As Environmental Catastrophe Looms, Is it Ethical to Have Children?

Two philosophers discuss the morality of family planning in the age of climate change.

A woman and baby wearing face masks walk in the Forbidden City during heavy pollution in Beijing on February 28, 2013. Beijing residents were urged to stay indoors as pollution levels soared before a sandstorm brought further misery to China's capital. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones        (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman and baby wearing face masks walk in the Forbidden City during heavy pollution in Beijing on February 28, 2013. Beijing residents were urged to stay indoors as pollution levels soared before a sandstorm brought further misery to China's capital. AFP PHOTO / Ed Jones (Photo credit should read Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images)

As the effects of climate change become more pronounced and overpopulation threatens the planet, individuals and policymakers are increasingly forced to consider the environmental implications of personal childbearing decisions. Here, 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 deciding to have children in a world threatened by environmental degradation and the fraught ethics of encouraging people to opt for smaller families.

Travis Rieder: It is morally uncomfortable to ask whether we should have smaller families — and for good reasons. But so far, we have focused almost entirely on per capita emissions: deeply decarbonize, change our infrastructure, until we’re not actually adding anything to the atmosphere.

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.

Travis Rieder and Rebecca Kukla (Courtesy of Travis Rieder and Rebecca Kukla)

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.

TR: I endorse all of Rebecca’s worries. We’re saying the culture owes women equal education as a matter of justice. One of the things that I wonder: Is there some reason to think that this will always make things worse rather than better? Because a lot of times, as cultures go through what is often called a demographic transition, it’s seen as a liberating force for women and a movement forward in terms of equality.

RK: In principle, this could have positive effects. I’m deeply worried because of the long, long, long history, despite all kinds of cultural changes, of reproductive control being used as a weapon against women. Now we’ve got a whole literature about how women are bad, irresponsible moms if they let themselves have disabled children. Which is also incredibly problematic from the point of view of ableism.

TR: My students’ personal deliberations about these questions of their own procreation is incredibly gendered. They consider a study that estimates having a child raises your lifetime carbon emissions by almost 10,000 metric tons, almost six times your non-procreative average lifetime if you’re an American. It gives them this sense that when you procreate, you’re standing on top of an iceberg of future emissions that just branches out. For me, when I think about that I am immediately just kind of slammed with this massive sense of moral responsibility
My male students might see this as an interesting exercise. But the women in the class are really overwhelmingly influenced by this sort of consideration. They may say, “Well, you know, I’m a young, ambitious, successful Georgetown or Hopkins college student. I’m already really worried about how to fit family planning into my future.” And this is a kind of license to take all sorts of reasons as real reasons. You don’t have to do this thing just because it’s what society tells you that you have to do. It’s not exactly randomized controlled data, but it tells a kind of interesting story.

RK: That’s really super-interesting. On the one hand, of course, it drives home the point that women are the ones who feel like they’re responsible for reproduction. But it’s important to distinguish between individual decision-making and policies.

I belong to a Facebook group for academic mothers of only children. There’s all sorts of hand-wringing about whether only children are more likely to be mentally ill, whether they’re being damaged, whether they’re likely to be antisocial. My own sense of the science is that there is no reason whatsoever to think that only children are disadvantaged. But having no children or even having small families are choices that are surrounded by all kinds of complicated pressures and half-knowledge and bits of ideology.

TR: It’s not my job to go around and tell people what to do procreatively. Instead, what I do is I carry people through a deliberative process that my family has gone through because they’re relatively like me — wealthy high emitters with control over reproductive decisions.

And we got to have a child — we did it. We understand that comes with a massive cost that the world’s worst-off will be the ones to bear. Would it be selfish, or troubling, or irresponsible, or problematic to do it again? And the answer that we came to — in our very contextualized and specific situation — was yes.

RK: The method that you just described is lovely. But — this is the real take-home punchline — the ethics of what it’s OK to tell somebody is really not the same as the ethics of how we should reason about our own situation. If you take somebody who’s under enormous, complicated pressures to have a child, then you say, “Hey, I heard this argument for why you shouldn’t; this is the right ethical conclusion,” you’re inserting yourself into their ethical reasoning in a way that can be problematic and stigmatize people.

TR: No one thinks it’s good that we’re having this conversation. The reason we’re in this problematic situation is that we’ve already made the wrong decisions. We should have mitigated the problem 40 years ago so that this was never on the table. Global decision-makers may eventually decide that concerns like Rebecca’s are just too powerful and so we should never consider these things, at least not until there is a real serious culture shift, and of course that is going to take time that we don’t have.

RK: I don’t see any of this working without culture change. If we focus more on concentrated vertical urban development rather than suburban development, not only is that directly dramatically better from a carbon-footprint point of view — you’re already solving some of your environmental problems by doing that — but also people who live in small, active city spaces with tons of possibilities just tend to have fewer children.

In the short- to medium-term, one thing we can be thinking about is ways of scaffolding different kinds of family structures and daily lives, making them possible and appealing for people, so that they’re really choosing them on their own because of the opportunities that they offer.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication. 

Photo credit: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images