Controlling Birth

A few people currently have posts up about breeding, children, and families. From musing on this, I am inclined to think that maybe we need to move towards something that will be very close to things that will make people very scared.

That mockery of a sentence is basically me saying: controls on reproduction may not be all that bad. It may be that the best situation for society is, speaking very broadly, one in which people do not operate with an expectation that they automatically have the right to have children. The principal reason is that more people require more land, more energy, consume more plastics, more minerals. The number of humans is way beyond the planet’s capacity to support at our current level of consumption. I think this is one good reason for people to make a personal choice not to reproduce. But personal choices may not be enough.

EDIT:  This post sparked a lot of controversy, which I have partly responded to here.

Now obviously this is a very very touchy subject. Historically, almost everything that has fallen under this umbrella term has been bad. So I want to start by clearing away some likely objections.

So the first and most obvious thing is that historically, almost all controls on reproduction have been discriminatory: they’ve identified some people who we want to breed and others who we don’t want to breed. This has typically been motivated by fears either of ‘decadence’ (the poor, stupid, and disabled are breeding so much that soon our gene pool will be filled with them) or of being ‘swamped’ (the dark-skinned people with their backward culture are breeding faster than we are, they’re going to outnumber us).

That has to be completely out. Not even started towards. The issue in question is one of resource consumption and humans consume no more or less resources than humans do. Whatever is brought in, it has to apply equally to everyone.

The second issue is about methodology. I don’t want to argue for anything coercive. Partly this is because I think it would be unjust for people to invade other people’s bodies against their will. Partly I think this is because if the decision is taken out of the individual’s hands, the person whose hands it does end up in will be making judgements, and those judgements can very easily follow lines of class-based, racial, sexual or ableist prejudice.  And partly it’s because the sort of organisation that would be suited to such a task would be completely opposite to the sort of organisations I want to see society contain.

So I’m talking not forcible sterilisation of people judged ‘unfit’. What am I talking about? As I said, I want to go somewhere in between coercion and individual choice. What I want is a shift in cultural assumptions, cultural norms, in the structures (education, marriage, adoption services, the retail of contraceptives, etc.) by which society facilitates some options and inhibits others. I think we should aim for a culture in which, firstly, the production of children is seen as a public matter, not a private one, and in which, secondly, the production and raising of children has been separated from the issue of biological linkage.

A rough sketch (and this is just one possibility, not a definitive statement) might be something like this:

Around the time of puberty, as a kind of ‘rite of passage’, adolescents get reversibly sterilised. I’m not much of an expert on the different sorts of procedures, maybe only men need do this since I imagine it’s a less invasive operation. Or maybe contraceptive hormones are made available in chocolate bars, or something. The point is, people are as a rule indefinitely sterile. This would have an opt-out, obviously: if people don’t want to, they don’t have to. But it’s like with organ donation: if you require an especial effort, then only a minority will do it. If you encourage and facilitate, only a minority will not do it.

Then some group of people make it known to the relevant administration that they want to raise a child. The group could contain any number of people (well, obviously in practice there’s some kind of ceiling), male or female or not, sleeping with each or not. If there are children without carers, they get allocated immediately. If not, they go on a waiting list. Society negotiates, based on democratic decision and expert testimony, a yearly (or monthly, or whatever) quota of new babies. I imagine that this might in many cases be very low, if that society was making a concerted effort to withdraw from the wilderness, reduce energy consumption, etc. Based on this quota, people on the waiting list are given IVF or artificial insemination or whatever, and one among them becomes pregnant. The wait would probably be a good way of making people ‘cool off’ and see how committed they really are.

There would probably be a screening process like what we have now for adoption: does this group seem to be genuinely attached to one another, are they responsible people? Now it’s certainly true that any process like this will reflect the rest of society. If the average person hates gays, then that will be reflected in difficulties, or even an outright ban, on gay parenting. If society is hugely divided by class, then any requirement of ‘being able to care for a child’ will weigh more heavily on the poor. If society blames women for children, then women will be scrutinised more harshly. So I think this has to be seen in the context of a socialist or communist society without widespread bigotry and oppression. Some hope, eh? But if we’re being optimistic…

Families like this would (until we get artificial wombs, and no doubt even after that in some cases) have one ‘mother’ and a collection of ‘parents’ – they would almost certainly have a far higher ratio of adults to children that nuclear families tend to. Of course, the actual strength of the bonds would be set by the individuals – some children will bond very tightly to one person, others less tightly to a number of people. No one individual would be loaded with the concentrated responsibility of childcare. (the application of such structures to caring for elderly people is a whole nother topic).

