The ethics of having a small family

It's just the stoic era of black-and-white photography. The government did not force him to have all those babies.

He’s not smiling because it’s the stoic era of black-and-white photography. The government did not force his wife to have all those babies.

For those who don’t know, ethical issues tend to interest me a great deal. So, I was intrigued when I saw this post discussing the ethics of procreation.

It’s quite common knowledge that, in order for societies to survive at the same population level, you need a replacement birth rate of 2.1 children per woman. For society to grow, you need a higher rate. If you have a lower rate, then society will shrink.

Iran, according to the editorial, is shrinking and there’s concern the government’s 14-point plan to improve the child birth rate will be carried out in a way that oppresses women.

That would be unfortunate (oppressive policies, that is; more children for people who want more children is great, usually).  But, as we all know, this is no the first time that a government has put into place reproductive policies. The most famous of those is probably China, with it’s one child rule, to curb population growth.

Government does have an interest in making sure it’s society thrives and continues, so population is something they should think about and influence. Most countries have immigration policies, which is one way they can influence overall population. But, when it comes to procreation by citizens, how far should they go.  Incentivizing is certainly an option. The US Congress loves to incentivize behavior with the tax code. What about laws? Does legislating procreation go too far?

In my novel Life First, society feels quite strongly about preserving life in the wake of pandemics that killed off a huge chunk of society. For that society, having multiple children is expected. It’s how they plan to rebuild. It drives their policy on everything from abortion to mandatory organ donation. The novel touches slightly on this notion, when I mention that Kelsey’s father is a bit of a political maverick who has ascended to the higher ranks despite the fact that he only had one child.  I don’t touch on it a lot in later books, but it’s noticeable that the other families in the books (Rob’s, Luke’s, Susan’s*) are all larger broods.  Clearly, it’s not legislated in the future I’ve built in Life First, but more childbirths are expected than less.

So, what are your thoughts on legislating society’s procreative habits? A good thing? Or not the government’s business? If the government does get involved in asking for more  children, what responsibility does the government have to pay for the care and feeding of those children? If it asks for fewer children, should it be concerned about the impact of what a nation of single-child households does to society?

UPDATE: I saw this article on China’s one-child policy that was interesting and touched on the infanticide Charles Ray mentioned in his comment:

*Life First readers are asking themselves, “Isn’t Susan an orphan?” Yes, she is, but by her family, I meant her uncle Mike and aunt, who raised her and had children of their own. They ended up with Susan not just because Susan’s mother was Mike’s favorite sister, but because he had the fewest children at the time her parents perished. Therefore he was the logical choice to take her in. Multiple children are great in theory, but they also require mounds of resources.

About RJ Crayton

RJ Crayton is a former journalist who now writes fiction. She's reported for the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, as well as the smaller publications Education Technology News and Campus Crime. She has two published novels, Life First and Second Life and blogs for Indies Unlimited and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. For exclusive content and first looks at her new work, sign up for the newsletter at
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6 Responses to The ethics of having a small family

  1. DV Berkom says:

    Yeah, the idea of government legislating procreation is not something I would advocate. I tend to swing toward the less is more ideal when it comes to what government says I can and can’t do with my body/family. That being said, overpopulation is a huge issue and needs to be addressed. I just hope folks take it upon themselves to remedy the situation rather than have the government or anyone, for that matter, force a draconian remedy down our throats.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Well, overpopulation is a concern for the world. Dan Brown’s Inferno takes an interesting stab at the overpopulation issue that’s even more drastic than governmental mandates. I think it would be nice if people could, when presented with the problem, work to remedy the situation themselves. However, it’s also a tough proposition to demand fewer children if people want more. I was reading Bob Saget’s biography recently, and I was amazed to learn that his parents had five children, and four of them died. And you think, whoa. How do you cope with the loss of four of your five children? And what if you’d only had one child, and then your line and hopes and dreams for it, dies? But, I think that’s why people feel so strongly about family size choice.

  2. Much of the thinking around this, and the behaviours and policies of governments, stems from historical patriarchy which oppresses the female sex and robs them of their power. Unless and until true equality of the sexes comes about we will not find successful answers to these questions, answers that honour all people as having equal value and power. And that is still a long way off. So, at this time there is no definitive answer to these questions. It’s not only about reproduction, it’s also about diversity and valuing what that brings.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Yvonne, I think you’re right about this being a remnant of patriarchal society. Like Charles mentioned, so many of the policies lead to hiding children and infanticide in places that reduced the number of births allowed. Forcing expanded families can be problematic, too, especially if maternal care is not up-to-snuff. Maternal mortality rates in some countries are shockingly high.

  3. Charles Ray says:

    When governments get too involved in such matters it often has disastrous consequences. When the Chinese in the 1980s decreed the ‘one-child-per-family’ policy, it led to infanticide of girl babies because of the preference of males, people breaking the law and hiding kids which disrupted their education and nurturing, and a society now that’s imbalanced toward males leading to human smuggling of women for wives, and rampant abuse of women in many rural areas.

    • RJ Crayton says:

      Charles, I’m with you in that government should not be directly legislating how many children people have or don’t have. It’s not had the best results in China, especially the infanticide. Even in countries where it’s not legislated, societal values can impact reproduction. In countries where boys are prized over girls, infanticide of girls still happens when people know they can only afford so many children and a girl is not where they’re going to apend their resources. How gender preference plays into this is a slightly different issue, but also an interesting one. I remember reading an article talking about more women in the US seeking gender selecting fertilization techniques wanting a daughter. However, the US was the only country where females were the primary gender parents sought. In all other countries, parents primarily sought gender selection to get boys.

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