The Ethics of Overpopulation

There are too many of us on Earth, our numbers keep growing, and we need to do something about it. Now, let’s never lose sight of the reason we want to do something about it.

I’m not an ecological romantic. I don’t think the planet would be better off without humanity. In fact, I think a planet without intelligent life is completely pointless from the perspective of an intelligent observer. Our goal should never be to rid the planet of humans: we need to make sure that humans can continue to live happily and safely on Earth and avoid dying catastrophically. We should save the spotted owl for our own sake, as a habitat custodian and object of biological study, not out of consideration for the silly bird’s feelings or “natural dignity”.

This means that even without raising any ethical objections beyond the rock-bottom recognition that all humans are born with the same value, any measure designed to kill people off is counterproductive. Our whole long-term goal is to save people from dying off. The AIDS epidemic in Africa, or a future lethal flu pandemic, are not things to be welcomed, they must be combated. The ethical way to remedy overpopulation is not by increasing our mortality rate through murderous action or deferred reaction to threats. What we need to do is lower our nativity rate.

Thus I submit three suggestions for your consideration.

  1. It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)
  2. It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation vasectomy and adoption.
  3. It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let’s put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, surgical sterilisation vasectomy and adoption instead.

Dear Reader, let me know what you think.

Blog replies:Adventures in Ethics and Science, Anthropoloeres.

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98 thoughts on “The Ethics of Overpopulation

  1. among recent medical school graduates, geriatrics is not considered to be a sufficiently prestigious and lucrative specialty

    Market forces will most likely take care of that. The Boomers have money.

    Personally, I’m very protective of children, but I do *NOT* want one of my own.

    AHA, Luna! That means you are a real man!

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  2. I’ve had this theory for a long time, and I’ll be the first to acknowledge it could be considered “unethical” and has holes:

    When children approach child-producing age, perform a reversible sterilization on them (I know this is possible for men, I’m not sure about for women). When people want to have children, have them go through a training session (sort of like marriage counseling before a couple gets married). If they are emotionally prepared and knowledgeable, reverse the sterilization and allow them to procreate (then maybe restrict how many children the have).
    Have the government pay for the medical treatments and counseling.

    This way we can ensure that children are a) planned for and b) that parents will raise them well. No teen pregnancies, pregnancies from rape or incest situations. No idiots that keep reproducing for god knows what reason and messing up their lives.

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  3. Stacy, the objective you aim for are currently met by a combination of education, wealth and career opportunities – remove these from large sections of any population and the birthrate will shoot up.
    I suppose we could go with your involuntary eugenics idea but why not the alternative?

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  4. The Boomers have money.

    With the stock market as it is now, that’s not necessarily true, in the US.

    Market forces have only recently reached the biology of aging research area, with the emphasis now more on “healthspan”, in contrast to simplistic longevity studies.

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  5. MartinC – I never said I endorsed the idea or would ever want to implement it – it’s definately an Orwellian solution. It spawned out of my frustration with seeing friends in high school getting pregnant and through their actions completely ruining the lives of their children. I agree – ideally education, wealth and career opportunities should be working.

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  6. I didn’t think you were seriously advocating it Stacy and its useful, at least, to hypothetically pose the question.
    So where are we? Eugenics is unethical and redistributing wealth is politically unfeasable.
    I guess global catastrophy is our best hope!

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  7. “Eugenics doesn’t come into it. Everybody needs to have fewer children.”
    That doesn’t make sense.
    A lot of people have one or zero children.
    If even one child is excessive then you are advocating an implausible scenario that could only be achieved through forced eugenic policies. Not only that but it would be disastrous in practice.
    Human society cannot function without a turnover of the population. We do actually need more children being produced (just not at the current rate).
    How about those couples with more then one child donate the excess kiddies to childless infertile couples who still want a child but can’t since you’ve just banned IVF treatment? 😉

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  8. the biggest issue is that the old need help. I hate being ignored! The eldary which require support from thier childeren seems to be the biggest problem here. After all, in any scenario, reducing the number of children will inevitably put a strain on the economy, due to reduced work force. So how do you fix that?
    A) more automated work performed. Very expensive to impliment. Look at computers. The processors are smaller and cheaper sure, but the places where they produce them get more and more expensive.
    B) have 0 population growth scenarios where children replace thier parents. Not possible, unless a multitude of people automatically have 0 children, no if’s and’s or but’s, because many will break the rules.
    C) get rid of the old people. Oh yes, that’ll go over well.
    D) hey, why not make human hybrids, with cybernetic musculature that is stronger and easier to fuel if we impliment massive solar energy and the cybernetics can be charged. Probelms: developement, principle cost, anti-cyberization groups, and i could go on.

