Too Many Children? The Ethics of Population Control

Key Questions

A recent television commercial portrays a Latin-American woman desperately poor and unhappy because she is the mother of several unplanned pregnancies. The scene is intended to convince viewers that the globe has too many children, where the solution rests with so-called family planning agencies. The ethical message portrayed is that children are valued more highly when there are fewer of them. However, when one considers the source of the message, the ethical implication appears quite different. The message is about population control through methods that dissuade the blessing of conception, the unborn and parenthood. The message actually may be consistent with the devaluation of children.

Recent decades have witnessed many ways that children have been devalued. This paper examines whether the purported necessity of population control implicitly devalues children even before they are conceived. For many people and institutions, it is the first but subtle means of devaluing children, but it is not the only way. If conception is allowed to occur, babies face a high probability of being rejected before birth through abortion. If birth is allowed, many infants will be born into families without the presence of fathers. If without father, the chance of children's poverty is greater while mother must contend alone. If mother must contend alone, children have a greater chance of another kind of poverty - a poverty of values - where the popular culture fills the children's time. If poverty of values dominate, Christian values become less important to children's character and potential salvation.

The devaluation of children is seen in so many ways that a short paper cannot adequately address them all. A review of some of the literature has found various sources discussing the other ethical problems mentioned in the paragraph above. Perhaps this paper should recite the conclusions of studies explaining why it is moral to reject abortion, embrace fatherhood, provide adequate material comfort and train children so that they may become believers. However, scant reference has been found about the problem of population control policy and how it implicitly devalues children.

Scholars instead tend to concentrate on the economic and ecological implications of population control. The literature seems more focused on avoiding poverty and protecting the earth rather than concern for the lives of children that may be rejected in the name of population control. Perhaps it is naïve to proceed, but this paper will attempt to explore how population control is another opportunity to devalue children - implicitly. The word implicit is used because this method of devaluation does not seem as obvious as most of the other circumstances mentioned in the paragraphs above. Population control is not normally thought about as a child devaluation issue; instead promoters (sometimes well intentioned) believe that population control achieves better economic circumstances for both the adults and children who currently inhabit the earth.

The key question: Is population control ethical or does it devalue children?

Competing non-Christian and Evangelical Views

Research did not find an authoritative source that summarized the ethics of population control policy as it relates to the value of children. However, a wide variety of articles contained various ideas that this paper categorizes into four groups to better clarify the ethical positions. The first two viewpoints presented are from secular humanist logic, while the two that follow are derived from Biblical principles. It must be admitted upfront that the categories may be too few to represent the broad range of scholarly opinion. In addition, advocates of the viewpoints may argue that their ideas do not suggest subtle implications about the value of children. They may sincerely believe that their opinions are perhaps even amoral with respect to children. For example, a portion of the scholarly work is about an environmental issue - population growth and the carrying capacity of the earth. Apologies to the advocates, but beneath the surface of their arguments are sometimes unintended consequences toward the value of children. Because the lives of children matter in the eyes of God, it is critically important to detect the ethics of their views.

Pessimist View

Over two centuries ago, Thomas Malthus (Essay on the Principle of Population) theorized that the geometric trend in population growth would outstrip the arithmetic increase of food and other necessities for life. This idea reemerged in the late 1960s when biologist Paul Ehrlich (Population Bomb) and others hypothesized dire consequences on the horizon. This supposedly happens when couples do not show reproduction restraint within the predictably miserable world that additional children supposedly create. Constantly promoted on college campuses and through the media, the popular culture has accepted this viewpoint - implicitly devaluing children who are not yet conceived or born.

Optimist View

The world has limited land, labor and capital resources that conflict with unlimited wants for goods and services. More births may add to the wants of society, but their addition to the labor pool as future adults is of greater value. New generations of workers innovate, develop new technologies, and manage resources better than previous generations. The economies of the world in the aggregate are better able to care for children. Births and the rearing of children consequently should be revered. Economists have assembled ex-post information to support this hypothesis. This buttresses the optimistic tendency to implicitly value future children (or it might so appear.)

Symmetric View

Being pro-children does not imply Christians must always be procreation according to this viewpoint. People may determine that God's will does not include parenthood. For others, only one or two children will please him. Population control is especially important in the regions of the world lacking adequate nourishment and health care for children. Unwanted pregnancies should be prevented through moral methods until better distributive justice among global societies is achieved. Christians are called to help the poor overcome the circumstances that unchecked procreation would exacerbate. The symmetric viewpoint attempts to balance the procreation mandate with the principle of good stewardship. The advocates believe that children should be born into a world that is prepared to take care of them. They value human conception only consistent with what they identify as an economic/ecological threshold.

Procreation View

God creates people in his own image and commanded them to increase in number. We are to multiply because it pleases the Lord. The procreation viewpoint accepts this truth, and faithfully trusts God's will. Advocates do not fear Malthusian predictions because they believe the loving God is not in the business of creating havoc through population growth. Problems rest ultimately with the fall of man. "...Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life." (Gen. 3:17) The procreation viewpoint does not include an attitude of economic optimism. Instead, their hope springs from trust in the Lord, not human ingenuity. The material circumstances of children are not the critical matter. Jesus, himself, was born into a poor family. The conversion of soles, regardless of the economic circumstances, is the important mandate we have been given.

