would be a good idea. But there are pervasive assumptions in our culture, both formal and informal, that good people, unselfish people, nice people with good values, want to have kids, want to build things that look roughly like traditional families, and our informal social structures are set up around that assumption. It’s almost a third rail of politics.
TR: In a recent paper with my colleagues Jake Earl and Colin Hickey, we explored the question: Should all of us come together and try to promote small families through intervention? Procreative rights policy is very scary because it involves the possibility of coercion, and we have a history rife with coercion and with violating people’s procreative autonomy when considering family planning policies. The one that people almost certainly bring up is China’s one-child policy, which was recently relaxed. It led to forced sterilization and forced abortion — all kinds of massive human rights violations.
But there are historical cases that we talk about less that are kind of the opposite. Iran was facing internal population pressures, joblessness, scarce resources, so the government decided that they needed to really slow population growth by lowering fertility. They adopted a suite of family planning policies that included opening rural health clinics that served something like 55,000 villages and promoting women’s education. All of the data say that this was a massively successful noncoercive family planning intervention.
Is there anything in the middle that might be a little more uncomfortable but that could be morally justified? And our answer was yes. One option is preference adjusting campaigns — using well-understood marketing techniques, in addition to persuasive techniques, could have a really significant impact on public opinion and choices. This could take the form of soap operas that show empowered women living longer by themselves before they get married and delaying childbearing, or enjoying life without children or enjoying life with small children even in a culture of large families. This technique has been successful in Mexico and adopted in India.
Another option is a little bit more dicey. Positive and negative incentives could be used to influence family planning choices, like paying people to take family planning courses. Among the globally wealthiest, negative incentives could include cutting out the child tax credit and having a tax imposed on a certain number of children for wealthy people. That is the most morally risky thing that we’re considering, and we would be very sensitive to empirical data that say it’s too risky and not worth trying.
RK: But there is an almost unquestioned assumption that it’s a woman’s job to manage reproduction, so if we want people to have smaller families, it’s a woman’s job to do less reproducing. Why shouldn’t we be empowering men to make better reproductive decisions? Pretty much every aspect of monitoring reproduction ends up falling on women’s bodies, and what that’s actually going to mean is putting pressure on women to have smaller families and disciplining and surveilling women in yet new ways if they don’t. So it’s hard for me to imagine policies that wouldn’t turn out to disproportionately burden women. The incredibly sad irony is that poor women are also the ones who have less sexual autonomy and less ability to actually fully control when they are and aren’t reproducing. They’re the ones who are going to be held responsible, and they’re also the ones who are least in a position to live up to these norms. Wealthy, white, normative, traditional-looking families are going to get more of a pass.
Scary stuff. They’re not necessarily against government coercion. The G’town professor just wants to make sure that men are paying the price too.
Lefties love the strong arm of the government coming down hard, as long as it’s not the arm of the ever eeeevil patriarchy or the heteronormative zeitgeist or something. These opinions, I assure you, are not outliers. They are quickly becoming mainstream. There must be pushback. Or else get ready for China redux.