Environment

We've Prioritized Humans Having Umpteen Kids Over the Right of Entire Species to Survive—and It's Got to Stop

A new family planning model offers children—and all other species—a more sustainable future.

Photo Credit: Forance/Shutterstock

Read a lot of news about family planning and population and you might notice something: We all seem to recognize that our future depends on getting family planning right, but there is no agreement on what that actually means.

Despite studies that show planning smaller families may be the most effective way to mitigate climate change and build a resilient populace that can thrive in the environment of the future, conservative media continues to push women to have more children. Some commentators argue that women in the U.S. should have babies and sooner and get pregnant now—despite the fact that the average person in the U.S. is much more environmentally destructive than the average person in many other countries.

That’s a shocking position for family-loving conservatives to take, given that children will suffer the most in the degraded environment of the future. These voices are more subtle than some of the blatant racism that underlies the “bigger white families” approach, and are often simply focused on using population growth (in an example of what Foucault called biopower) to artificially inflate the economy (adding people rather than value) and ensure returns on investments.

Recent moves by President Trump to defund teen pregnancy programs seem eerily timed in response to fears about how lower fertility among young people would affect the economy. And leading by example, President Trump’s brood of five kids and eight grandkids, completely unsustainable in size and lifestyle, serves as a paragon for others.

Meanwhile, mainstream and more liberal media continue to parrot the tired message that population problems are all about the developing world, and Africa in particular. Commentators claim we must simply educate young girls and provide more access to contraception and reproductive health services. That’s also shocking, given the results of this approach, its failure to establish targets based on sustainability and—like the conservatives’ approach—the way it has simply pushed the problem of growth onto future generations.

This also ignores the needs of nonhuman animals and thereby ensures their extinction, putting the rights of people like the Duggar family to have umpteen kids above the rights of entire species to survive. More subtly, some in the media continue to carry messaging encouraging women to have more kids because it can be the key to a successful career, might make you a better surfer, or could save your marriage.

While commentators debate from opposite sides, those living with the reality of the population explosion are now moving toward direct forms of population control, something no really wants, but may see as necessary given the failure of traditional family planning systems.

This is chaos. And chaos, when it comes to the one behavior that most determines our future, is terrifying. Today, there are anecdotes galore of obviously thoughtful and caring people forgoing having any children because of their concerns about how it would impact others, while those less concerned about the future plan larger and unsustainable families. Is this the worst possible result? Should revelations about the impact that fertility has on climate change mean only those who care enough to make choices that benefit others are the ones to stop having kids?

Is there a solution? The current public family planning model, used almost universally, was developed over half a century ago. And while it was successful at cutting worldwide fertility rates in half, it has many well-known flaws, including lacking a sustainable baseline, ignoring conflicting human rights, orienting around subjective parental choice rather than objective levels of child welfare, ignoring the historic patriarchal structures of families and reinforcing economic inequalities in what New York Times columnist David Brooks recently called pediacracy.

One solution would be to abandon the old model in favor of a sustainable, child-centered and truly human-rights based family planning model. My nonprofit, Having Kids, promotes the Fair Start model as that sort of an alternative. Rather than basing family planning decisions on what parents want in the short term, this model is based on what kids need in the long term, and orients around the simple principle that every child deserves a fair start in life, or the fundamental human right to begin their lives in conditions that create equitable opportunities in life relative to other children born in their locale and generation.

Under this new model, both parents and the community have correlative duties to plan for and ensure that all children are born above a minimum threshold of wellbeing, and in continuously improving conditions that at least approach a fair start in life. The model is based on the historic narrative at the heart of systems of human rights and democracy—the story of a free and equal people coming together to make their own rules to live by.

The model, however, modifies that story by temporalizing the act of “coming together” to account for and focus on incoming generations, and reforms family planning systems to align with the new narrative. The simplest way to think of the model is to imagine smaller families working together to plan a fair start in life for every child.

It's simple to apply. Recently, Having Kids called upon Prince William and Kate Middleton to do just that, and to lead by example by forgoing having an additional (third) child for whatever subjective reasons they might have had, in favor of using those resources to help other families plan a better and fairer start for their own children.

It’s time to put children first, and the only way to do that is by changing the way we plan families. If we can do that, we will build a happier, safer, more equitable and less crowded future. That's something both we, our children—and all the species with whom we share this planet—deserve. 

Carter Dillard is the founder of the nonprofit organization HavingKids.org. He also serves as senior policy advisor to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.

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