Key Biblical Passages

The two secular humanist views, pessimist and optimist, are not supported well by scripture. The Bible can help us consider whether they have merit, however. The two Christian views, symmetric and procreation, are supported by ample evidence from the Bible. Juxtaposed they are different and, at best, only one can be accepted. If neither is in the Lord's will, then elements of each should be considered in discovering the ethical truth.

Pessimist View

Modern pessimists contend that famines and wars over resources will be more frequent as more children are born. It is hardly a coincidence, during the same interval, Christian authors churned out many books evaluating and even predicating the apocalypse. Jesus warns us that "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places." (Mat. 24:7)

Several Christian authors believe that most prophetic events have already occurred. Some Christian readers may believe that we are of the last generation after reading the authors' analyses. "I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened." (Mat. 24:34) If we are in the last days, they are reminded that Jesus said, "How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!" (Mat 24:19) All of this may discourage adults from raising children who could potentially face the tribulation before being saved.

Optimist View

Optimists are not concerned about population control, but instead contend that children are important to a growing economy. Historical data tends to support their argument. World GDP per capita has risen consistently. The stock of available resources is actually greater than ever. For every country that might appear to have too many people and too much poverty, there are other countries with relative prosperity despite population density.

Singapore is good example, where the population density is one of highest on earth, yet GDP per capita growth has been very strong. The lesson Singapore's teaches is that people are fully capable of contending with large populations. Resources mater most, and people are smart enough to adapt and improve resources to meet growing populations. Children are welcomed because they will learn from adults and, when they grow-up, they will use their minds to further improve the economic situation. Certainly a secular humanist argument, but scripture seems to support this view. People created in God's image are given the mental capacity to improve economic circumstances. He allows us to appreciate the challenges of our labor. "That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil - this is the gift of God." (Ecc: 10:13)

Some optimists are worried that population control devalues children by placing a greater burden on them. When they become adults, there will be fewer people in their prime work years to keep economic progress alive and well. They will have a greater load to bear, especially related to the social security of seniors no longer in the labor force. They will have been reared to learn about the selfishness of population control. Perhaps this violates scripture that says "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." (Prov. 22:6)

Symmetric View

The symmetric view recognizes that God's purpose for his people is not one-dimensional. Abraham and Sarah together had only one son born late in life, yet God's plan for them was significant. Although God ordains procreation, single life is also fine with God. Paul said, "I wish that all men were as I am...Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am." (I Cor 7: 7-8)

Scripture indicates that people also have the responsibility of dominion over the earth. Living things are important to God. For example, Noah was told to secure living creatures, "You are to bring into the ark two of all living creatures, male and female, to keep them alive with you." (Gen. 6:19) If the population of people climbs to place where animals and other living things are threatened, then the dominion mandate might be violated. "...Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature moves on the ground." (Gen. 1:28) Although people are of higher order because they have been created in God's image, the symmetric view attempts to balance love for children with our duty as good stewards of the earth. The symmetric view contends that people must protect the environment in which people inhabit. Too many births may cause havoc not part of God's will. Once more, overpopulation normally occurs in regions where resources are not adequate for basic nutrition and medical care.

A redistribution of resources from rich to poor nations is the desired approach of the symmetrical view. Jesus taught that riches do not earn a place in his kingdom, and that charity to the poor is important. For example, he told the rich young man "...Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me." (Mark 10:21) The symmetric view holds that the world lacks distributive justice, and children are especially its victims. Without distributive justice, the symmetric view's next best alternative is population control. They do not advocate taking life after conception but instead prevention of unwanted pregnancies through modern methods. They see the Bible confirming God's will to develop solutions to problems such as overpopulation - "For the Lord gives wisdom and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding." (Prov. 2:6)

Procreation View

God's instruction to procreate is seen in the first passages of the Bible. Man and woman were created in God's image where "God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number..." (Gen: 1:28) After the flood, God told the remaining people to procreate. 'Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth." (Gen. 9:1)

Not only does God desire procreation, but also his grandeur is more fully understood because of it. "Oh Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise, because of your enemies to silence the foe of the avenger." (Ps. 8:1-2) The word praise is alternatively translated to mean strength. Children help us understand the majesty of God.

As important as they are to the glory of God, he lovingly dispenses parenthood as a gift to adults. "Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him" (Ps. 127:3) Couples should recognize the honor of having children. "He not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth." (Mal. 2:15) Paul instructing women in reverent behavior wrote, "But women will be saved (or restored) through childbearing - if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety." (I Tim. 2:15) The procreation viewpoint values God by valuing children.

Examination of Arguments of Competing Views

Pessimist View

Predictions of apocalyptic events by Christian authors should be carefully evaluated. Jesus said, "No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Mat. 24:36) Unfortunately, Christian readers may disregard these words when Christian authors and secular humanist forecasters make their doomsday predictions. As a result, some may be led to believe in the necessity population control - the implicit devaluation of children.