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  9. Martin C, “eugenics” means “selective breeding of humans”. I’m advocating non-selective non-breeding. And I don’t wish to ban IVF, I just don’t think public money should be used to support procreation in one corner and combat it in another.

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  10. Hi, I’ve never read any of your blogs before, but the title of this one caught my eye. Crazy enough, I agree with you 100% on everything. For all those people complaining that having fewer children will somehow stop the turnover or not have anyone take care of the elderly, first of all in an industrialized stable nation the death rate and birth rate balance. There won’t be any gain and there won’t be any lose of human life, however with the advances of medical technology there will eventually be less and less deaths and people will live a lot longer and stronger. So even then we will still be gaining population in an overpopulated species.

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  11. Eugenics
    “-noun (used with a singular verb)
    the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, esp. by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).”
    Historically eugenics certainly involved the advocacy and practice of forced sterilizations and it’s in this context I use the term. I guess there is a crucial difference in that eugenicists had target populations they wanted to sterilize (families with mental illness etc) whereas the zero population growth scheme you seem to favor would include everyone. On the other hand you have already produced a couple of kids. Is it not selective breeding to suggest others should refrain from having children?

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  12. It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children. (Adoption of orphans, on the other hand, is highly commendable.)

    It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, vasectomy and adoption.

    Interestingly, according to Catholic and other religion’s ideologies, it is unethical to perform any sort of “artificial” contraception or generally to interfere with fertility. A lot of people are going to fight tooth and nail against the idea that their religious ideology is now unethical.

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  13. OK, here’s a comment from the standpoint of a libertarian political economist:

    It is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children.

    I have three children, but among the 8 people that constitute the set of me, my wife, and our siblings, there are 8 children (and almost certainly will be no more). Are we allowed to have 1 for the three siblings who will never have any? Or was I unethical to have that moment of passion on New Years night 7 years ago and not ask my wife to get an abortion?

    It is unethical to limit the availability of contraceptives, abortion, vasectomy and adoption.

    Yes, but overpopulation is, at best, the secondary reason. Individual autonomy–which is otherwise at risk in your arguments and that of many commentors–also requires this conclusion. Politics makes strange bedfellows indeed.

    It is unethical to use public money to support infertility treatments. Let those unfortunate enough to need such treatment pay their own way or adopt. And let’s put the money into subsidising contraceptives, abortion, vasectomy and adoption instead.

    This argument, more generally, is, “it is unethical to tax person X to pay for policy Q, but ethical to tax person X to pay for policy Z.” It ignores the question of whether it is ethical to force people to pay for policies they disagree with. If it is ethical to force Christians to subsidize abortions, do they not have a claim that it is ethical to force me to subsidize printing of Bibles?

    That is to say, I think we can only claim our policies are ethical when they are justified on generally applicable grounds, rather than on the grounds that they lead to the outcomes we want. Otherwise we are in that difficult position of saying the end justifies the means, in our case but not in theirs.

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  14. I am confused. Are there people out there that welcome a huge pandemic or whatever? I’m not familiar with this argument.

    Your point is food for thought anyway. I have read a study somewhere that says that people tend to have fewer children in urban versus rural settings. So perhaps the problem will take care of itself as we become more population-dense.

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  15. yep the only way to do it is to tell people point blank: ONE CHILD!!! Will that work? never.

    Technology: even if we had the technology of 20 years past ourselves, the 3rd world would be living on the technology of at the very best, the present. Implimenting technology is more important than aquiring it. If we all went down to africa and built say 15 cities like NY or San Fransisco, then we would see the moves that are necessary to the survival of our species, like fewer kids.

