Most experts agree that the present world population cannot live in reasonable comfort without experiencing serious environmental deterioration—and this in as little as one generation. I first began to think about this issue in the late 1960s and early ’70s (from 1968–70, I lived in Afghanistan). Controversy over China’s adoption of its one-child policy was close at hand, and I followed the U.S. abortion debates from a substantial distance.
Several states had already decriminalized abortion by 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in all the states during the first trimester of pregnancy. At the time, this upset me—how could a criminal activity suddenly become totally legal (if not acceptable)? Of course, I was aware of the complications associated with botched illegal abortions. And I knew that upper-class women sometimes obtained legal abortions when a psychiatrist documented danger to their mental health, an option unavailable to the poor and middle-class.
I read the Roe decision in full. The majority acknowledged the unfairness in access to legal abortion and swiftly disposed of two historical rationales for outlawing abortion: “a Victorian social concern to discourage illicit sexual conduct” and the dangers of abortion as a medical procedure, now far lower than in the mid-nineteenth century when abortion was banned. (Today, aborting a pregnancy is substantially safer than carrying to term.) The justices ruled that a “criminal abortion statute . . . that excepts from criminality only a lifesaving procedure on behalf of the mother, without regard to pregnancy stage and without recognition of the other interests involved, is violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The Roe decision exhibited impressive depth in its historical and scientific analysis. Reading it helped me to revise my own firmly held opinions on abortion. Not much later, I read in Alan Morehead’s book Darwin and the Beagle that Captain Fitzroy recruited Darwin for the voyage in hopes that the latter would discover some geological evidence for Noah’s Flood. Darwin, educated in theology and geology, enthusiastically agreed—only to change his mind after finding fossilized coral at twelve thousand feet in the Andes Mountains. The Roe v. Wade decision was my “fossil in the Andes.”
A few years later, I began to wonder whether greater access to abortion services by women temporarily incapable of proper child-rearing might not reduce the crime rate years later. I also noted that—in part because Roe had legalized abortion—contraception had became much more widely accepted. Advocates and opponents of abortion rights could agree that wide access to contraception could reduce the number of abortions. At the same time, I kept in mind that overpopulation was and still is the ultimate environmental problem.
A widely reported 2004 study bore out my speculations about abortion and crime rates. During the 1990s, when children born after Roe would be entering their peak years for risk of criminal activity, serious crime declined by about 10 percent across the United States. The decrease began three years earlier in five states that had legalized abortion in 1970—that is, three years prior to Roe. Analysis suggested that about half of this reduction in crime rate was attributable to the post-Roe rise in abortions. Other consequences probably related to Roe include declines in infanticide, child poverty, and infant mortality. It is also of interest that Romania prohibited abortion in 1966 and experienced an increase in crime a generation later.
My view on abortion has changed hugely since the early 1970s. Now I am inclined to define the beginning of human life as the moment when an infant makes connection, usually early in pregnancy, with competent and enthusiastic caregivers who can transmit the uniquely social and cultural components that make human life human and not merely biological. A great deal more contraception and an occasional abortion would eliminate some of the unnecessary despair of the parents who struggle and fail. Children need and deserve parents who desire them, or at least surrogate parents with commitment and enthusiasm for family life—in plain English, love.
However, it is clear that well-raised children alone will not protect the planet from overpopulation. Many humanists criticize China’s one-child policy, but what are the valid alternatives? A review of the facts concerning human reproduction may help us to determine what will and won’t work. Compared to other animals, mammals invest heavily in a small number of offspring—quality over quantity. Human fecundity is regulated by complementary mechanisms: lactation inhibits ovulation, reducing the likelihood that a new mother will immediately conceive again. But lactation has time limits; nature has gone to some biochemical inconvenience to create in milk the least sweet of all known sugars, encouraging weaning of the young as soon as they can eat adequate amounts of food with more taste than milk. Mother love, too, has limits: mammalian mothers frequently abandon young when adversity threatens the mother’s survival. We are beginning to acknowledge this instinct in humans, permitting troubled mothers to abandon unwanted infants at hospitals without any worry of prosecution.
Now we can turn to social realities. Universal education of women has led to controlled population levels in several Western European countries; some even face the prospect of population decline. Unfortunately, universal education is more than a generation away across much of the developing world. We cannot rely on it alone to address today’s pressing population concerns. Some experts believe the best short-term strategy for reducing fecundity in the undeveloped world will be old-age pensions, which may control the compulsion to have sons—most traditional societies’ current model for old-age security.
