Overpopulation and abortion

A popular argument in favour of abortion is that the Earth is overcrowded, that current population growth is unsustainable, and that this is contributing to environmental, social and economic problems. The implication, presumably, is that if every pregnancy resulted in a birth, we would have even more people than we have at present. How do pro-lifers respond to this?

First of all, we acknowledge that it is a serious point. Space and resources are finite. South-east England, for example, is now the most densely populated area of Europe.

However, at Life we are committed to the value and dignity of individual human beings. The perceived needs of “humanity”, as an abstraction, should not be allowed to undermine the rights of actual individual human beings. The philosopher Immanuel Kant, one of the key thinkers of the modern age, argued for what he termed a “kingdom of ends” ; that is, a society in which each individual was treated as a valuable person in his own right, and never as an end to some greater project or hare-brained scheme. If respect for human life means that all of us have to make do with less, then so be it.

There is a global problem with certain kinds of environmental degradation and it would seem that human carbon emissions are effecting the climate. But there are many better solutions to environmental problems that disposing of “unwanted” humans.

The “green case” for abortion is fundamentally dishonest, because its proponents do not truly believe in the basic principle behind it. In fact, it is the old, old argument against the humanity of the unborn child – in a fashionable green disguise. If we did want to reduce the human population, why start with the innocent unborn? Why not murderers and rapists? Why not the disabled, the elderly, the weak and the unproductive? Why not the stupid and the criminal and the insane and the useless?

If this sounds distasteful, then good. It should do. It is distasteful and wrong to kill people in the service of that fine-sounding but hollow abstraction, “humanity”.

In China, the One Child Policy (OCP) – now updated to the Two Child Policy – was supposed to limit population growth. There have been numerous credible reports of abuses associated with the OCP, such as forced abortions, forced sterilisations and harsh financial penalties on law-breakers. In the past the US government has withdrawn funding from United Nations Fund for Population because of its complicity in the OCP . One of the bravest Chinese campaigners against the OCP is Chen Guangcheng, a heroic defender of human rights now forced into exile in the United States. Chen was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, a political prisoner.

Coercive population control is creeping back into fashion. The Optimum Population Trust (whose long term aim is to reduce the British population by half) has commented in the past that “Governments may be forced to introduce compulsory limits to family size if urgent action is not taken to restrain population growth through voluntary family planning”.

Dr Chris Rapley, a leading academic, once head of the British Antarctic Survey and former Director of the Science Museum, suggested a few years ago that the optimum global population was around 2-3 billion people . Now according to UN projections, by 2050 the global population will begin to plateau at between 9 and 10 billion people . Basic arithmetic suggests that Dr Rapley seems to have set himself the task of eliminating, in one way or another, some 6 or 7 billion people. And he is not alone. The American academic Jeffrey Sachs raised the issue in his 2007 BBC Reith lectures, perpetuating the notion that the world is overcrowded and that further population growth is unsustainable.

If we read between the lines of these and similar pronouncements, there is a disturbing anti-human subtext. There is much vague talk of “humanity”, but it can seem as though the authors see little value in individual human beings, except as beads on some vast utilitarian abacus measuring rates of poverty or sickness. Dr Chris Rapley has said that “the truth is that the [polluting] contribution of each individual cannot be reduced to zero…only the lack of the individual can bring it down to nothing”.

In closing, it is important to note two final points:

Firstly, the rapid population growth of the last 150 years is unlikely to continue beyond the mid-21st century. As noted above, the UN estimates that world population will stabilise at 9 or 10 billion as the developing world becomes more prosperous and average family size declines, (the decline of fertility in parallel with female education and economic growth is a well-known phenomenon among demographers).

Secondly, population growth, and a large population, are definitely not in themselves barriers to economic development or an inevitable cause of environmental degradation, famine and conflict. As American economics professor Dr Jacqueline Kasun points out in her very readable book The War Against Population, “the world’s food problem does not arise from any physical limitation on potential output or any danger of unduly stressing the environment. The limitations on abundance are to be found in the social and political structures of nations”.

In his famous and prophetic book The Ultimate Resource, the economist Julian Simon made a similar argument, showing that a growth in population need not lead to unmanageable pressure on resources, and in fact will eventually lead to a better quality of life for everyone, because there will be more people to develop new ideas and new solutions to the problems faced by humanity .


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