    Hey, legalise Gay marraige! Legalize abortion, both contribute to slowing population growth. Also i would be absolutely happy to see a religion that preacticed not Celibacy, but sterilization for 90% of it’s congregation (only the Godly shall inherit the earth, you see).

    The population growth is in fact the least human thing you could ever do to other humans, for the simple fact that more people are going to die 10 years from now that even existed in 1980, and the population still won’t go down. It’s horrendous. By preventing people from having kids, you are doing a service to the world.

    The only thing that would remendy the situation to everyone’s satisfaction would be if People could be hybridized like cars, and the sun were to be captured in the ways that they suggest (beaming down mircrowaves from space for the energy- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_power_satellite) or helium 3 for fussion that’s on the moon- http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/helium3_000630.html
    Hell, if they could colonize the moon, that would be an amazing help.

    Meat will be outlawed (*cries*). end of story. wow, talk about the Prohibition!!

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  16. But the road to reduce human population is full with hidden ecological surprises. The biological goal of each individual of any species is maximum fitness, which means health, strength etc., but also maximum viable offspring. Sure, this could mean foregoing reproduction, as seen in altruistic behavior in social insects. Altruistic behavior can only persist when it enhances survival of the genes of the particular individuals. Expect cheating! It is not in our nature to care for abstract concepts like ‘the world’, ‘civilization’ or ‘humanity’, unless there is a clear benefit to ourselves or (future) offspring. Do we make this judgment intellectually (even when others don’t?) or on some very basic level (like an ant, which does not have a huge brain mass)? In a white society with decreasing population, the introduction of large guest worker/ immigrant populations causes a lot of resistance. Often they are perceived as an outgroup, perhaps most of all for this reason.
    An overabundance of males, like in China and India, creates another huge problem. They are all becoming gay??? In human societies gender imbalance is more often corrected by wars.

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  17. MartinC: Is it not selective breeding to suggest others should refrain from having children?

    I don’t suggest that. I suggest that they have no more than two.

    Luna: Does that mean I’m just really good at “tucking”, too?

    I think you’re tucking awesome!

    James H: was I unethical to have that moment of passion on New Years night 7 years ago and not ask my wife to get an abortion?

    Yeah, that’s pretty much the value I suggest, unless you were completely unaware of the population problem. Your sibs don’t come into the equation when we judge your personal actions.

    James H: Individual autonomy–which is otherwise at risk in your arguments and that of many commentors–also requires this conclusion.

    True. And above I suggest a few ethical rules against which the choices of autonomous individuals may be judged.

    Rickroll mentioned gay marriage. I’m confused. Of course I support it, but what does it have to do with the population problem? Are you suggesting that if gay people can’t marry each other they will feel more inclined to procreate? I believe the opposite is true.

    Bob: The biological goal of each individual of any species is maximum fitness

    Certainly not. There are no goals in biology. Just an inevitable darwinian outcome, which is completely contingent.

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  18. Dunc, sustainable fossil fuel use is an impossibility under anything but a tiny human population living off peat bog production which is why I suggest we need to develop alternative fuel supplies in the future.

    Saying “we need to develop alternative fuel supplies” is easy. Doing it is not. Nevertheless, energy is only one component of the problem, and probably the most tractable. We’re rapidly running out of water and topsoil too – and neither of those problems is easily fixed, even if you do have large amounts of surplus energy.

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  19. Martin R. : There are no goals in biology. Of course…
    But individuals do have goals! The lion wants to catch the antelope, the weaver bird wants to assist his brother feeding its chicks, we ‘just want to get along’ – or not.

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  20. Just to nitpick:

    Meli, sure, we could subsidise that too, though it seems to be a much riskier, more invasive and more painful procedure than just shoving in an IUD.

    IUDs can be very difficult and painful to insert for many women, especially those who have not yet had children; it never is “just shoving in an IUD”. I recommend doing some more research on the anticipated complexity and pain associated with female reproductive technologies before speculating on which option physicians and women would prefer.

