6 November 2009

Three’s a crowd? The battle over population and reproduction

Commentary by Ellie Lee, co-ordinator of Pro-Choice Forum.

The debate about population has a long history. It is normally understood as a contest between two movements, each of which has a different view on the effects of population size for wider social and economic outcomes. Historically, the pro-natalist movement stands on one side of the debate, essentially viewing people as the driver of development and growth. On the other side, the anti-natalist movement sees people as a drain on natural and social resources.

Both these are complex movements with different, and often contradictory, aspects and taking support from different constituencies. The Catholic Church has played an important part in the pro-natalist movement, and continues to do so. At the current time, the most significant proponents of the anti-natalist cause are environmentalist lobby groups, including the Optimum Population Trust with its recent campaign to encourage couples to ‘Stop At Two’ children.

The way this discussion has developed in recent years provides the opportunity to repose the debate, and consider the population issue in different way. I would argue that the pro-natalist and anti-natalist movements have more in common than sets them apart. Both consider it appropriate for reproductive decisions to become the subject of campaigns and crusades that seek to influence attitudes behaviour in this area of life. So the Catholic Church encourages women to see any conception as gift from God. The environmental movement encourages women to see more than two children as potential ‘emitters’ of carbon dioxide.

These two movements share the view that private life is a legitimate focus for efforts to create what campaigners believe is a better society. This is the view that I am opposed to. I believe that the moralisation and politicisation of private life is problematic in whatever form that takes, and we need to protect decisional autonomy – the idea that individuals should, by and large, be allowed to do what they feel is right for them.

Childbearing decisions are of course influenced by many factors. Historically and across societies, levels of economic development are a major influence. In modernity, however, one important social and cultural premise is ‘decisional autonomy’, the notion that we can and should make our own decisions about certain aspects of life – including whether to have children, and how many to have. This notion rests in turn on the presumption that there is an important distinction between the private and public arenas of social life.

These suppositions about childbearing are important ones, and represent a great gain for civilised society. Yet private life is a fragile thing, and the process of founding and growing families demands a lot of people. It is profoundly unhelpful to make the conduct of private life subject to external moral imperatives, such as religious or political beliefs about the right number of children to have or the wrongness of avoiding unwanted children.

Another area worth highlighting is the dishonesty in way this debate is framed by the pro-natalist and anti-natalist movements. Both sides know that there is strong cultural resistance to restrictions on reproductive choice; that repressive population control measures are resented by the populations they affect: as with the One-Child Policy in China. It is no accident that the pro-life lobby and the Optimum Population Trust both couch their arguments in terms that appear woman-friendly. ‘Pro-lifers’ tell us that they oppose abortion because it is bad for women’s physical and emotional health. The Optimum Population Trust goes to great lengths to emphasis the voluntary nature of its campaign to get women to have small families.

Both sides of this debate fight shy of arguing that the law should restrict choice, either by preventing women from accessing abortion or compelling women to limit their fertility. Both are also keen to tell us that ‘evidence’ proves their case. Abortion opponents say that science shows that abortion is bad for women, leading to breast cancer or mental illness. Those who promote fertility reduction claim that ‘the evidence’ shows not only that we need to have small families to save the planet, but that women often have babies because they are unable to access and properly use good contraception.

There is a debate to be had about the ‘evidence’ itself in regard to these claims, and what research really does tell us about the health effects of abortion, or about the causes of unplanned pregnancies and how these pregnancies are resolved. For example, it is not the case that most third or fourth conceptions are involuntary, in the sense that they result from clearly unwanted pregnancies where abortion was denied. Some are undoubtedly unplanned, because contraception fails and people fail to use it. But what happens is that women and their partners then decide that to have another sibling is the best thing for them and the children they have already. The selective and distorted use of ‘evidence’ in relation to these matters reveals the dishonesty of the claim that campaigners are respecting women’s needs, as they argue over reproductive choices and behaviour.

What is being said in the discussion about population reduction is that the intimate and personal feelings and sensibilities of people should be influenced and shaped by the claim we should ‘stop at two’. For this reason, the real nature of project of the Optimum Population Trust, just like that of the Catholic Church, is a moral one. It seeks to breach the line between public and private life, and make our feelings and sentiments about pregnancies and how to resolve them a matter for intervention and manipulation by others.

Dr Ellie Lee is senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent, and co-ordinator of Pro-Choice Forum. This is an edited version of a speech given by Dr Lee at the Battle of Ideas, 31 October 2009.

Also read:

Battle of Ideas: a matter of choice, by Ellie Lee. Times Online, 30 October 2009

Commentary: Population, the environment, and a woman’s right to choose, by Jennie Bristow. Abortion Review, 3 October 2009

A Doctor’s Right to Choose: The dishonesty of English abortion law, by Professor Sally Sheldon. Abortion Review, 6 November 2009.

Abortion and fertility treatment: Whose right to choose? By Ann Furedi, Abortion Review, 8 November 2009