Limiting Legacies: An Analysis of Overpopulation and the Right to Procreate

It is 2100. The world population is an astonishing 11 billion people, the maximum amount that the Earth can sustain, and yet, the population continues to grow. Food prices are rapidly rising, clean water is a rarity, and resources are diminishing. The air is thick with smog from fossil fuel emissions and what once were rural areas have become massive cities. The lack of sanitation and space makes the overall health of humans decline. Education is a privilege shared by few. All of these factors have led to a continuous decline in the standard of life. And the main culprit of overpopulation: birth rates.

Since the release of the novel The Population Bomb, by Paul R. Ehrlich in 1968, there has been a focus on the issue of overpopulation and ways to control it. Obvious methods to reduce population lie in restricting the right to procreate. However, this solution often creates a visceral reaction among people due to the direct impact on their lifestyle. As debated in India and China, does an individual’s autonomy to reproduce outweigh the health of a society or impact on the environment? Are there other less invasive ways of population control? What is the real issue with overpopulation? The many questions that come with the topic of reproductive and non-reproductive solutions to overpopulation give a glimpse into the ethical dilemma of our growing world. My paper will attempt to answer some of these complex questions with a focus on the use of population controls according to overpopulation concerns, specifically looking at reproductive rights, universal birth control, and non-reproductive solutions in relation to the core value of autonomy.


It is 2100. The world population is an astonishing 11 billion people, the maximum amount that the Earth can sustain, and yet, the population continues to grow. Food prices are rising rapidly, clean water is a rarity, and resources are diminishing. The air is thick with smog from fossil fuel emissions and once rural areas have become massive cities. This lack of sanitation and space causes a public health crisis. Education is a privilege shared by few. All of these factors have led to a continuous decline in the quality of life. The main culprit of overpopulation: birth rates.

Since the release of the novel The Population Bomb, by Paul R. Ehrlich in 1968, society has focused on the issue of overpopulation and ways to control it. Obvious methods to reduce population lie in a restriction on the right to procreate. However, this solution often creates a visceral reaction among people due to the direct impact on their autonomy. As debated in India and China, does an individual’s autonomy to reproduce outweigh the health of a society or the environment? Are there other, less invasive methods of population control? The many questions that follow the topic of reproductive and non-reproductive solutions to overpopulation give a glimpse into the ethical dilemma of our growing world and individual choice.

This paper will attempt to answer the complex question of autonomy of an individual weighed against public health with a focus on the use of population controls according to overpopulation concerns, specifically looking at reproductive rights, universal birth control, and non-reproductive solutions.

A Factual Background on Overpopulation:

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich shook the world with the release of the book,  The Population Bomb. In this fiction novel, Erlich added to the basic Malthusian theory that a large population exacerbates the world’s problems by using the metaphor of cancer:  “Perpetual growth is the creed of the cancer cell” (Ehrlich). Ehrlich posits that population growth will create problems in food and resource consumption. He added graphic descriptions of the effects of population growth in scenarios that included famine, pollution, and social collapse. Erlich’s dire approach to communicating a possible population issue through phrases such as “mass starvation” on a “dying planet” set off a frenzy (Mann). This frenzy manifested into an anti-population growth movement that took off in the mid-1900s. This movement led to a positive change of lower fertility rates, but consequently also created many human rights abuses which will be discussed later in the paper.

These anti-population growth concerns are no longer as frenzied. It is well known that fertility rates are declining due to improved medicine which in turn, reduces infant mortality rates. The decline in infant mortality rates decreases population because many families choose to have less children because there is a reduction of the risk of one of them dying.  Furthermore, improved education of women helps ease the growth of population since educated women often have children later. However, the issue of population is still a concern for society because of our finite resources and pressing environmental concerns. Although population growth rates are on the decline in places such as the United States and Japan in 2017, the United Nations predicted that the world population will be 9.7 billion people by the year 2050. A larger population does not create new problems, but rather exacerbates issues that exist today as our world population already currently stands at 7.7 billion people (World Population Prospects 2017). High population predictions are caused by high birth rates not aligned with high death rates coupled with the fact that the average life expectancy has increased globally being about 71.5 years for males and 72 years for females in 2015 (Life Expectancy).