    Tubal ligations can be done with a single incision now, with the patient going home the same day, and Essure is even less onerous because there are no incisions involved at all. New techniques in endometrial ablation also suggest that more permanent contraceptive technologies that are less invasive and less painful will become available soon (as of now, e.a. is not considered effective permanent contraception, but should be considered a permanent end to fertility for those interested in reproducing).

    That said, there should be equal opportunity and coverage of sterilization for men and women, and more positive reinforcement of this activity in society as a whole. There is still great social stigma against men controlling fertility, and it would be good to overcome that.

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  21. Essure is an interesting method that I had not heard of before. It seems to place female sterilisation about on the invasiveness level of a vasectomy.

    For couples who want sterilisation with their options still open, it is of course easier to stick sperm in the nitrogen freezer than eggs or fetuses.

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  22. I agree that for committed heterosexual life partners who may wish to reproduce later, keeping the woman unsterilized may make sense. But that desire to allow options should not be the determining factor on a policy level on which forms of contraception should or should not be subsidized. There are quite a few women nowadays who wish to never reproduce and have experienced plenty of resistance to their rational choices; they are allies in your cause, and being inclusive and rational in policy choices will produce significant benefits.

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  23. “Rickroll mentioned gay marriage. I’m confused. Of course I support it, but what does it have to do with the population problem? Are you suggesting that if gay people can’t marry each other they will feel more inclined to procreate? I believe the opposite is true.”

    No, i’m saying gay couples will adopt. or bank thier sexual organs and wait for the interest to appear lol (double entendre). There is also this fascinating little trend of asexuality that is growing (albeit, incredablt sowly) in industrialized societies, in addition to those who never want the social and economic burdon of children. By invoking gay marraige+adoption, that would normally reduce the necessity for abortion (at least, in regards to pop. growth), but advocating both makes great sense because it reduces population in specific demographics. The fact that there is little overlap makes this very promising i think. After all, the Bible belt in the U.S. is the place with the fewest gays and the most fornication lol.

    Shorter: Making gay marraige easy and equal makes the prevalence of gays more likely. Gays can’t have their own kids (except through divorce), so why not have someone elses? Better yet, narrow their choices, make it less difficult for the system to support and for them to choose lol. Everyone wins. Except people who “love” families.

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  24. Making gay marraige easy and equal makes the prevalence of gays more likely.

    Umm… I’ve been lead to believe that gay people are made that way and don’t change orientation with changes in the legislation. Perhaps you are thinking of closeted gay people who enter hetero marriage and have kids because of social pressure?

    Anyway, let’s legalise gay marriage.

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  25. No, the brain isn’t hardwired for homosexuality. There is very shoddy evidence for this, the slightly larger hypothalmus and discussions on the size-symmetric right/left brains in sexual orientation. However, that is not to say a variety of other sociological factors beyond their control do not contribute. Indeed, closeted gay Republicans alone are bound to come out to about 20,000 lol. imagine None of said people having kids. It’s just wonderful to hear.
    There are also a great deal of bisexual characters out there. The percentile of completely 100% gay/ straight folks is only at most, 40 percent.
    Given that there is still a great amount of those who wouldn’t commit to such a relationship anyway as they aren’t going to pursue their infrequent “pleasures”, shall we say, i still think that there would be more gay marraige, just from that demographic that is frankly, completely overlooked. so i imagine that you could squessze another 25,000 individuals out of this as well, over time.

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  26. I agree w/ your assessment of the problem Martin and also with the matter of reviewing and changing the allotment of funding. I agree whole heartedly with the premise that overpopulation needs to be curtailed. The same issue of SEED magazine that carries your piece, “Why I do Science” also has an article entitled “Carnivores Like Us” by Paul Roberts, which in essence says that Easterners (the Chinese in particular) are beginning, as their economies grow, to eat like us in the West. This fact raises some very interesting issues for the viability of the human race long-term; if the Chinese ate like Americans do they would require another whole planet to produce meat for them – obviously not a viable option.

    Being a former Catholic priest I have some reservations on the matter of abortion, due in large part to some counseling I did w/ young women who had had abortions. But admittedly in part this stems from that Thomistic / Scholastic approach to life at the moment of conception, which I have yet to disprove to myself. At some point prior to birth, that fetus is an organism, which if separated from the mother could be sustained artificially with machines or nurses doing the same nourishing that the mother would do.

