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Bioethics Forum Essay

Should We Stop Having Children?

Not long ago, I received a questionnaire from an organization on a crusade to lower birthrates to protect the health and well-being of people and the environment. Called the Population Connection, it is the successor to ZPG (Zero Population Growth), started in the 1970s by Paul Ehrlich. Shortly thereafter I read a few quotes in the magazine FA from some bioethicists suggesting that, given continued and dangerous population increase, procreation itself may have to be significantly reduced. I was both surprised and bemused. Like many important issues, population growth comes and goes from media and public attention. Not much has been heard of late. Has there been some new development I have missed?

I ask that question because I have a vested interest in the subject. My wife, Sidney, and I have six children, born during the Baby Boom of the 1950s and 1960s. We were also known for lobbying to get the Catholic Church’s rule against birth control changed despite our own eagerness to have a large family.  Then, in the late 1960s, just as I was helping to start The Hastings Center, I was invited by the Population Council to examine the ethical dilemmas of family planning programs, at the core of its work. Shortly thereafter I received a large grant from the U.N. Fund for Population Activities, which had as one of its aims to slow population growth. I could hardly have asked for a more interesting blend of the professional and personal.

So, what’s old and what’s new? What’s old is that the great worry through much human history was how to raise birthrates, kept low by high child and maternity deaths and much shorter lives. Population growth was necessary, and global population rose considerably for centuries. Between World War I and II, however, there was a sharp decline in birthrates, alarming many governments– “race suicide,” one demographer put it– and stimulating the creation of pronatalist policies.

The unexpected Baby Boom (1946 to 1964), in a time of great postwar prosperity, put an end to those worries. But the Baby Boom was short lived. Birthrates dropped quickly and have not gone back up. In most developed countries birthrates fell to or below the population stability level, an average of 2.1 children per woman. Global population growth–save for sub-Saharan Africa and one a few other small areas—is also gradually declining and is projected to reach a replacement balance in 2100. But that comforting possibility can not hide the heavy global burden of the United Nations’s projected population increase from the present 7.2 billion to 11 billion.

Recent years have seen the introduction of some troubles for both the young and the old. Young people in most developed and developing countries have mounting obstacles to procreation: difficulty finding jobs when finished with their education, the burden in America of tuition debt, delayed marriage, and the high cost of having and raising children–much higher today than it was in their parents’ generation.  Almost every developed country has a total fertility rate (TFR) below 2.1 children per woman, the level of population stability.

Yet when birthrates fall much below that level, countries get nervous. A large drop in population growth shifts the ratio of young and old, leaving too few young to support too many old and reducing economic and family support; and some countries will see a declining population, harmful to economic growth. The U.N. projects the number and proportion of the global aged to rise from about 1 billion in 2015 to 2.1 in 2015 to 3.2 billion in 2100. The U.S. is projected to move from 46 million in 2016 to 98 million in 2060.

Faced with the magnitude of population aging, many countries with total fertility rates much below 2.1 – so called low-low fertility countries–created programs to raise birthrates. They include many European countries, as well as Russia, China, and Japan. Unexpectedly, however, most of the birth stimulation policies in these countries have failed or showed small gains. Just why is not clear, but it is no doubt affected by the weak economic condition of young workers. Public opinion polls in those countries show that a large majority of the young want children, and most want two. But they put off starting families and often delay until it is too late to have more than one child.

Should we stop having children? My flat answer is no. That cannot be done and should never be tried, unless we want the human race to become extinct. The desire for children is built into us by evolution. While I have painted a dark picture, full of dilemmas and tensions—and am as a writer opposed to concocted happy endings—in this case there is evidence that shows how to find a good balance.

It is the experience and social policies of several countries that have a tolerably high birthrate, a TFR just below replacement: Australia 1.78, Denmark 1.73, Norway 1.86, Sweden 1.88, and Finland 1.73, U.K. 1.89. Those countries were not among the ones I mentioned earlier that sought to raise birthrates with ineffective policies. What they share is a high GDP, fine programs for mothers and fathers to take time off work when they have a baby, for assisting mothers in the work force, universal health care, and many smaller helpful policies. I have not included the U.S., 1.87, even though it has few of those benefits. Our secret is a high immigration rate. Take that out and the TFR would be lower.

Since we elected Donald Trump as our president, there is no immediate hope that the U.S. will adopt such policies. But as long as the TFR remains on the high side and many people continue to have one or two children, we will have a safe balance of young and old, without undue environmental harm. The other countries that remain just below the replacement rate should also do well.

I should end by noting that our six children have only five children among them, and no more likely. That’s about where my paternal grandparents were 80 years ago. Make of that what you will.

Daniel Callahan is cofounder and President Emeritus of The Hastings Center. His most recent book is The Five Horsemen of the Modern World: Climate, Food, Water, Disease, and Obesity.

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Hastings Bioethics Forum essays are the opinions of the authors, not of The Hastings Center.

  1. Do you know if researchers have done models projecting the global birth rate if everyone who wanted it had access to effective reproductive health services (both to limit family size and assist reproduction) under different social conditions?

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