One major area of concern when it comes to population growth is limited resources. When dealing with scarcity of resources, the principle of justice is applied when considering allocation among countries around the world. The resources that this paper considers as fundamental are food, water, minerals, healthcare, and education. For example, in 2011, there were about one billion people who were starving in the world. This shortage in food is partly due to the difficulty of feeding our current population. The difficulties stem from erosion of soil, increased salt content in soil, overgrazing, depletion of water resources, the growth of crops for biofuels, the spread of plant diseases, and more (Easton).  Without solutions to these problems, the food supply will continue to dwindle and the number of mouths to feed will rise. Additionally, about half of the global population (3.6 billion people) faces water shortages today. With the increase in demand for clean water that comes with an increased population, two-thirds of the world will face water shortages in 2025 (Kulshreshtha). Shortages will become more pronounced with the increase in demand of the limited supply of vital resources.

Minerals are another key and finite resource. With the increased use of minerals in everyday technology, daily tasks depend on minerals. On average, a person uses 16 kilos of newly-mined minerals per day while a person from the western world uses about 57 kilos per day (Top 5 Facts about Total Mining on Earth). In fact, in U.S. agricultural soil, 85% of minerals have been depleted in the past 100 years. This depletion presents a health issue in today’s food as some of these minerals serve as vital nutrients (Health Freedom Advocate). A major concern is the diminishing of one of the most used energy sources: mineral fuels colloquially known as fossil fuels. Studies from 2018 state that when evaluating our current oil reserves and our consumption of oil, oil will “run out” in 50.2 years. An alternative to oil is nuclear energy which is also not renewable (Irwin). As demonstrated through these statistics, minerals serve as a major role in determining humans’ quality of life due to the relevance of this resource in our world.  Therefore, the possibility of elimination of the mineral supply poses a threat to the human lifestyle.

Finally, there are more abstract resources of healthcare and education that pose issues of availability and allocation. To put this into perspective, about 44 million people in the United States do not have access to healthcare (The Uninsured). On a global scale, 57 million primary school children did not have access to education in 2012 (BBC). Education and healthcare pose issues of scarcity in our current world. Although resources such as education and healthcare cannot be directly applied to the supply and demand model, the infrastructure of many countries that struggle with education and healthcare are threatened by overpopulation. In order to provide these resources, countries would have to remodel these infrastructures to accommodate an increasing population, such a remodeling would be no easy feat. It is important to increase access to healthcare and education in order to combat overpopulation as discussed in a later section.

One lense to view the effects of overpopulation through is that of consumption. However, when dealing with overpopulation, one must also consider production.  The world stage has recently highlighted the issues of climate change and carbon emissions. The risk of an increased carbon footprint contributes to the ethical theory of consequentialism which will be introduced later in the paper. In 2017, it was recorded that 2.57 million pounds of carbon dioxide are released into the air every second (Rice). This statistic is quite alarming when analyzed alongside The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This report was released by the UN in October of 2018 and warned that global warming cannot exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius or else many consequences will arise. To reach this goal, emissions must decline by 45% from 2010 to 2030 and be “net zero” in 2050. This goal will become harder to achieve with the possibility of a growing world. The situation does only rely on average citizens reducing their carbon footprint. Some might object to the population being faulted, as 71% of global emissions are created by 100 companies (The Guardian). This statistic raises the concern of the responsibility of companies to protect the environment. While the responsibility must be placed on the biggest contributor, large corporations, individuals must also take responsibility for their individual contributions to the carbon footprint. By promoting the idea of accountability, the mindset of mass change will become achievable. It is necessary to have a mass change in order to make a difference to ameliorate this issue.

Although fertility rates are declining around the world, overpopulation remains a concern because the complex problems of finite resources and carbon emissions in our society today will be worsened by a burgeoning population. Through the perspective of consumption, the resources of food, water, minerals, healthcare, and education have a limited supply and will be more difficult to allocate with growing demand. When analyzing the production of carbon emissions, the crucial goal of net-zero emissions will be difficult to achieve with the expansion of the human carbon footprint. These predictions of overpopulation present the state of society with no population controls. However, these predictions must be weighed against autonomy in the ethical argument when analyzing the different remedies to overpopulation.

A Historical Perspective on Reproductive Population Controls:

With respect to overpopulation, a solution suggested by the anti-population growth movement is reproductive controls to cut down birth rates. In fact, in the United States, lower birthrates are the reason for the slower growing population. After the anti-population growth frenzy gained popularity, many examples of reproductive controls can be found in various countries. However, one of the most notable and explicit examples is in China.

