The battle over birth: should we stop having children?

Sunday 3 November, 10:0011:30, Frobisher Auditorium 1Science and society

Concerns about rising population have been around for over two centuries. But a growing area of debate centres on what view prospective parents might or should take about the idea of bringing children into the world.

During a live video on social media, US Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued that there was ‘scientific consensus’ about the state of the environment that would lead a younger generation to ask: ‘Is it okay to still have children?’ But it was a musician, Blythe Pepino, who made the headlines in the UK earlier this year by setting up the BirthStrike movement, inspired and alarmed by a lecture given by activists from Extinction Rebellion, a climate-change direct action group. Pepino and her fellow strikers describe their protest as ‘a decision not to bear children due to the severity of the ecological crisis’.

Birthstrikers make clear their disagreements with arguments that centre on the need for population control. They say they want ‘system change’, disagree ‘with any enforced population control measures’ and recognise the ‘ethical issues’ raised by reproductive choice. Others who also argue and campaign for abortion and contraception on the basis of the need for reproductive choice, however, consider population growth to be at the centre of environmentalism. Sir David Attenborough argues that population growth ‘has got to come to an end’. Attenborough is a patron of Population Matters, an organisation which champions women’s rights to access contraception and abortion and argues that smaller families are the central means to deal with climate change. A board member of Population Matters told the Guardian that having kids ‘from a biological point of view, is probably one of the most selfish things you can do… stealing resources from others in order to perpetuate your genes’. A report from researchers at Lund University in Sweden in 2017 claimed that having one fewer child could save ‘an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year’, far more than living car-free, avoiding flying or eating a plant-based diet.

Population is increasing, as Population Matters notes, since the Second World War: ‘We have been adding a billion people to the global population every 12 to 15 years.’ But critics of those who raise alarm about this fact point out that living standards across the world have increased despite – or even because of – rising population numbers. Others are against any argument that links reproduction to solving social problems – whether through pronatalism or antinatalism. They point to China’s notorious one-child policy, which has been widely criticised as barbaric and authoritarian. And while birth-strikers are adamant supporters of women’s reproductive rights, clampdowns on abortion rights from Alabama to Belfast show that women’s bodily autonomy is still heavily policed.

Is population growth something we should worry about? If so, do individuals have a moral obligation to respond to climate change and biodiversity through decisions about childbearing? Should we be focusing on how to teach a younger generation how to invent and innovate solutions to climate change, rather than avoiding it through impoverishing their own lives? Should the personal be politicised and reproductive choice linked to problems of environment and society? Or do we need to see danger in any argument which takes choice out of the domain of the moral autonomy of the individual?