Population Matters

Population & ethics

Population & ethics

Population Matters opposes coercive population restraint policies on ethical grounds, in defence of individual human rights, especially women’s rights. At the same time, population growth raises important ethical issues around the balance between reproductive rights and social and environmental responsibilities.


Intergenerational ethics

Current global population growth — approximately 10,000 more per hour — will stop one day, simply because a finite planet cannot sustain an infinite number of people. But it can only stop in one of two ways: either sooner, the humane way, by fewer births — family planning backed by policy to make it available and encourage people to use it — or later, the “natural” way, by more deaths — famine, disease and predation/war. Campaigners against the former are in practice campaigning for the latter. We owe it to our children to prevent this.

International ethics

This is not just an issue for poor countries. Each person living in a developed country does far more damage to the planet than any poor African; every extra Briton, for instance, has the carbon footprint of 22 more Malawians — and the poor will suffer first and worst from climate change.

Reproductive ethics

If two people who have two living children have a third child, they will ratchet up the population of the planet, and thus: ratchet up damage to the environment; bring nearer the day of serious ecological failure; and ratchet down everyone else’s share of dwindling natural resources to cope with this. So individual decisions to create a whole extra lifetime of impacts affect everyone else — far more than any other environmentally damaging decision they make. We need to be aware of the ethical implications of having large families; and sex education in schools should include it.

Women and children

Humanitarian ethics

Some 220 million women worldwide lack access to family planning, and 40 per cent of pregnancies are unintended. There are some 50,000 deaths from unsafe abortions each year; while the women dying from pregnancy-related causes is equivalent to four full jetliners crashing every day. The close correlation of high fertility rates with high maternal and child mortality is well established — every mother on $1 per day knows that the family will be better fed if there are three children round the table rather than ten. Universal access to family planning is Millennium Development Goal 5b; and coercive pregnancy through lack of it is an abuse of women’s rights too. As UNICEF said: “Family planning could bring more benefits to more people at less cost than any other known technology”. It should be a very high priority.

Interspecies ethics

The very recent population explosion since the industrial revolution is causing the current ‘sixth major global extinction’, as humans occupy, degrade, pollute and destroy wildlife habitats. Other creatures have as much right to occupy the planet as we do.

Political ethics

For all of the above reasons, governments should set a national goal of stabilising and then reducing numbers to a sustainable level through promoting smaller families and limiting net migration. In addition, governments should give top priority to family planning and women’s education and empowerment programmes when providing development aid.

Read more about rights and responsibilities.