    My wife and I have two biological children and have adopted a domestic infant as well, she is now 2 ½ and came home with us from the hospital. Many of our affluent, middle class friends have done similarly, but adoption isn’t an option for many in our country anyway where the average cost is somewhere in the $16,000-30,000 range. Besides this fact, local and foreign governments still make it exceedingly difficult for older adults, homosexuals, and single people (men or women) from adopting. Oddly enough, those who are likely to have the means in our society don’t have the opportunity or right to adopt.

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  27. The best kind of deal with adoption is to already personally have known the parents. My parents knew my birth mom and it was prearranged that i would be adopted. I’m not sure there was a great cost involved, and it also makes the “transaction”, as it were lol, at lot less uncertain in many respects. I know it is unrealistic to assume that this is possible in many, if not most cases, but this would halp to resore a lot of troubles with the process. If religious persecution of premarital intercourse and the obvious consequents was to be curtailed, this would be a nice option for many. If abortion is going to be that terrible for the mother, then i wouldn’t recommend it.

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  28. Religious constraints on pre-marital sex increase teen pregnancy. Kids in that kind of environment don’t know how things work and can’t get hold of contraceptives.

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  29. When “sentient” is used in the context of animal rights or some religions (Jainism), yes. However, in popular culture, especially science fiction, “sentience” has the different meaning of “personhood”: the essential quality that separates humans or other sapient beings from machines or lower animals.

    Posted by: johannes | November 25, 2008 15:21 UT

    That essential quality is intelligence, which you have already (and correctly) denied is equivalent to sentience.

    Sentience is simply a synonym for consciousness — for the capacity to have feelings.

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  30. Religious constraints on pre-marital sex increase teen pregnancy. Kids in that kind of environment don’t know how things work and can’t get hold of contraceptives.

    Posted by: Martin R | November 29, 2008 3:38 AM

    That was precicely my point Martin.

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  31. > That essential quality is intelligence

    Riman,

    personhood, or sentience, or sapience, or however you might call it, needs more than just intelligence; it needs not only cognitive processes, but awareness of this cognitive processes, and the use of this awareness to self-regulate them.

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  32. I agree that having children is something that should require training. If we want to limit our population and improve our fitness as a species, the we need to collectively have fewer children, and raise them responsibly. I have seen too many mothers who due to youth, poverty, neglect or ignorance have permanently sabotaged their children. Requiring people to be responsible when engaging in the most important job a species has is not eugenics. Might as well argue that requiring a driver’s license or voting age is contrary to the rights of people to do what they want.

    If someone wants children, those circumstances will only ensure that they are prepared for them.

    As to the one child per couple policy that someone said would be impossible to enforce… it has been in effect and effectually enforced in China for quite some time now, because people are aware of the necessity for it. The problem that policy would have in North America are the large numbers of people who feel that clinging to their out-dated mythology is more important then the well being of our species and ecosystem. I’d almost rather have eugenics than that type of ‘ethics’.

    Finally
    This argument, more generally, is, “it is unethical to tax person X to pay for policy Q, but ethical to tax person X to pay for policy Z.” It ignores the question of whether it is ethical to force people to pay for policies they disagree with. If it is ethical to force Christians to subsidize abortions, do they not have a claim that it is ethical to force me to subsidize printing of Bibles?

    The first difference would be that legalized abortion benefits the population as a whole, even if the Christians refuse to admit it. Printing religious texts does not benefit the population as a whole (or anyone, IMHO).

    The second point is that I pay taxes for things I don’t use/agree with all the time, because they are a benefit to the population as a whole. I support the military, even though I am a pacifist. I pay for public education, even though I have no children. I pay for health care, even though I am healthy and don’t need it myself. I also pay for abortions for people who need them, and free contraceptives, sex education and I am mightily insulted that the religious institutions which oppose education and reduced population growth are tax-exempt. Religious views or programs should never be paid for by public money. Ever. Especially when they run counter to the good of the society as a whole.

