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Should we limit family size to save the Earth?

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Authors Notes.
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 story.

The Toronto Star February 7, 2009

Should we limit family size to save the Earth?

By Lynda Hurst
Feature Writer

Maybe it was a coincidence. Then again, maybe not.

An unmarried woman in Los Angeles gives birth to octuplets,
artificially 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 anything-goes
approach to having children in L.A., all the way over to a regulatory
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.

Her now estranged mother, Angela Suleman, says her 33-year-old
daughter is "obsessed" with children. But "instead of becoming a
kindergarten teacher or something, she started having them, but not
the normal way."

No one yet knows who performed the multiple embryo-implantation
procedure. Nadya's 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.

"When we see something like this," Michael Tucker, a leading U.S.
infertility 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 infants.

It might constitute medical malpractice, says Margaret Somerville,
head of McGill University's Centre for Medicine, Ethics and the Law.
"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
was done."

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
litter 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.

Porritt accused 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
`p' word."

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 substantial and
cost-effective intervention that governments could be using," he has
written. He's also said approvingly of China's notorious one-child
family policy that "at least 400 million births have been averted ...
that's the biggest single CO2 (carbon dioxide) abatement achievement
since Kyoto."

Human rights critics note that the policy, initiated in 1979, has
also led to forced abortion and sterilization, infanticide, child
abandonment and a disparity between males and females: 118 boys to
100 girls overall; in some rural pockets, 165 to 100. A generation of
so-called "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 incrementally to
have this change. I cannot answer at what time or how." Analysts
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 governments to
do whatever is necessary to ensure our future."

But was Porritt actually talking about the risks of over-population
in the developing world? Absolutely not, says York University
environmentalist David Bell. The amount of environmental damage
caused by eight North Americans equals 160 people in the Third World,
he says.

"The 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 Earths."

A debate on population limits is valid, says Bell, even in
geographically wide-open Canada. But he adds that an attempt last
year by the province to look at the implications of 10 million people
crowded into southern Ontario collapsed amid charges of immigration

What Porritt is suggesting is hugely controversial, Bell says, "but
it's a reality." It took all of human history for the world to reach
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 problem."

But could state intervention in the most personal of decisions ever
be justified?

"Not in a coercive way, but yes," says U of T's Dickens. "A
government could encourage, not compel. It could withdraw funding for
more than two deliveries, or cycles of fertility treatment. If faced
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 and

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 bonuses.

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