Make no mistake, the problem is urgent. A 2002 summary of twelve expert estimates of sustainable total world population varied from 2.1 to 5.0 billion: this when the world population already stood at 6.1 billion. (It is now 6.7 billion and counting.) We urgently need to correct depleted soils, fisheries, and the like, not to mention pollution of our atmosphere with excess carbon dioxide. As early as 1994, the United Nations Population Fund proposed to stabilize world population at 7.8 billion in 2050 by quadrupling its family planning expenditures to $4.4 billion by the year 2000. This did not happen. How can there be more of us than the sustainable population? We are living on borrowed time.
What might we look forward to if population control were successfully achieved worldwide? Recall the apparent link between legal abortion and reduction in crime rate. Terrorism comes to mind as the crime of our times. When fewer people perceive their future as severely limited, there will be fewer terrorists. For our part, we in the developed world may feel less tempted to declare that we need a “war on terrorism.” Perhaps we will address the terrorism that still occurs one crime at a time, bringing perpetrators to justice on a retail basis with much smaller “collateral damage” than that associated with wholesale warfare.
Other possible consequences include still further reduction in opposition to contraception accompanied by wider recognition that sexual expression serves humans not only as a means of reproduction but also as societal “glue.” Opposition to stem cell research may decline. In developed nations, public policy may demand an end to insurance coverage for i
n vitro fertilization, a costly procedure that incidentally exacerbates population pressures.
China will face some interesting concerns all its own. China decriminalized homosexuality in 1997 and dropped it from the roster of psychiatric diagnoses in 2001. Under the one-child policy, will Chinese lesbian couples be entitled to one child per couple or one child per mother? Down the road, reduction of population worldwide might bring about a reduction in public acceptance of violence in all its forms. I can envision women seeking sperm donors with nonbelligerent temperaments. The result might be a modern-day Lysistrata—the ancient Greek play in which women abolished war by withholding sex from men who fought. Centuries hence, politicians able to demonstrate such lineages may have a “leg up” on conventionally sired opponents, because of public perception that these candidates might be more successful in avoiding warfare.
But first, we have to survive the twenty-first century.
This cannot be repeated enough: overpopulation is the ultimate environmental problem. Current population already exceeds the level that can be sustained in the lifestyle to which most North Americans and Europeans have become accustomed. Universal education of women has been demonstrated to control population without requiring explicit social advocacy of abortion and contraception, but there is no realistic prospect of achieving universal education across the developing world quickly enough to forestall serious environmental disruption. I conclude that China’s draconian “one child policy” is justified, especially given the great size of China’s illiterate population when the policy was initiated.
It is also rewarding to ponder the changes I have seen in American society. During my lifetime, contraceptive use has become almost universal in America, partly fostered by the legal availability of abortion. People are alive today who remember when contraception was illegal in Connecticut. There is no disagreement that contraception is preferable to abortion. Still, one of the most important results of legal abortion may be that legal abortion has spared us from much agitation to prohibit contraception.
“Tackling Climate Change is Now a Crusade, So What’s Stopping the Simplest Solution?” demanded a headline in the British newspaper The Guardian. Environmental activist David Nicholson-Lord asked, “Why isn’t the green movement talking about population any more?” Interviews with officers of organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, World Wildlife Fund, and Oxfam revealed the answer: mentioning population as an environmental problem frightens away green donors. Back in the eighties, an organization named Population Countdown became Population Concern. In 2003 it switched again, to Interact Worldwide. Consultants advised that the former names would spook funders. Greenpeace declared, “Population is not an issue for us. . . . [It is just a] factor in, but not one of, the drivers of environmental problems.” And yet Great Britain’s chief scientist, Sir David King, stated at an official inquiry, “It is self-evident that massive growth in human population through the twentieth century has had more impact on biodiversity than any other single factor.”
Nicholson-Lord closes: “It was Mark Twain who observed that those who refused to share vital information with others were guilty ‘of a silent lie.’ The green movement needs to start telling the truth.” (To which I add a hearty secular “Amen.”)
Placing all my impressions in the balance, I conclude that easy access to elective abortion will be necessary to avoid severe environmental degradation from overpopulation. There will be many incidental effects. Fortunately, many of these effects, if not almost all, will be surprisingly beneficial. Major nuances, indeed.
- Brown, Richard and Hal Kane. Full House: Reassessing the Earth’s Population Carrying Capacity. Worldwatch Institute, 1994.
- Frantz, John. “Biology’s Integrating Insights for Medical Science.” Available online at www.frantzmd.info. Click on “Other Science and Technology.”
- Levitt, Steven D. “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990s.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18(1) 2004.
- Nicholson-Lord, David. “Tackling Climate Change is Now a Crusade, So What’s Stopping the Simplest Solution?” The Guardian, August 24, 2007.
- Richard, Gigi. “Human Carrying Capacity of the Earth.” ILEA Leaf, Winter 2002.
- Selgh, Gilda et al. “Induced Abortion: Estimated Rates and Trends Worldwide.” The Lancet 370, 2007.