The One Child Policy was implemented in China in 1980 in order to reduce the size of Chinese families to one child. At the time of implementation of the policy, China’s population was about 981.2 million people. This population seemed enormous compared to the 226.5 million people in the United States at the same time (World Population). Therefore, the main purpose in China’s policy was to decrease birth rates in an effort to maintain a reasonable population size. At the time, it is important to note that the government of China had communist principles regarding their social policies which influenced the acceptance of the policy in Chinese society. The policy applied mainly to Han Chinese in urban areas and not ethnic minorities. Moreover, the One Child Policy had rewards and consequences. By having one child, better wages, jobs, healthcare, loans, and education were provided. When a family violated the policy, they were subject to job loss, wage cuts, fines and difficulty receiving governmental help (The Effects of China’s One-Child Policy). It is estimated that the policy as a whole prevented about 400 million births from happening and total fertility rates decreased from 2.91 in 1978 to 1.6 in 2015 (Rosenberg).  Thus, the policy achieved its main purpose of reducing China’s large population. However, the policy ended in 2016 in order to “balance the development of the nation.” Once the policy was instituted, many issues such as an imbalance of the nation arose.

The One Child Policy created issues in the workforce and economy. By limiting the amount of young people, China created an aging population. An aging population results in a shrinking workforce which in turn makes it harder to support the older population. This logic is based on the old-age dependency ratio. The ratio measures people above 65 years old compared to people between the ages of 15 and 65 years old (Pettinger). The policy created an increase in this ratio which could pose financial issues for the government. There was a smaller working population who generally pays more taxes and more economically inactive people who are usually the recipients of government funding (pensions, healthcare, etc). Examples of problematic old-age dependency ratios are in Japan and Germany. In Japan, the old age dependency ratio was 50.5 in 2015. In Germany, the old age dependency ratio was 52.34 in 2016 (Pettinger). Both of these countries see the looming threat of an aging population. Therefore, they actually encourage larger family sizes.  Due to the threat of an aging population in China, many people bring up the recurring issue of lack of income to stimulate the economy and provide taxes. A counterargument is that the One Child Policy has created economic growth. Economists posit that families spent less money on children, and instead placed this money towards saving or investment which in turn spurred economic activity. Additionally, families were willing to spend more money on a single child’s education and created a new well-educated generation (Yang). Thus, the economic influences of the One Child Policy can be looked at in both negative and positive lights.

Another major concern of the One Child Policy was the effect it had on women’s health and choice. According to Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fundamental human right is the right to give birth. Procreation is sacred to many people and the special bond between a parent and child is irreplaceable. Therefore, by placing a restriction on this right, the policy took away an important option for a women’s life and reproductive choices. This violation of the right of choice can be explored through the value of autonomy. Moreover, the policy put the health of women on the line which adds to the theory of consequentialism with human rights abuses. For example, in China, a Shanghai woman, named Mao Hengfeng, testified about the cruel actions imposed by the governments. Hengfeng says that she was admitted to a psychiatric facility where she was “a victim of forced abortion” in February of 1989. After she was fired from her job for missing work and she had filed a lawsuit which was repealed, she became pregnant again and had another forced abortion. When Hengfeng spoke out in court to receive justice, she was put into psychiatric confinement and was sentenced “to eighteen months of hard labor, during which she has been tortured, denied vitally needed medicine, and whose life is in danger today” (Baillot).  Hengfeng’s story is a clear violation of human rights, yet represents a sad reality in China. Forced late-term abortions had put women at risk due to the unsanitary conditions in the hope of following a law. Often times, women were coerced into abortions by harassment and threats by birth-planning workers. Another clear violation of human rights that occurred in China during this time was sterilization as a means of punishment: “According to Chinese law, he added, women must be sterilized if they have a second child or refuse insertion of an intrauterine device (IUD)” (Baillot). As a result of this policy, the suicide rates of women increased. According to the State Department Human Rights Report, approximately 500 women committed suicide per day in China during the time of the One Child Policy which made China account for 56% of the world’s female suicides. Additionally, many Chinese women fled from China which accounted for a large number of refugees (Baillot). It is evident that the One Child Policy endangered women’s physical health and the mental health.