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  33. We witness the immense struggle of wildlife to survive in an increasingly hostile, modern world, invaded and destroyed by the human species

    The Human race is guilty of conservational, ecological and environmental crimes. What we are doing to all other species is murder! It is ecocide!

    In less than 100 years of so called civilisation using technology, we have managed to destroy what took more than 3 billion years to evolve. Entire species are being wiped out. We kill everything we touch,have run out of space, land, soil, air, water and landfill sites. The only thing we haven’t run out of, unfortunately, is people. 7 billion and rising fast !

    The main culprit of this ecological disaster is religion, Christianity being the worst, as it keeps the prolific uteruses busy, spitting children out at a fast rate. And when they can’t procreate naturally, in-vitro fertilisation is there, readily available, speeding up the breeding process, revving it up to turbo breeding.

    http://helpingthem.co.uk/index.php/topic,114.0.html

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  34. Fetuses aren’t fully developed people, so we shouldn’t treat them as such, especially during the first trimester, where it is scientifically confirmed that the fetus cannot feel pain or have cognition whatsoever. It’s like saying destroying tree seeds is as bad as cutting down rainforests. Is it moral that we let teens have babies that are incapable of caring for them financially or emotionally, neglects them or abuses them? However, what is most preferable to abortion is the prevention of unwanted and unnecessary pregnancies with better more available contraception, where the need for abortion is limited as much as possible. I cannot agree more with the first two ideas in this article. Overpopulation is a real threat, to our environment, food supply, animal diversity that directly affects of health and well being and threatens the fertility of humans to come.

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  35. In the absence of mechanisms that regulate the birth rate and ensure that it stays below two, it is unethical for anyone to produce more than two children.

    As someone stated above, the poor uneducated will not give a rats ass about these ethics. But that misses an important first step, which is to make sure that the rich and educated know these ethics regardless of whether they happen to choose to have fewer than two anyway. Once the rich and educated know these ethics, then we can figure out how to bring the birth rates below two every where and keep it there.

    Everything must be done to ensure that we all maintain a birth rate below two, because a birth rate above two causes the population to rise to the limit and at the limit children will die at the rate necessary to allow only one to become and adult for each adult. In other words, if the birth rate is three, then one in three children will die.

    Yes, the limit can be raised with new technologies, but not forever.

    We don’t know which specific children will die, but we know the deaths will not be quick and painless and there will be a significant percentage that just barely make it. It is more ethical to kill quickly than to create this suffering that is inevitable when we average more than two. I think this answers the #2 and #3 questions.

    It is not ethical to limit birth control methods. It is also not only ethical to subsidize birth control, it is an ethical requirement that governments manage the birth rate. Certainly subsidized birth control would be a part of that.

    Why must governments regulate birth rates? Because each land area has a limit to what it can sustain, and governments are the organization that has the power to compel individuals over those land areas.

    One more thing regarding “Our goal should never be to rid the planet of humans”. You shouldn’t confuse “humans” with “a human”. No human will be harmed if we all choose to have no children. Humans would become extinct in about one hundred years, but no human will suffer for it. Nobody will ever experience human extinction. In short, there’s nothing morally wrong with choosing to have no children, but in the absence of birth rate regulation, creating more than two is morally wrong.

    John Taves

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  36. Do not have more than two.

    Do not have another child if that will create more than four grandchildren for your grandparents.

    Do not have another child if that will create more than eight great grandchildren for your grandparents.

    If we all followed the above ethical rules immediately the population would stop growing immediately.

    There is no choice in this, because any group, your descendants for example, that maintains a birth rate above two will cause overpopulation regardless of what others do.

    See http://stopattwo.org

    John Taves

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  37. I strongly agree with this post – I cannot see why the public purse should pay for treatment for childless couples when there are so many children from poor homes or orphans who should be adopted. I would like to see the money go towards contraception and education particularly in the third world etc instead.

    Also..in time when the world’s resources diminish in parallel with the increased birthrate, people will either starve or there will be legally enforced population control. It might not be for some time but one day it will be forced. We’re too successful for our own good.

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  38. Surely, just make sure there are, on average, less than 2 children for each set of parents. That way each successive generation become smaller, and even if technology extends life indefinitely the population size could not increase indefinitely, mathematically speaking.

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