There would probably be some people who decided to breed ‘the old fashioned way’, outside of the waiting list system. There might even be some accidental pregnancies from people who opted out of sterilisation. As long as they could show that their children were well-looked-after, they would be allowed to, and as long as they were only a small minority they could be quite easily factored into the quotas.

The issue of the genetic make-up of the babies produced is a big and tricky issue, but is largely separate from my concern here.

Anyway, that’s my bit of science-fiction about taking procreation out of the private sphere. I won’t deny that such a process is open to abuse: it represents some loss of power by individual parents to society. That could have downsides. And it would mean giving up a whole mythology of what the family is, what children are – that they are ‘mine’, ‘my flesh and blood’. But equally, we should note that 1) there is a far more widespread problem now of people being forced to have children, 2) more social oversight of children has the potential to protect children from a lot of the shit they suffer from parents, and socialise them more openly and more freely, 3) it reduces the chances of catastrophic social breakdown, famine, and mass extinction.

11 Responses to “Controlling Birth”

  1. Lewis Says:

    Compelling ideas. I like the utopian and socialist drift, but wouldn’t this make the children a special form of property, with all the attendant problems thereof?

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    It’s interesting you should say that. I think children are currently in many ways the ‘property’ of their parents: parents decide how to raise them, how to dress them, what to name them. And traditionally often fathers have had power of life and death over their children, or been able to decide who they marry. What is it about the post that you think makes children more property-like than the biology-based nuclear family does?

  3. Lewis Says:

    Absolutely agree that children are treated as property now. I wasn’t saying your system makes them more so, only that the problem isn’t addressed in your solution. Have you read The Dialectic of Sex? Firestone posits a utopia with free children, but people have debated the practicalities of this endlessly.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    I haven’t read the dialectic of sex, but from skimming the first chapter it appears to be most excellent, so I shall seek it out.

    I’m unsure about how far child-emancipation is possible, given the reality of what children are like. I will probably have to wait and see what Firestone says about it.

  5. greenconsciousness Says:

    Let’s go – that doubling the population in 20 years DOES NOT scare them says a lot about why we should stop breeding. The Dialectic of Sex is the best book I ever read and that was in the 1970′s and I have read a lot of books since then. Best way to read it is in a group with meetings to discuss 3 or 4 chapters at a time. Women’s Inhumanity to Women by Chesler is a close second. But the relevant one here is The Baby Boon by Elinor Burkett.

  6. Ellen Ripley Says:

    Fascinating ideas, there….

    Sterilizing children at puberty, separating child rearing from the parents…. or should I say sperm and egg donors? Without artificial Uteruses, I anticipate that rather few women would be inclined to carry a child to term if she were expecting to simply relinquish it to the collective. That is just as well, since we have an overpopulation problem.

    Well, WE don’t, but those people in Asia and third world countries really need to tow the line. How do we convince them to follow our lead, in a non racially, ethnically bigoted or coercive sort of way?

    How exactly is this to be achieved on any kind of fair and equitable basis without coercion, or force?

    It seems that a good many people would not be as enlightened as the “people’s committees” who would make such decisions. And that just wouldn’t be fair, would it?

    Oh tell me, what present or past socialistic or communistic society comes closest to a “real world” implementation of your ideas?

    I mean basically, what socialistic, or communistic regime has EVER been been based on anything but power, terror, and mass murder in order to implement the utopian ideals of the architects of the system?

    Glad you don’t plan to use coercion, because I’m armed to the teeth… and I do not think I’m going to cooperate with the ideas.

    The Uncooperative

  7. Anniee Says:

    My god, it’s The Handmaid’s Tale in stark reverse. The tale that we’ve been subjected to as warning against those kooky kristian konservatives; when all along it’s the ecofeminists who really want to control reproduction?

