Supposing that legalizing voluntary active euthanasia is morally permissible, would it be effective as a means of population control? This is actually an empirical question, and it turns out the answer is ‘no’. The reason why it doesn’t work in the real world is that increased longevity is not what causes overpopulation; it’s increased birth rates. As evidence of this, we need only look at existing population projections.
Overpopulation: A Humanitarian Crisis
Although population projections for the globe aren’t settled, we do know that overpopulation will be a problem in certain locations, especially in developing areas where life expectancy is low. They often lack adequate access to modern medicine and other advances, like vaccines and clean water technology.
Food shortages are not the only problem such overpopulation issues create. Overpopulation causes more environmental pollution, unemployment, economic stagnation, crime, and political instability.
Consequently, overpopulation in developing nations isn’t just a humanitarian crisis. It will make climate change worse, create migration and refugee problems, destabilize the world economy, and cause global political turmoil. Developed nations will be affected, too.
Self-Interest versus Common Good
But as Garrett Hardin pointed out in his famous 1968 essay on overpopulation, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, we cannot assume that the problem will be solved by a laissez-faire approach, where individuals acting in their own self-interest will magically work out for the common good.
Just like with the environment, leaving everyone free to act in their own short-term self-interest—in this case, not interfering with people’s reproductive habits—will work against the common good in the long run.
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Developed nations, therefore, seem to be morally obligated to try to curtail overpopulation in developing nations. But in doing so, they must be careful. Not only are there concerns about imperialism, colonialism, and the destruction of native cultures—but they must also choose a means of population control that is both effectual and moral. And that’s not always easy.
According to Hardin, there are two approaches: coercive and passive. Coercive methods are those like China’s one-child policy. A law is passed that penalizes women or families for having more than a set number of children. Passive methods make birth control readily available, but give people the freedom to choose to use them or not.
The Coercive Approach
The drawbacks of coercion are obvious. Not only do they limit reproductive freedom, but how can something like a one-child policy even be enforced?
To be effective, they’d have to be enforced with state-mandated abortions for second pregnancies. And yet, even if one is pro-choice, that probably sends a shiver down our spine. It’s one thing for a woman to choose to have an abortion; it’s another thing for one to be forced on her by the state. Coercive methods are effective, but immoral.
The Passive Approach
The problem with passive methods is the reverse. Because people can choose for themselves whether to use the newly available birth control, such methods do not infringe on bodily autonomy. Subsequently, because some will not comply, such efforts can be ineffective.
As Hardin suggested, because choosing to have large families is often what we might call an “inherited trait”—children in large families often have large families themselves—over time, most of the population will be opting out.
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The Status of Woman and Birth Rate
But there may be a middle ground. The reason developed nations have lower birth rates is primarily because of the freedom, power, education and economic opportunity that women have in developed nations.
It turns out that, if a society still doesn’t think that women should be educated or have jobs, or sees women primarily as caregivers, or doesn’t give women a choice as to whether they are going to be pregnant or not, the birth rates will still soar.
But when a society empowers women—when it educates women, encourages them to have careers, sees them as more than just caregivers to children, and gives them the choice and ability to avoid pregnancy or childbirth while still being sexually active—birth rates plummet.
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The Controversy around Abortions
But needless to say, this raises its own set of issues. Such birth control methods, especially abortion, are controversial. Even in developed nations, many don’t want any government money spent on even encouraging women to have abortions. And that’d be true, even if the nation were on the verge of starvation due to overpopulation.
In ‘The Mark of Gideon’, an episode of the original Star Trek series, Kirk suggests that the Gideonites, the people of the planet Gideon, should solve their overpopulation problem with contraceptives and birth control. To this, Ambassador Hodin replies:
The people of Gideon have always believed that life is sacred. That the love of life is the greatest gift. That is the one unshakable truth of Gideon … We are incapable of destroying or interfering with the creation of that which we love so deeply. Life, in every form, from foetus to developed being. It is against our tradition, against our very nature. We simply could not do it.
The issue is not a simple one even in the West, where woman are far more empowered and birth control options are myriad. In America, for example, there is still a large gender wage gap, opportunities for many jobs are gender restricted, laws are passed allowing companies to deny their female employees insurance coverage for their birth control, and laws are passed restricting access to abortion.
Common Questions about Overpopulation and Birth Control Methods
Overpopulation causes more environmental pollution, unemployment, economic stagnation, crime, food shortages and political instability.
According to Garrett Hardin, there are two approaches: coercive and passive. Coercive methods are those like China’s one-child policy whereas passive methods make birth control readily available, but give people the freedom to choose to use them or not.
The drawbacks of population control through passive methods is that because people can choose for themselves whether to use birth control or not, some will not comply. Thus, such efforts can be ineffective.