5 Procreative Autonomy and Climate Change

Smriti Karki

Could we ever justify restricting people’s choice when it comes to having children?

Before reading: In your notes, draw and label the scale below. Do you think the government should be able to tell its citizens how many children they can have? Or do you think people should be able to have as many children as they choose to regardless of the consequences? Draw and label the scale below in your notes. Place yourself more toward the left side of the scale if you think government’s shouldn’t have a say. Place yourself more toward the right side of the scale if you think our freedom to have as many children as we please should be more restricted.

Stakeholder Map Prompt: Using the instructions from “How to Create and Use a Stakeholder Map,” create a stakeholder map in your notes, either individually or with your class. Show the topic, the subjects affected, and possible outcomes based on the ideas introduced at the beginning of this article and your own background knowledge of the topic.


From record-setting wildfires raging the Amazon to rising sea levels and melting ice caps, the devastating effects of climate change are becoming more and more apparent. Scientific data maintains that much of the rise in average global temperature is a direct result of human activities that emit heat-trapping greenhouse gases. The repercussions we currently face are a consequence of a one-degree Celsius increase in average global temperature since pre-industrial times. At this rate, we will experience up to a 4°C increase in average warming by 2100, which will only exacerbate and magnify the already rampant environmental degradation.

Fortunately, this future is avoidable as long as mitigating measures can be rapidly implemented at the individual, community, and national levels. Recent analysis suggests that if immediate changes to halt climate change are made, carbon emissions can be lessened within 12 years, which will keep the rise in average temperature to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Given that our actions now are crucial to the future of the biosphere and consequently the future of all people, climate-conscious individuals recognize the urgent need for change.

Even though scientific consensus asserts the existence of climate change, to global warming and climate change skeptics, this is still a point of contention. But to the rest, the numerous impacts of climate change can raise valid concerns over the sustainability of natural resources, and the kind of dystopian reality future generations will be grappling with in their lifetime if we fail to act now.

This situation has forced people to contemplate the ethics of having children in a consistently warming and thereby deteriorating world. Curtailing the population would mean the environment suffers a reduced impact due to human activities, which will translate to a higher standard of living for the remaining population in terms of an increase in per capita availability of natural resources. In 2019, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced criticism from conservatives following her Instagram live stream in which she considered the plight of would-be parents: “Basically, there’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult. And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?”

For BirthStrikers, the answer is decidedly tough but evident. UK-based environmental activist Blythe Pepino set up BirthStrike, a voluntary organization for people who have made the decision to not have children given the inevitable environmental deterioration looming in the future. Pepino maintains that BirthStrike does not aim to dissuade people from bearing children but simply emphasizes the exigency of the ecological crisis. BirthStrikers are a part of a growing movement that continues to gain momentum as conversations regarding the ethics of bearing children circulate more and more widely with groups of climate-conscious people.

On the other hand, some are quick to dismiss the notion of limiting procreation due to climate change as absurd, such as Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah who in March 2019, stated that the solution to climate change is having more babies. On the Senate floor, Lee shared his solution in a presentation, declaring that, “More babies will mean forward-looking adults, the sort we need to tackle long-term large-scale problems.”

Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University echoes Lee’s thoughts. Cowen argues that by having more children and increasing the population of a nation we would also increase the chances of the nation coming up with innovative solutions to climate change. “If progress on climate change is at all possible, someone will need to contribute to it.” He believes that the most promising people to take on this task are our children.

However, Lee and Cowen’s reasoning fails to appreciate the growing carbon footprint our descendants will need to tackle. They also seem to ignore the scientific data concerning individuals’ contribution to the problem, with recent research stressing the strain having children represents to the environment given its already fragile state. Researchers calculated that having one less child would result in a family in an industrialized nation conserving 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide each year, which is much more efficient than other proposed solutions to limiting carbon dioxide production such as giving up cars (saving 2.4 tons) and flying (saving 1.6 tons per transatlantic flight).

Discussing the prospect of not having children as a legitimate solution to climate change gives rise to other ethical concerns such as our right to bear children and the innate value of procreation. Procreative autonomy is one of many forms of autonomy people can employ to govern their lives and an extension of one’s right to liberty. In the context of human reproduction, exercising procreative autonomy means having total freedom in one’s choices regarding bearing children and, ultimately, retaining dominion over one’s body. Implementing policies to curb procreation interferes with this right to individual procreative autonomy. While this right’s value is of great significance, we might wonder whether it is absolute. If every individual possesses an inherent right to bear children, does this right also mean that an individual should have as many children as they want without any regard for the environmental consequences of their decision?

The instinct theory of human procreation suggests that all animals, including humans, have an inherent and fundamental desire to procreate. Further, it claims that if humans do not procreate, they will have left this basic purpose unfulfilled, ensuring their unhappiness. But this theory is not without its flaws – the notion of an intrinsic desire for progeny lacks supporting empirical data. Also, the urge to procreate is not universal amongst humans – people choose not to experience parenthood because that is simply not what they want. In this light, the procreation-instinct theory comes across as an oversimplification of human nature.

If population growth is to be regulated to resolve climate change, we must address the question of whether governmental restrictions on our procreative autonomy can be justified. Sarah Conley, a philosophy professor at Bowdoin College, argues that they can. It’s true, Conley admits, that if procreative autonomy is considered a right or an extension of the freedom to live life on our own terms, then restricting the number of children one can have would be an encroachment of this right. But Conley also notes that, “Imposing one’s children on an overpopulated world is also a kind of interference […] in the lives of others in that world. Whose desire should trump?” Comparing the significance of different people’s claim to freedom, Conley explains how one person’s right to something can outweigh another person’s right to something else, and how the more basic a right is, the more difficult it would be to supersede. Even though it would be repressive for a government to regulate the number of children one can bear, it may be even more repressive to rob others of the right to the basic necessities of life by contributing to overpopulation, which would deplete finite natural resources. Hence, Conley believes that governmental restrictions on childbearing is ethically admissible because unlimited procreation would impinge on others’ fundamental rights even more so than governmental limitations on procreation would interfere with one’s procreative autonomy.

Regardless of where one stands on this issue, decisions about bearing children remain deeply personal. While people have the right to bear children, the fact is that overpopulation and the resulting increase in human activities are contributing to climate change. Whether you regard the climate impact of having a child an important consideration or not, taking action to remedy climate change is becoming ever more pressing. The hope is that by continuing to contemplate all the ethical concerns climate change presents, we might arrive at an equitable solution. Given our dire predicament, no solution should be off the table.

Respond to the following questions in your notes and through classroom discussion.
  1. Are there conditions that might necessitate the government deciding how many children its citizens are allowed to have? If yes, do you think our present circumstances meet that criteria? If no, can you explain the moral value at stake that is so important as to make that freedom sacrosanct?
  2. Instinct theory follows a common pattern by claiming that if something is natural, then it is good. For example, some people argue that because humans’s stomachs and teeth have evolved to allow for the consumption of meat, our carnivorous habits must be morally permissible. But in what ways might we object to this kind of reasoning?
  3. If a moral obligation to limit procreation does exist, who do we owe that duty to — who must we make this sacrifice for: our own children, all future generations, humanity, all life on Earth, the world, the universe, yourself? Which of these do you find most persuasive in grounding this responsibility? Why?


Share This Book