The scientist who helped eradicate smallpox has issued a warning that the human race will be extinct in 100 years. He claims that overpopulation and the over consumption of resources will do us in.
If you ask me, population control has gotten a bad rap over the last 100 years. The eugenics movement began in the last quarter of the 19th century and continued unabated until the horrors of Germany’s wartime medical experiments and white race-superiority arguments dealt population control proponents a death blow by the middle of the 20th century. Now it just has bad connotations. Maybe we should find a more acceptable euphemism.
Early feminists have fought for women’s right to reproductive choice – to self-determine the number of children they have. Prominent among these women are Marie Stopes in England, Margaret Sanger in the United States, and Elizabeth Bagshaw, who advocated for, and witnessed the birth of, the first Planned Parenthood clinic on John Street in downtown Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The work of all these women has been tarnished with the taint of the eugenics movement, from which they drew support. Which is too bad, because the work they did was good work and the message they carried was one of freedom for women.
But despite our distaste for the word, eugenic arguments haven’t disappeared, they’ve simply taken on a more subtle nuance. Building a better baby is now not limited to race supremacists. Every parent is encouraged to take part; we continue to seek ways to influence the genetic make-up of our offspring.
Nowhere is this more evident in the desire for a baby boy. Sex selection is illegal in the UK, but that hasn’t stopped people from traveling abroad to ensure that the baby they want is the baby they get. In fact, gendercide, the killing of one sex, overwhelmingly girls, is on the rise with the combined technologies of sex selection and ultrasound screening. The desire for boys is so great that families will spend tens of thousands of dollars, or pounds, on the guarantee that no girl will disgrace the family honour or that their “last chance child” will be of the sex they want. Many women are travelling, to India in particular, for corrective surgery, that is, abortion, to rid themselves of unwanted female fetuses.
Genetic testing has been available for years that will identify certain genetic conditions (e.g.: spina bifida, Downs Syndrome), which are “accepted” grounds for the abortion of children considered “not quite right”. And as our knowledge about the human genome increases and we can identify more and more genetic markers for adult disease, it will be interesting to see how this will play out in decisions regarding who gets to live and who gets to die as we move forward in our medical knowledge, and maybe backwards in our ethical decision making.
Population control is a contentious issue. As the New York Times pointed out back in February, “no rapid solution to the population problem is in sight”. Why is this? Why is it that policies, such as those that exist in China that limit families to one child, are considered abhorrent? Admittedly, the one child limit is a bit drastic, and while two seems more humane, the abhorrence of it lies in the fact that the population has to be coerced and the law enforced. The people don’t have a handle on the bigger picture. This is evident when we see the results of the Chinese preference for sons combined with a one-child per family policy: an oversupply of eligible but unmarriageable young men.
As Fred Pearce points out in The Prospect, no matter whether rich or poor, educated or not, most countries are currently experiencing a reproduction revolution, that is, most women have been having less and less children over the last 20 years.
Yet, in developing countries, over 200 million women still need or want contraception. This need is not simply tied to population control but, more importantly, to the quality of life for women, for whom childbirth is still a dangerous activity, and their children, who live under the threat of growing up orphans. This has been the central argument for feminist birth control advocates from the beginning.
The Michelle Duggars of the world notwithstanding, most women, if given the choice, would want to limit the number of children they have. That is already evident in the world I see around me and Pearce documents it in his book (so he says, I haven’t read it).
Pearce says over-consumption is the real threat. I agree, but what, exactly, is over-consumption and who gets to define it? The example over the last few millennium has been that the drive for more and more is what has pushed our world to where it is, beginning on ancient trade routes that carried tin and copper to markets far from their sites of origin. We are hardwired, it would seem, to suck it all up.
But we are also given the capacity to reason and the way we reason, research is showing, can affect our hardwiring. As I understand it, we could, conceivably, rethink our culture, one person at a time, laying down novel neural networks, to a different way of being, naturally. But that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Interestingly, Fenner, the scientist who took on smallpox and won, doesn’t see his part in bolstering our ability to survive the assault of our natural enemies. We have more people because the way people used to die naturally from disease don’t anymore. And the better we get at preventing disease, the longer we get to live, this is particularly important for children, for whom immunization programs have done a world of good. But we don’t have to have 5 children to ensure that 2 will survive through childhood. Not anymore. The greatest threat to our children today is misadventure through risk-taking and suicides.
What’s going to kill us, and kill us en masse, are the effects of diminishing resources upon a population that has come to depend upon the everflowing bounty of them. Truly, I get scared when I think of the consequences tomorrow of our actions today.
It’s only simple logic, more people = more consumption, even if we come to miraculously manage to reduce our desire for more and more and come to appreciate the “simple things” in life, we’re at the point where even the “simple life” is much too much for our environments to withstand. Many people would agree, we’re already past the tipping point.
I’m all for population control and I think women hold the key. It is imperative, however, that we bring a clear head to the conversation, one unclouded by the smell of baby powder and newborn skin. Children satisfy so many of our selfish needs – to replicate, to leave a legacy, to care for us when we age, to have to love us as some sort of parent-god, to fulfill god’s will. Whatever. So much of our identity as women is tied up in motherhood and our role as a mother. Tough to give that up, tough to fly in the face of the cult of motherhood, where celebrity-moms make it all look so easy and free.
I would advocate the right of motherhood for any woman, but we all have to know when enough is enough.