Another result of the One Child policy was the imbalance of gender growth which negatively affected the Chinese society and specifically women. In China, there was an extreme value placed on having a male child. Therefore, by limiting families to one child, people were determined to make their one child a boy. Evidence of this preference is seen in the ratio of 113 boys to every 100 girls (Rosenberg). This statistic is due to the rise in abortion of female fetuses. In Body Count by Stephen Moore in 1999, Moore states that 10-20 million girls are missing due to “sex-selective abortion of female fetuses, female infant mortality (abandonment),  and selective neglect of girls ages 1 to 14- US Census Bureau report in 1999.” Girls even accounted for 90% of children in orphanages in China. The policy was eventually amended for rural communities which allowed families to apply for an exemption to the rule if their first child was a girl (Rosenberg). Because of the clear preference for male children, many human rights violation resulted where women were denied the right to life. However, we must acknowledge that the issues regarding a shrinking working population and the imbalanced ratio of genders will have impacts on China’s economy, but predictions are not clear.

Although China is a known example in the history of population controls, there are many lesser-known accounts of extreme cases in other countries. For example, in India during the 1950s, the National Family Planning Program was instituted. This program promoted women’s education, sexual education, access to contraception pills, disincentives for large families, and propaganda advocating for smaller families. As a result, the total fertility rate in India declined but at the cost of human rights. For instance, health insurance was only available to poor families if they underwent sterilization after having two children. In fact, this sterilization was often performed using the drug, Quinacrine, which had known negative side effects according to the World Health Organization. Despite this knowledge, the drug was not banned until the Supreme Court of India intervened. Additionally, other medicines such as oral contraceptive pills were given to uneducated communities without full disclosure of side effects of the drugs.  Similar to China, an Indian woman stated that women will refuse sterilization until they have at least two boys (Visaria). There exist differences among the policies in China and India, yet the value of autonomy that is violated is a common thread between both of them.

The cases of India and China display clear human rights abuses. For example, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, forced or coerced sterilization is not acceptable with the right to reproduce. It also is a duty of the government and health services to ensure that the consumer is informed and treated with the best care. Obviously, this duty was not followed in either China or India. Finally, the policies in China placed a value on a male life over a female life and this idea was furthered in the action by removing a person’s ability to procreate. This mentality violates Kant’s theory that a human is an end-in-itself. Therefore, each life has inherent value and cannot be just a number in the utilitarian equation. It is evident that these policies of population control existed on a very slippery slope that led to violations of human rights. The consequences of these policies must be considered when determining their ethicality.

The Solution of Universal Birth Control:

An alternate idea to forced reproductive population policies that society suggests is the concept of universal access to birth control. Many scholars even believe that universal access to contraception is a human right due to the “reduction in unwanted and high-risk pregnancies, maternal and infant morbidity and mortality, unsafe abortions, and medical therapy” (APHA). With the increase of this access, unwanted pregnancies and birth rates have declined. However, 222 million women do not have access or availability of contraception in the world. There are 80 million unintended pregnancies that occur each year and 83% of these are due to no or limited access to contraception (Katz). Population Connection predicts that, “If every woman in the developing world with an unmet need for family planning began using a modern method of contraception, the number of unintended pregnancies each year would decline by 71 percent.” With these facts in mind, many believe this could be a simple, non-abusive way to solve some population concerns.

However, when talking about universal birth control, feasibility is a major concern. Jagdish Upadhyay, Head of Reproductive Health Commodity Security and Family Planning at the United Nations Population Fund, says that many contraception tools such as birth control are very expensive. Moreover, countries would have to build whole supply chains from manufacturing to distribution which poses a challenge in many rural communities. These expenses could add up to millions of dollars for countries. Additionally, this would be a large expense for the body that supports the human right of birth control, the United Nations. However, these expenses must be balanced against the inherent cost of having a child individually and socially. In regards to resources, the expense of having a child in areas of food and water could be relatively equal to the expense of access to birth control.

Birth control also poses issues of stigma from religions and lack of information. Religious views on birth control very much depend on the degree to which one practices the religion. For some Catholics, contraception is forbidden because of the view that sex is “unitive” and “procreative.” In earlier times, some followers of Christianity believed that contraception was a block to the purpose of marriage which was procreation. Followers of Judaism have varying views on the subject. Some Conservative Jews believe that a child is a blessing, so if one already has a child, contraception is fine. This view holds true in cases to protect the mother if there is a dangerous circumstance. According to followers of Islam, the Quran does not explicitly address contraception, so some Islamic people approve of it. Even in Hinduism, religion encourages procreation but does not speak against contraception (Stacey). Due to these religious views, countries may face opposition during implementation. Other than religion, there are many other barriers surrounding birth control. According to Population Connection and a survey done in Southeast Asia, South Central Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, many women avoid contraception because “23 percent were concerned about health risks or side effects; 21 percent had sex infrequently; 17 percent were postpartum or breastfeeding; 16 percent were opposed; 10 percent faced opposition from their partners or others; 4 percent were unaware of the methods available to them; and 2 percent believed they were infertile. Only 8 percent of women gave lack of access or high cost as their primary reason for not using modern methods.”  These percentages show the stigma surrounding birth control in different parts of the world. This stigma, however, could be combatted through sexual education around the world

