The population issue - from a women with four children

Sharon September 14th, 2005

I’m probably the last person who should ever be allowed to comment on this, and yet it would be intellectually dishonest not to confront it on some level. I spend my time exhorting people to prepare, to consume less, to need less, and yet I keep having children. That not all of them were exactly planned is not really an excuse - I certainly was not displeased by the situation. And I do think we have to talk about this, and think about this, and maybe consider some public solutions - I simply hope they will not be the repressive ones that I fear over the longer term.

The world sustainable carrying capacity is probably somewhere between 1 and 2 billion people. we’ve got about 6.5 billion at the moment, and we’re going to make 7. I still remember when we achieved six, just five years ago. I was pregnant with Eli, an irony I did not miss. The official six billionth was identified as a little girl, born in rural India, and this seemed grotesque to me - my little boy, born a few months later here, will consume five times the resources of that girl. To use the western world’s vision of the “culprits” of overpopulation is unjust - because my children are the culprits. For all that I try to reduce my consumption and my children’s consumption, there is no doubt whose children are the problem. Which is why I would argue that the best and only serious way to address this is to focus on the consumption issues, and the positive things that make men and women want to have fewer children.

I’m not sure there’s much we can do about the overpopulation problem without becoming essentially a fascist society. Beyond simply keeping women’s lives as healthy and secure and free as possible - what solution could possibly exist that would allow us to remain ethical and human? China solves its problems by draconian restrictions upon private people, ones I do not want to see enacted on myself or my daughters in law. And in addition to those restrictions, it (and other poor nations) resolves its problems by having an available outlet among rich nations for its unwanted children. What happens when that outlet dries up, because of political controversy and the sheer cost of moving prohibited children around the globe? What happens to those children in orphanages afterwards? Who would take our “extra” babies?
These questions are not as arcane as they sound - while in the short term the primacy of the religious right is unlikely to make this an immediate crisis, in the long term when population pressures grow, demographic anxiety and violence towards those perceived as “in excess” grows too.

I’m not sure I’m the right person to address the biology of having children - not because I don’t have a strong desire to have children, but because I couldn’t care less if they were born of my flesh - in many ways, my husband and I would actually have preferred to adopt, except that doing so meant allowing the government to regulate our lives and limit our activities to a significant degree, or, had we chosen private or international adoption, it would have cost us thousands and thousands of dollars we did not have. Don’t get me wrong - I wouldn’t trade my children now for anything, and I take some pleasure in figuring out who they look most like, but I don’t identify in the slightest with the “must have a perfect,white baby that looks just like hubby and me.” Frankly, if one looked carefully at those related to either one of us, you’d note that the odds are better that I will be able to stand you if you *aren’t* biologically related to either one of us.

Restricting the right of people to procreate generally comes with some disturbing trends. First of all, as our culture becomes poorer and probably more traditional,we’re going to start valuing some children over others (ok, we already do - let’s think about how much outrage there would have been if a lot of white children were dying of dehydration in New Orleans) - in many nations, for example, the trend is to valuing boys over girls, in addition to the obvious preference for white and non-disabled children. In the US, the trend actually runs quite strongly in the opposite direction - girls are perceived as easier, healthier, preferrable. My mother was an adoptive placement social worker for the state of MA for many years, and at least in that state, all boys are harder to place than all girls, and boys qualified as “unadoptable” or “special needs” (the latter of which doesn’t necessarily mean any disability -just hard to place) on average 2 years before a girl (for example, whiteness being valued, a white boy was defined as special needs at 5, where as a white girl up to 7 was cosidered potentially adoptable. When you get into non-white children, an african-american male child was considered unadoptable as soon as he left babyhood, more or less.) Sex selection technology is also used overwhelmingly to get girls in the US - both to select out disabilities, but also just for female preference - more than 85% of the requests at most facilities are for daughters, overwhelmingly driven by mothers who prefer female children. If this continues, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that in a one-child society, we have as huge an “extra boy” syndrome as China has an “extra girl” one. And, as the mother of a child with a disability who costs his community and school system an awful lot, I suspect that disabled children, already less valued in the commodity market of child adoption, will be subject to measures that are pretty horrible. When middle class women stop being able to afford amniocentesis to abort babies that would be “too much to handle,” what will become of those babies?