    I am sad that this is one of the more *modest* proposals I’ve read in the ecofemisphere in regards to subjugating our reproductive rights and our familial rights. Because in itself it’s one of the most horrifying things a human being could read. But it *is* more modest than most while being the same in nature. I am stunned that things have gotten to such a point while at the same time angry that so many feminists have mocked our fears for so long when we’ve pointed out that pro-choice rhetoric is often just that – rhetoric covering the desire to subjugate and control those of us who do want to bear and raise children. I’m glad mine are grown up, but sad for the kind of battles they will have to fight just in order to live a semblance of a normal life.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “we have an overpopulation problem…Well, WE don’t, but those people in Asia and third world countries really need to tow the line.”

    Firstly, I’d be interested in whether Ripley and Anniee believe that population pressure will directly exacerbate famine, epidemics, sea level rises, natural disasters, deforestation, etc. If you disagree with that factual premise, then fine – it would be great if this sort of thing weren’t necessary. If you accept that this is true, I’d be interested in how you weigh up the relative weightings of what you object to here, and the painful painful harrowing bloodbaths that it aims to avoid.

    Secondly, it’s not true that the overpopulation problem is most acute in Asia. The overpopulation problem is global. Insofar as the average western European consumes far more resources than the average Asian, Europe is more ‘overpopulated’ than Asia. What Asia suffers from is that the world’s skills and wealth aren’t used to provide for its population, which they should be. Distribution is a secondary issue to overall population.

    “what present or past socialistic or communistic society comes closest to a “real world” implementation of your ideas?”
    The Paris Commune, CNT-controlled Spain, Zapatista Chiapas. I’d rather not discuss the issue of anarchism/communism per se, because although it’s very interesting, it’s not the central point here. I have many other posts that mention communism.

    “How exactly is this to be achieved on any kind of fair and equitable basis without coercion, or force?…It seems that a good many people would not be as enlightened as the “people’s committees” who would make such decisions.”

    How exactly has the sexual revolution been acheived? How exactly have gay people won the limited acceptance that they have? It’s been a cultural change, partly driven by economic necessities, partly driven by deliberate agitation, protest, consciousness-raising.

    This is obviously not the kind of thing that can be imposed on a reluctant population without huge bloodshed – people’s feelings will run incredibly deep on it. It would not be worth imposing it on a reluctant population, nor does anarchism provide for the structures by which it could be. I am recommending that it spread by consent, but that when this mentality is widespread in a population, that population institutionalise and entrench it.

    “subjugating our reproductive rights and our familial rights…one of the most horrifying things a human being could read”

    Why is this so horrifying? That’s not a rhetorical question, I want to get more concrete. Restricting access to abortion, for example, is horrifying because it subjects individuals against their will to substantial physical pain, stress, and impediment – because it causes deaths from illegal abortions, because it makes people live for 9 months not in control of their own bodies.

    But there are different sorts of limitations on ‘familial rights’. What I’m talking about here is, as I see it, an attempt to regulate a way of using one’s body that imposes costs on others. To me it seems similar to the way that currently, you are not free to have children and then do what you want with them: if you abuse or neglect them, they will be taken away from you. It’s a tricky area, but that seems like a basically fair balance between people’s ‘familial rights’ and the rights of others, in this case children.

    Obviously that is a different issue, but I see it as similar. And this is not an unprecedented or new position. John Stuart Mill, one of the most famous defenders of personal freedom, and an outspoken feminist, said that “in the case of children…misapplied notions of liberty are a real obstacle to the fulfilment by the State of its duties”. Children are, ultimately, not just a personal issue of the parents, they are a social issue.

    I really am interested in what precisely you feel is so horrifying here. As I say, it doesn’t to me seem like a huge personal violation, but like regulation of an inherently public activity. But I’m open to being persuaded.

  9. Feminists Against “Unpaid Reproductive Labor” | The Blog of Record Says:

    [...] population, or even end it, and a lot was said about that on the blogosphere recently (here, and here), but an ecological consciousness is not how I came to my decision to remain [...]

  10. Human Hating Feminists want to End “Oppressive” Human Reproduction « True Discernment Says:

    [...] population, or even end it , and a lot was said about that on the blogosphere recently (here, and here), but an ecological consciousness is not how I came to my decision to remain [...]

  11. Polo Ralph Lauren Uk Says:

    Amazing! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a completely different subject but it has pretty much the same page layout and design. Excellent choice of colors!

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