Although universal birth control seems like a possibility to limit population growth, the concept faces financial, social, and moral opposition. However, by denying access to birth control, one is denying women access to a human right. Therefore, it is not feasible to deny access to this human right without opposition. Thus, the practicality of universal birth control must be considered on both sides.

The Responsibility of Each Stakeholder:

When looking at the scenario of overpopulation and population controls in relation to possible solutions, one must evaluate all the stakeholders.  The government is a major stakeholder in this issue with regard to policy and health. The government must consider its interest in life, the environment, and human rights. Future generations are also an abstract stakeholder, but nonetheless an important one. When making a decision, one must consider what responsibility one has to protect the quality of life of a future person. This good can be in regards to rights, the environment, and more. The stakeholder of future generations will be explored in the paper later through different utilitarian perspectives.

Women are a stakeholder in this scenario. Although everyone has a stake in reproduction, women face a higher stake because often their health is on the line.

An alternate stakeholder not often mentioned is men. In the historical examples, men were not victims of forced sterilization. However, in India from the 1960s to the 1970s, the National Family Planning Program expanded its practices to affect male reproductive health as well. During this program, there was government endorsed “mass sterilization camps” where thousands of men were coerced into vasectomies which accounted for the majority of sterilizations in the country at the time. Often,  propaganda surrounded these sites that motivated individuals to plan child rearing with the benefits of economic reasoning. In addition to vasectomies and propaganda, the policy included sexual education of men and “responsible fatherhood” programs. The reason behind the new approach to population control with men in India was the mass change needed to complete the goal and the belief that men were more rational thinkers than women (Balasubramanian). This mindset that targeted men was rather unique to India and it is demonstrated that with the lack of literature on this approach from other countries, men were often not a part of the issue. Therefore, when discussing universal access to birth control, the role of men in using protection and getting vasectomies should also be discussed to consider the responsibility of men regarding population.  

Finally, an often overlooked stakeholder to this situation is the environment. Although the environment cannot speak for itself, one has to advocate for the right and duty society has to protect it. Often, humans act through an anthropomorphic mindset which prioritizes human needs over other entities. This mindset is troubling when dealing with the environment because often humans make decisions with comfort and convenience in mind which often ends up affecting the environment negatively. Therefore, humans have a duty to step outside this anthropomorphic viewpoint and consider the interests of other stakeholders, specifically, the environment. By identifying the stakeholders of government, future generations, women, and the environment, the ethical arguments for population controls can be analyzed from each perspective.

Measuring the Value of the Right to Have a Children In Regards to Autonomy:

A clear value that is violated by population control is autonomy and the right to procreate. As mentioned earlier, in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a fundamental human right is the right to give birth. This right is founded on the fact that children have a certain value in every society. Some cultures depend on children to be able to support the family or take care of elders when older. Other cultures place a value on children to continue a family legacy. As a whole, many may place intrinsic value on another life and the connection between lives.  In many religions, abortion and sterilization have very negative connotations. Therefore, there is a lack of practicality regarding the reproductive population controls that utilize forced abortion and sterilization. Through the wider scope of the possibility of birth control for population control, the use of contraception could be considered preferred through the lens of some religions compared to abortion and sterilization. Regardless of these values, many people consider the bond between a parent and a child to be special and irreplaceable. In fact, in 1992, the Supreme Court case of Casey v. Planned Parenthood brought up this exact concept. The case reaffirmed that the state cannot ban abortions as supported in Roe v. Wade. However, the Casey case highlighted that a citizen has a “substantive right to privacy” that is protected from interference of the state when concerning child rearing (McBride). This statement reflected the feeling that decisions regarding child rearing were intimate and meant to be a private matter. This Supreme Court decision reflects the idea that one’s decisions regarding having a child are personal and important.  Therefore, restricting one’s right to reproduce takes away their autonomy to access a basic human relationship and a lead their desired lifestyle.

