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.