Do We Have a Right to More Than One Child?

I was recently made aware of an article written by a pro-choice philosopher who believes no one has a right to more than one child. She is a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College named Sarah Conly. She wrote a book, which I have not read, but also wrote an article briefly outlining her views called “Here’s Why China’s One-Child Policy Was a Good Thing“. To be clear, Conly supports China’s only allowing one child, not their forced abortions and sterilizations, which she believes to be assaults and therefore violations of human rights. Her main reasoning is that having more than one child, even to keep the replacement rate level, is unethical. Even more, no one has the right to have more than one child. Her reasons for holding this view are: having multiple children contributes to global warming and increasing the population rate is unsustainable. In short, as she says in her article, “Given the damage we are causing, and the damage we foresee for all those who live after us, it is clear that having more than one child is just something that none of us…has a moral right to do.”

Before I address her arguments head on, I want to point out a few logical flaws with it. Conly never explains what she believes rights are and how they are determined. This is pretty common in articles by pro-choice people (usually lay people) who try to argue that abortion is a human right. Since she never explains what rights are, she never really gives much of a defense for the idea that no one has a right to have more than one child. Since she never explains what rights are and how they are determined, her argument does not justify her conclusion. She never even engages with any alternative concept of rights, just assuming people believe in reproducing because it’s up to the government to give us anything that we want. Perhaps she does discuss the concept of rights in her book but this discussion is absent in her article. Additionally, her “one child policy” is arbitrary. Why not agree with anti-natalists and argue that no one has a moral right to reproduce? She never gives us any good reason, given her arguments, as to why we should even have the right to produce one child. She seems to assume that we should reproduce and make things better for the future, a point I, and most people I know, agree with. But she has no principled reason to prefer her one-child policy over producing more children while changing the way we utilize resources, or even flat-out anti-natalism.

Now let’s have a look at her arguments. I don’t know enough about the global warming debate to comment on it. However, the population worries have been going on for quite some time and the fears are usually unfounded. For example, political commentators often look to the predictions of Thomas Malthus in the 19th century as having not panned out due to innovations in technology and food production. Human ingenuity can help stave off scarcity of resources. In fact, Conly makes a similar argument to this when she addresses the argument from gender imbalance. It is society’s sexist attitude that needs to change, not her one-child policy. There is no reason why we should not accept a similar response here. It is the way we spend resources that needs to change, not the number of children we allow couples to produce. Conly does try to get around this problem near the end of her article by stating that we can’t know the future, so we don’t know for sure if technological advances will save us. Since “the probability of harm is high, and the damage in question is great, we have no right to risk the danger. Certainty isn’t required.”¬†I don’t find this convincing, however. It’s true that we can’t know the future, but that’s equally true for Conly’s position. We don’t know for sure that technology¬†won’t save us. One could argue that the risk is greater because we’re headed in that direction, but if we look back through history we will see that human ingenuity often comes through. Technological advances have saved us in the past, and even when it comes to depressions and recessions we’ve had in our own past history, we’ve always come through them, even though they required hardship at the time. So certainty isn’t required to oppose the idea that we only have the right to one child.

Conly asserts that parents can live happy, fulfilled lives with just one child. But she offers no evidence for this claim. Clearly a large number of people can’t live happy, fulfilled lives with just one child because a large number of people choose to have multiple children. Conly’s assertion just defies reality. Conly does, however, raise a legitimate concern, the concern that the way our society uses up resources is unsustainable. This may or may not be true, but at the very least, we have a lot of people in the government who are spending money and resources foolishly and wastefully. I am with her when she says we need to change (though convincing politicians is another matter entirely), but restricting the number of children people can have is neither wise nor right.

But one might reasonably question how, exactly, Conly believes we should enact a one-child policy. She obviously believes that forced abortion and sterilizations are off the table. So what is her plan? First, educate couples about the “need” to have only one child. Second, make contraception free and more readily available. Third, incentivize having only one child through tax breaks, or disincentivize having more than one child through tax penalties. Fourth, and finally, fine couples who have more than one child. Her plan seems unworkable, even on the face of it.

  1. Educating couples is not a good way to enact Conly’s policies. Considering how difficult global warming advocates are finding it to convince skeptics that global warming is an issue, and how difficult it is to convince many families of the need for vaccines, how does Conly expect to convince all these families that they don’t have a right to produce more than one child? It’s a fool’s errand.
  2. This is just a standard pro-choice argument. Contraception is already widely available but no one who makes this argument ever tells us why I am obligated to finance someone else’s sex life through my tax dollars. We should treat adults as adults. If they don’t have a right to not have more than one kid, then they have a moral obligation to abstain from sex if they can’t afford contraception. This is a logical consequence of Conly’s view but one she doesn’t seem excited to embrace, or even really consider.
  3. This step is just counterproductive. The reason that the government incentivizes getting married and having kids through tax breaks is because having kids, not abstaining from having kids, is a benefit to society as a whole. If people are not having kids, there will be no one to replace the aging and dying workers and government officials needed to maintain order in our society. Punishing people for having too many kids would ultimately undermine the value of children, not uphold their value. Plus, the step is counterintuitive because raising children is expensive enough. If she starts adding tax penalties on top of it, she is making it more expensive (i.e. harder) to raise that child and care for him, not to mention for the couples who want to reproduce, expense is not a deterrent. This is not a serious way to curb population problems.
  4. This step is just as counterproductive (and counterintuitive) as the last step. It wouldn’t work any better.

Professor Conly’s view here is not only untenable, it’s mistaken. People have a right to reproduce as many children as they want because sex is intrinsically tied to reproduction. Plus, people need to have kids because not only do kids enrich the couple’s marriage, but kids also help to take care of their parents once their parents become too old to take care of themselves. In order to avoid having children, you either have to undergo an invasive procedure or try to put up barriers to reproduction. But as Ian Malcolm has stated, “life finds a way”. Even contraception isn’t 100% effective, so if Conly opposes forced sterilization, she’ll either have to argue that couples have a moral obligation to abstain after their first kid or accept that it’s largely impossible to restrict couples to only one child (which is why China forced abortions on their citizens). We need a better method of leaving the world better than we found it.