A counterargument to autonomy is the social contract theory. The social contract was created by philosophers such as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The contract is an implied contract between the government and the people that people will cooperate in return for benefits from the government. An example of this contract is that the people may give up some individual freedoms in return for state protection.  As applied to population control, the argument is made that a citizen should give up part of their autonomy in exchange for the protection from the government of resources, health, and the environment. In the case of population control, a government could also use the reasoning of compelling state interest to place a value on the good of society over an individual’s autonomy. However, government interests must be narrowly tailored. This idea means that the government should use the least restrictive means available to achieve its goal.  The government interest in protecting the environment or preserving resources could be tackled in other ways that do not conflict the individual’s interest in autonomy. Moreover, the limits to the social contract are evaluated from the extent that one gives up their autonomy. In this case, one would be giving up a major part of their autonomy to dictate their lifestyle choices which are not a right that many envision sacrificing when entering the contract. As well, a flaw in the argument of social contract lies in that not all governments obey the principle, and therefore mass change among countries is not possible. Autonomy is a core value when analyzing reproductive population controls because these policies often infringe on one’s right to have a child and lead a particular lifestyle. Detractors of the argument of autonomy argue the concept of the social contract and the overarching interest of the government. However, these arguments pose issues of citizen consent and conflicting values. Therefore, the value of autonomy when related to restrictive population controls is seen in two lights.

Utilitarianism and the Value of Life:

Another ethical theory involved is utilitarianism which judges ethicality based on the benefit to the majority. With this theory, an attempt to maximize the amount of humans on the planet is obvious. But, by factoring in future generations into the utilitarian equation, one must weigh the consequence of denying these generations the right to life.  However, the concept of quality of life versus quantity of people is presented in population control as well. This question of whether fewer lives should be presented with fewer overpopulation concerns or more lives facing more overpopulation concerns is explored in this paper.

Obviously, there exists a concern that the risk of overpopulation will worsen pre-existing environmental or social issues. Many people argue that is not fair to bring more people into a world of inevitable suffering with the scarcity of resources and pollutants. But, utilitarianism not only deals with sheer numbers but also maximizing the people’s well-being. Therefore, as seen in China and India, the health and state of women and others were harmed. So, people must consider if population restrictions will cause suffering in themselves.

Overpopulation and its effects are merely predictions. Therefore, it may be premature and harsh to base a major policy change of reproductive population control on a prediction that has the possibility to change with world catastrophes and innovation. Additionally, by making a decision on “what type of life is worth living,” it makes assumptions on a very subjective topic that impacts a wide community. As well, the alternate Deontologic view proposed by the philosopher, Immanuel Kant, argues that people should be treated as ends in themselves rather than just means to an end. This rationale implies that a human life has a value in itself. Therefore, humans should be treated as a value to society rather than another number added to our population.

When factoring future generations into the utilitarian equation, there are two possible arguments. The first argument based upon the concept of temporal location is that one should not consider future generations because they simply just do not exist yet. This argument states that since the future generation does not exist and one does not have an obligation to something that does not exist, one does not have an obligation to a future generation. However, the opposing argument is that one has obligations to all living people and that future generations are no morally different than currently living people, therefore one has an obligation to future generations. One way to pursue this obligation is through the “doctrine of sustainability.” This doctrine states that one must provide for future generations without imposing on the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. Another way to think in this perspective through John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance is that policy should be crafted in a way where the people do not know anything about where they stand in society. The veil of ignorance is meant to ensure objectivity in policy. If the veil of ignorance is applied to future generations, one has an obligation to future generations since one does not know what generation they will be a part of in society (Nolt). By factoring in the responsibility of a generation to a future generation in the theory of utilitarianism, the overpopulation issue has complex stakeholders.

The theory of utilitarianism is used to discount population control because of its limit on the amount of lives and a premature reaction. However, utilitarianism considers not only the number of lives but also the people’s wellbeing. This complexity poses the questions of quality of life on an overpopulated planet. Furthermore, the quality of life discussion contributes to the concepts of protecting future generations. Therefore, the utilitarian perspective poses arguments for and against population controls.