The best solutions to unsustainable reproductive rates we’ve ever found so far are freedom for women, easy access to birth control, education for women, good prenatal and pediatric care and reproductive freedom. This is yet another argument for not returning to patriarchal culture - for example, highly educated women with significant careers only have children about 40%of the time - and the numbers get lower as they become more powerful. The more educated, autonomous and healthy women and their children are, the fewer they have, generally speaking (I’m not a good example right here ;-).

In order to be even remotely just, any restriction on fertility has to impact men as well - male behavior, male beliefs about the value of women, and male fertility - this isn’t just a woman’s problem, and cannot be. For example, women in patriarchal cultures that are dependent upon men for support depend on not only husbands, but sons to support them in their old age. Male pressure to procreate, and male desire to have fertile wives can also be a very powerful driving force - and men, in my observation, are often more reluctant than women to care for the babies of others, possibly for reasons of evolutionary psychology. (On this subject, and slipping a bit of my dissertation in, the philosopher Stanley Cavell is a fascinating read - he argues that skepticism of all kinds originates in the inability of men to ever know with certainty if they are the fathers of their children - one might read his _Disowning Knowledge_ or_The Claim of Reason_ were anyone besides me even remotely interested.) So all those things have to be addressed if we are ever to have any kind of public attempt to lower the birthrate or restrain fertility.

Keeping infant mortality low is also key - it is very hard to persuade women not to get pregnant over and over again if they are going to lose their children young to the diseases of poverty- a woman who is trying to get one or two children to adulthood might have to have as many as 5 or 6 in a society with poor survival rates. Raising children up in societies perpetually at war raises another issue, and a key one for those of us in the priveleged west who are presently at war with the idea of terrorism - parents who believe theywill lose their sons to military machines have reason to keep having them - or at least keep trying for daughters. And those, like we Americans, who will presumably have to risk their daughters as well are doubly so inspired. I know that our nation’s language of perpetual war causes me blind terror when I think about my little boys. If you want people toobey your restrictions on reproduction, they need children that live. It is truly that simple. America has the worst infant mortality rates in the industrial world, especially among the poor. As our economy softens and fades, if we want to keep the birthrate stable or down, we must, must, must, put our resources into prenatal care and pediatric care, and we must not send all of our children to war.

I will say that the urge to have children is basic and profound - speaking as someone who never particularly cared whether her childrenwere biological or not, the experience of carrying and nursing an infant comes with some hormone and reptile-brain level intensities about them. I am told (and believe) that that is true of the children you adopt as well. We might look at Hannah’s prayers to G-d in her barrenness, or at the journals that 17th century women wrote before childbirth to their unborn child - maternal mortality being a major issue, women entered childbirth expecting to die, and yet often also entered it willingly, even joyfully, despite the stakes. For myself, I see the necessity of children as a kind of meaning-making - I’m not sure I could stir up the passion required to ensure my own survival in the fact of a crisis - but the survival, happiness and security of my children, and their children, now that inspires me. All of which is just a way of saying that the reproductive nut is going to be a very, very hard oneto crack.

The very best that those of us who are priveleged to give birth into a world of reasonable security and wealth can do is to try with all our might to absorb less, consume less, take less, so that the babies of others can have just a little bit more.


2 Responses to “The population issue - from a women with four children”

  1. ProV1on 15 Sep 2005 at 12:08 am

    Update on Google Blog Search
    Update on Google Blog Search Okeydokey: it’s not grabbing my posts from either today or yesterday as of about 8:30 AM PST.
    Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you!

    I have a ##Individual health insurance## site/blog. It pretty much covers ##Blue Cross## related stuff.

    Come and check it out if you get time :-)


  2. Ginaon 19 Sep 2005 at 3:45 pm

    Stupid spammers are taking over our blogs :-(

    I wanted to tell you I loved this essay! I agree so whole-heartedly with you on all issues surrounding reproductive freedom and mothering “other” children. You make so many valid and well-thought out points; this is why we need to be sure to vote/support those willing to think about these important earth issues.

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