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The United Nations Report

The United Nations climate report last month presented an ultimatum regarding drastic action needed to avoid the worst of the climate crisis. One solution recently proposed in a peer-reviewed book exploring the right to have children involves inverting our current family planning system, moving it from a foundation of parental privacy to a child-centric and collective focus on ensuring children an ecosocial Fair Start in life.

Some have questioned whether reforming family policies is ethical. There are certainly such policies being promoted, many that would encourage smaller families, delayed parenting, and perhaps redistributions of wealth that could incentivize these things while cutting the sticky inequity that haunts children for life. These are complex concepts that we often think of quantitatively - the notion of our global and national population sizes - as we develop climate policies.

The climate crisis will worsen as population continues to grow. 

The climate crisis will worsen as population continues to grow. 

But Cameron makes one claim that deserves discussion. “Government-led population control presents serious moral questions for democratic countries.” Later he wrote “But if we are unwilling or unable to make [economic] changes work, and soon, then managing population and economic growth may become our only recourse. At that point, humanity will have to confront increasingly difficult moral questions.”

Can Population Policies Be Ethical? 

The underlying claim here seems to be that there is an unlimited moral and perhaps legal right to have children. But these are no longer the 1950s. As an emergency measure, nations may have to derogate from that right to protect their societal wellbeing, their resource bases of water and arable land, their economies’ capacity to provide employment and deliver services, or other systems for the public good.

Demanding family planning entitlements is fundamentally just. 

Demanding family planning entitlements is fundamentally just. 

No serious ethicist believes such an unlimited right exists (for family planning or other behaviors). Or that anything should exempt parents from obligations to plan their families well so as to protect their future children. This is subject to hard metrics like the U.N. Children’s Convention. We argue that parents are also obligated to protect the rest of the world from the unsustainable growth that is – long-term - the largest driver of the climate crisis.

Parents are having half the children, or even fewer, than did parents only a few generations ago. This is thanks to state interventions that staved off the worst of population growth. Those interventions occurred because that growth fundamentally undercut public health, safety and welfare. That growth was interpersonal, in the sense that a couple’s decision about family sizes had consequences for others, for society, for the planet. It was not purely personal to the parents.

Why would we not ensure children, rich and poor, a more level playing field? 

Why would we not ensure children, rich and poor, a more level playing field? 

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And yet we missed the mark. The arc of world population numbers went too high for our civilization to thrive and our planet to sustain us. We have to find ways to bring this back to a sensible level, gradually, ethically, and non-coercively. But how?

Having children is akin to speech. We have a right to speak freely, but it’s legally and morally limited to prevent harming others. We have both rights and responsibilities with speech. And like speech laws, governments can help balance the rights and responsibilities of parenting.

Better Family Planning

In this case, one mode involves ensuring equal opportunities in life for all kids by ensuring that wealth is distributed among families in a way that makes equal opportunity real, measurable and enforceable.

The right to have children is special in this regard, given the overwhelming impact of economic birth position on life prospects. And in the ranking or listing of rights, just family planning always comes first. Existential justice is a prerequisite to other forms of justice. This makes redistributive funding of just family planning overriding in nature.

If we are share the future, we all share an obligation to invest in the children who will comprise that future. 

If we are share the future, we all share an obligation to invest in the children who will comprise that future. 

The practical solution to changing behavior in this regard - just and sustainable family planning - is simple. Family planning incentives work very well, especially when treated as entitlements for the reasons we discuss here. Treating just family planning incentives/entitlements as the first and overriding human right/responsibility is doable in national policy. And so is paying for this by contributions from wealth at the top in order to help parents prepare themselves for parenting, delay childbirth, and increase the social ethic of smaller and better-prepared families. We bend the arc of growth by attaching demands for equal opportunities in life, by parents for their children, to the wealth at the top.

That move results in investing more time, love, energy and equitable resources in each child.

And we can make this change as a matter of first principles, or first obligations - above existing property rights and entitlements - to the future majority whose wellbeing is in our hands. We cannot assign property rights in ways that undercut our more fundamental rights to existence, to opportunity, to a clean environment. We need to democratically empower future generations.

Doing so, and protecting their ecological futures in the process, is not morally problematic at all. It’s simply the right thing to do.