Allocation of Resources with the Principle of Justice:

An ethical principle involved in this discussion is justice which involves equality, fairness, and equitable treatment. Therefore, justice is applied to this scenario due to the issue of equitable allocation of scarce of resources.  Effects of climate change and scarce resources affects people disproportionately. People in developed countries experience a lack of food, water, sanitation, space, and clean air less than people in developing countries. In 2011, “95% of fatalities from natural disasters in the last 25 years occurred in developing countries,” (Rieder). In the same light, the fastest growing populations often are found in developing countries such as India, Nigeria, and Pakistan (FOX Business). Therefore, overpopulation will continue to elevate these problems and negatively impact the global lower class. An issue of justice arises in which resources will be allocated and the responsibility of privileged communities to tackle this problem in these scenarios. In order to make a difference, mass change is necessary which involves people who are and who are not directly affected by these issues. However, the conflict of the people making these decisions is presented. As to population control, there needs to be regulation of the small group of policymakers who make life-changing decisions for the community. In this scenario, John Rawls’s Difference Principle should be applied and policies should be made to provide the most benefit to the least privileged. These policies should be shaped under Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” to ensure objectivity.  A parallel to the issue of climate change affecting places disproportionality is the status of climate refugees. Climate refugees are refugees that flee their place of origin due to environmental issues caused by climate changes. The issues parallel to each other because of the severe effects of climate change in different places.

The principle of justice is relevant in this case because of the scarcity of resources and unequal effects of climate change around the world. With the effects of overpopulation related to limited resources, allocation of these resources must be considered while utilizing the principle of justice. Responsibility must be assumed by direct and indirect stakeholders in order to ensure a just and effective approach to overpopulation.

The Consequentialist Perspective: The Real Issue

Another theory that relates to population control is consequentialism. Consequentialism is the theory that the ethicality of an action is judged off the consequences of the action. In the case of population control, there has been a “slippery slope” throughout history. As discussed earlier in this paper in China and India, population control programs have the potential to target minorities and the most vulnerable groups. For example, under the guise of population control motives in California between 1900 and 1950, about 60,000 people were sterilized under the U.S. eugenics program in an attempt to prohibit people they viewed as unfit to reproduce. In 1942, Iris Lopez, a Mexican-American, was sterilized at the age of 16 after she was committed to an institution in California. She then went on to work in a shipyard towards the war effort. Iris’s case is a sad one, but also a case shared among 20,000 others who were also sterilized in California mental and disabled institutions between the year 1919 and 1953. This program was deemed lawful under California’s eugenics law in 1909 which allowed sterilization of anyone committed to a state institution. When looking deeper into the sterilizations, clear racial biases become evident. Latino men were 23 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latino men and Latina women were 59 percent more likely to be sterilized than non-Latina women (Novak). This case clearly shows the slippery slope of population control and the ability of lawmakers to discriminate against minority populations throughout history. Thus, an argument can be made that because of this possibility, population control is unethical.

Paternalism is another theory that is used to describe abuse in an unequal power dynamic and builds off the consequences of population control. Everyone has their own biases, therefore policymakers have inevitable biases as well. This fact creates the potential for paternalistic policies. When developed countries make policies or movements that are expected to set an example for developing countries, the issue arises again of an unequal power dynamic where one country acts as the parent. This mindset creates issues of sensitivity to culture and coercion. The concept of “Population Engineering” is also feared among people. When population control is considered, the possibility of eugenics and population engineering coincides with this thought. For many, the concept of eugenics brings back images of Nazi Germany where Hitler attempted to create a “master Aryan race” during World War II. Therefore, many people are skeptical and reluctant of population control because of its historical stigma.

However, a novel approach to the dilemma of overpopulation is the proposition that birth rates are not the real issue. Rather, the true issue lies in the fact that having a child creates such a large carbon footprint. Therefore, simply limiting birth rates is not a solution to the effects of overpopulation, but it instead puts a band-aid over the real issues: consumption and production. By just reducing birth rates, the consequence would be non-effective change. It is known that by having one less child, 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide emissions could be saved (Brown). However, the reason the massive amount of emissions are saved is that massive emissions are produced. Emissions produced around the world vary greatly and relate to the populations around the world. In 2014, the average American produced 16.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions (metric tons per capita). In comparison, the average Chinese person produced 7.5 metric tons of CO2 emissions and the average Indian person produced 1.7 metric tons (CO2 Emissions). However, in total emissions, China produced about 9040.74 million metric tons of CO2 emissions, India produced about 2066.01 million metric tons, and the United States produced about 4997.50 million metric tons in 2015. Yet, it is evident that the average American has a larger carbon footprint than other parts of the world. Therefore, policy change should focus upon direct changes in carbon emissions in the United States rather than an attempt to control the population in other less carbon emission producing countries.  Consumption should be another extensively discussed issue in the United States. According to Shrink That Footprint, “Each American uses about 4,500 kWh per year in their home.  This is about six times that of the global average per capita or more than five times the average for those who have electricity access.” Even with food consumption, there are large disparities. TIME magazine published that, “Americans eat 122 kg (270 lb.) of meat a year on average, while Bangladeshis eat 1.8 kg (4 lb).” These drastic differences in consumption rates exemplify the problem that lies in the lifestyle of many Americans. By reducing consumption, instead of the ability to have a child, the carbon cost of having a child would decline.

