|Should we limit family size to save the Earth?
Finally. Some discussion
of one of the most important issues facing
us today in a mainstream
newspaper. By David Pimentel's calculations
(in the early '90s), the Earth
can sustain a human population of only
a very few billion humans once the
fossil fuel supply runs low. And
that's just a small part of the
The Toronto Star February 7, 2009
we limit family size to save the Earth?
By Lynda Hurst
Maybe it was a coincidence. Then again, maybe not.
unmarried woman in Los Angeles gives birth to octuplets,
conceived, making her total child count 14, all under
age 7. One week later,
Britain's environmental watchdog says having
more than two children is
"irresponsible" and the government must
start actively advancing
contraception and abortion.
The reaction to both ranged from raised
eyebrows to outrage.
They cover the two ends of the spectrum, says
Bernard Dickens, a
University of Toronto specialist on medical law. "An
approach to having children in L.A., all the way over to a
approach that gets into prohibition."
Nadya Suleman left
hospital on Thursday without her prematurely
delivered babies. They remain
under indefinite medical care. Her
newly acquired PR rep said she was
weighing offers to tell her story
- $2 million (U.S.) was bruited - but
NBC's Today Show, which won the
contest, denies it is paying her.
now estranged mother, Angela Suleman, says her 33-year-old
"obsessed" with children. But "instead of becoming a
kindergarten teacher or
something, she started having them, but not
the normal way."
yet knows who performed the multiple embryo-implantation
mother says it involved frozen embryos left over
from the previous
pregnancies. She also says her daughter was paid.
Normal practice is a
maximum of three embryos. And it's the physician
who is paid.
we see something like this," Michael Tucker, a leading U.S.
researcher, said this week, "it gives us the
heebie-jeebies. If a medical
practitioner had anything to do with it,
there's some degree of
inappropriate medical therapy there."
There are no laws or legal
consequences for clinics, in the U.S. or
here, that perform "high-order
multiple gestations," dangerous though
they are to both mother and
It might constitute medical malpractice, says Margaret
head of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the
"Even if a woman had been told the risks, I'd argue that no
reasonable or competent practitioner would do this. I'm astonished it
Somerville says a revision of reproductive technologies is
desperately needed. "In not having any restrictions on their use, the
`natural' is being overridden by their use - the result being a
of eight little humans, which is not `natural.'"
Meanwhile, the idea that
governments may one day limit family size
(however offspring are conceived)
has been thrown into the bear pit
by Jonathon Porritt, chair of Downing
St.'s Commission on Sustainable
"I'm unapologetic about
asking people to connect their responsibility
for their total environmental
footprint - how they decide to
procreate and how many children they think
are appropriate," he said
in an interview this week.
politicians and environmentalists of dodging the
question: "It's the ghost
at the table. We have all these big issues
that everybody is looking at and
you don't really hear anyone say the
His commission will
release a report next month calling for the
government to boost family
planning, even if it means shifting money
from other parts of the health
system into contraception and abortion
- or "birth averting," as Porritt
generally calls it.
"`Births averted' is probably the single most
cost-effective intervention that governments could be
using," he has
written. He's also said approvingly of China's notorious
family policy that "at least 400 million births have been averted
that's the biggest single CO2 (carbon dioxide) abatement achievement
Human rights critics note that the policy, initiated in
also led to forced abortion and sterilization, infanticide, child
abandonment and a disparity between males and females: 118 boys to
girls overall; in some rural pockets, 165 to 100. A generation of
"little emperors" has led to increased crime, including
rape and abduction
of females for brides.
(The vice-minister of China's National Population
and Family Planning
Commission said in London last year that "we want
have this change. I cannot answer at what time or how."
estimate at least a decade.)
Editorial writers snorted at
Porritt's attempt to open a debate on
population control. A Conservative MP
dismissed the idea as
"absolutely barmy." But one reader wrote The Times:
"If the future of
our species is in jeopardy then it is the duty of our
do whatever is necessary to ensure our future."
was Porritt actually talking about the risks of over-population
developing world? Absolutely not, says York University
David Bell. The amount of environmental damage
caused by eight North
Americans equals 160 people in the Third World,
carrying capacity of the planet is limited. Our ecological
footprint - how
much biosphere it takes to support one individual -
is 10 to 20 times higher
here. If everyone lived at that rate, we'd
need three or more
A debate on population limits is valid, says Bell, even in
geographically wide-open Canada. But he adds that an attempt last
by the province to look at the implications of 10 million people
into southern Ontario collapsed amid charges of immigration
What Porritt is suggesting is hugely controversial, Bell
it's a reality." It took all of human history for the world to
a population of 2.5 billion in 1950. A century later, in 2050, it's
expected to be a staggering 9 to 10 billion.
"Until we can develop
technologies to lower the impact of humans,
we've got a real
But could state intervention in the most personal of decisions
"Not in a coercive way, but yes," says U of T's
government could encourage, not compel. It could withdraw
more than two deliveries, or cycles of fertility treatment. If
with a degraded environment and no housing, it's part of its
No, says Margaret Somerville: "No one should tell
people not to have
children. It is a matter of freedom, of personal autonomy
Plus, it sometimes boomerangs. Singapore had a
two-child policy from
1969 until 2001, when an ageing population and worker
shortage led to
a frantic turnaround.
Couples now are offered baby