The theory of consequentialism poses issues of humans rights abuses. In the cases discussed previously, people were treated as means to an end goal. However, these population controls pose the possibility of putting a bandaid over the real question asked by Josephine Ferorelli and Meghan Kallman, “The question shouldn’t be whether people have fewer children because of their future carbon footprint, but why we live on a planet where there is such a carbon cost to having a child.”


I propose non-reproductive solutions to prevent the possible outcome of overpopulation rather than a reproductive approach to population control that restricts one’s autonomy or access to universal birth control that poses issues of feasibility and stigma. I posit that governments should focus more on environmental controls to reduce the carbon cost that comes with having a child. This approach is a more exact and a long term approach to the issues that overpopulation would exacerbate. A possible amendment would be to put a cap on carbon emissions for corporations particularly in light of that fact that 70% of emissions are created by merely 100 companies (Riley).

In analyzing the decrease in percent increase in population in the United States and Japan, one can deduct that this decrease is due to healthcare. This access results in an increased life expectancy and low infant mortality rates. These factors together have reduced the percent increase in populations. Using these nations as an example, universal access to healthcare could help achieve the goal of lower birth rates and overall healthier society. This solution does not restrict the autonomy of others. However, this solution poses issues of monetary feasibility.

Another non-reproductive solution to influence human behavior is nudge interventions. A nudge intervention is a concept that provides indirect suggestions to a group of people in order to influence their decision making. In this case, “nudges” could be made to expose the extent of our excessive consumption and drastic emissions (Nudge Theory). Nudges could serve as a call to action for people to change their lifestyle without infringing on their autonomy.  Often, people are more willing to accept smaller changes in their lifestyles rather than changes to family size. This nudge methodology could be used to propose the benefits of having less children. Therefore, families would be more conscious of the implications of their decisions regarding family size and could make value-based decisions without forced policy change.

Finally, the education of women is also a non-reproductive solution of overpopulation that does not interfere with the right to reproduce. Studies have shown that by improving access to women’s education, women tend to have less children later which in turn reduces birth rates. For example, Wolfgang Lutz, director of the Wittgenstein Centre for Demography and Global Human Capital, conducted a study that found that “on average, uneducated Malian women gave birth to almost seven children. For the better-educated, the number was about four” (Murray). By tackling the issue of education for women, the benefits of reduced birth rates, and more economic activity and representation in the workforce creates many positive changes. This change is not limited to education. By legally raising the age of legal marriage and incorporating women in the workforce through access to credit, lower birth rates will follow. However, this solution may be impeded by the stigma surrounding women’s education in patriarchal societies. In some cultures, women are often not given the opportunity to receive an education due to preconceived notions about the role of women for childbearing or domestic jobs. Child marriage, sexual violence, lack of funding, and lack of sanitation also impact a women’s ability to receive an education (Women’s Studies). Due to these factors, only 40% of countries provide equal access to education for women (13 Reasons). However, it is clear that if women are educated and added to the workforce, fertility rates would go down and the GDP of nations could grow almost $1 billion. In fact, there could be lower infant mortality rates and an increase in women’s education could slow the spread of HIV (IFL Science). By educating the world about these benefits to the environment and the whole of society, leaps could be made towards wider access to education for women.

In order to tackle the issue of overpopulation, solutions of reproductive controls are proposed. By instituting reproductive population control policies, issues of human rights abuses and the right of autonomy are created. However, by examining the heart of the reason why having children takes such a toll on the environment, governments and people should make changes to lifestyle and environmental controls that ameliorate the problems accompanying overpopulation. There are additional solutions to overpopulation such as education of women, access to contraception, amendment of marriage laws, and the spread of information which could reduce birth rates while in turn being a catalyst for positive change.

By Elizabeth Mastrangelo

Works Cited

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