Moral restraint, or abstinence, was the solution to the problem of unwanted births originally proposed by Malthus. However, secular humanists of modern times advocated voluntary family planning including sometimes state-sponsored abortion and sterilization. These modern solutions conflict with the truth that life begins before birth as written "For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother's womb." (Ps. 139:13)

The new age movement's embracement of pantheism has influenced pessimists. Pantheists believe that all animals, vegetables and minerals are equally part of God. Population growth is a threat to non-human elements close to extinction. Yet, the Bible teaches that only people are created in God's image. "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female created them." (Gen. 1:27) God gave dominion to people over all other things - "And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground - everything that has the breath of life in it - I give every plant for food. And, it was so." (Gen. 1:30)

It is interesting to note that pantheism is rooted in eastern religions. These belief systems are located in the very part of the world where pessimists assert that birth control is very critical. Placing lower order animals, vegetables and minerals on par with God is corrupt religious belief according to scripture. "They exchange the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creative things rather than the Creator - who is forever praised. Amen" (Rom. 1:23)

God loves children, and the pessimistic ethic does not agree with the attitude the Lord has modeled for us. He teaches us the importance of a loving mind-set about children. "People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant." (Mark 10: 13-14)

Optimist View

Secular humanists believe that the primary source of optimism rests with humankind. This is misdirected because the foundation of optimism is in the Lord. "But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and confirms his covenant, which he swore to your forefathers, as it is today." (Deu. 8:18) Optimism could be much stronger if more people trusted God who is faithful and has a purpose for children and adults as well. We should take scripture about work to heart, "Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men." (Eph. 6:7)

Optimism in the Lord does not guarantee economic success, but instead his purpose for our lives - even lives of poverty. The tension between God's purpose and self-interest is the underlying problem with the secular humanist approach. The Lord wants us to choose the kingdom of God not the kingdom of self. Paul instructs Christians, "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is - his good, pleasing and perfect will." (Rom: 12:2 )

In the kingdom of self, wealth becomes idol worship - effort expended for sinful reasons. "And, I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man's envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." (Ecc. 4:4) If the purpose is not godly, then a quest for better standards of living is simply wrong.

An irony occurs while people attempt to achieve better economic circumstances. More family planning tends to be found among the wealthier because they have greater means to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Ironically, they are more able to afford the blessings of procreation. This inconsistency may reveal the underlying problem of wealth that Jesus addressed. Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." (Mat. 6:24) The idea that economic growth leads to a greater valuing of children seems to be inverted when it does not follow the Lord's will.

Symmetric View

This view suggests we might be incapable of valuing living children well, so we must devalue the conception of future children instead. A problem with population control is that it often calls for government authority. The evidence of the misuse of power is very evident in countries such as China, where forced abortion and sterilization have occurred without respect to life. This is reminiscent of Herod ordering the death of boys because of his fear of the birth of Christ. "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi." (Mat. 2:16) Herod wanted to be certain that his government was supreme, instead of the King of the Jews.

Exodus records the first form of government-sponsored population control. The king devalued the Hebrews who like all children were created in the image of God. The king said, "...the Israelites have become much too numerous for us." (Ex: 1:9) He ordered the slave masters to oppress them, but when this was not sufficient, he ordered midwives to kill baby boys at birth. "When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth and observe them on the delivery stool, if it is a boy, kill him, but if it is a girl, let her live." (Ex: 1:16) However, the midwives knew God would not approve and did not fulfill the king's command. God rewarded them for their actions, "And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own." (Ex: 1:21)

Population control policy of government is not a peaceful process. Those holding the symmetric view recognize the often-brutal force of government necessary for effective public policy. Therefore, they prefer a worldwide redistribution of resources to children of lesser-developed countries to provide proper nourishment and medical care. Yet distributive justice is not probable in a world of people with self-interest. People prefer to keep their incomes for themselves. Population control may appear to be the only alternative. Unfortunately, this fatalistic conclusion rejects God's blessing in procreation and the care of children as a sacred trust.

The symmetric view has difficulty accepting that the image of God may be modeled through conditions of poverty. Children will be born into different circumstances. "From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. (Acts 17: 26) Poverty for some is allowed. Indeed, the Father sent Jesus to a poor family - therefore, policy to deny God's gift of children to the poor seems incoherent.

Procreation View

Procreation is certainly not the only aspiration God has for his people. The apostles for example were not known as parents. However, God has shown disappointment when his will for parenthood is rejected. In circumstances that perhaps are perplexing to contemporary Christianity, Onan was put to death for an affront to God. He was considered wicked in the Lord's site because he did not produce offspring via his brother's wife. (See Gen. 38:8-10)

Those who claim that population growth creates poverty dismiss the value of children and the will of God. Population control policy supplants this trust in him with instead a dependency upon the state. However, Jesus told us that we should trust God. "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear...Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?" (Mat. 6:25-27)

Paul modeled a trusting attitude. He said, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Phi: 4:12-13) This scripture supports the procreation viewpoint - God provides spiritual strength for children no matter what the economic circumstances.

Application for the Church Today

It appears that only one view unashamedly values children created in the image of God - procreation. The other three views implicitly devalue children as they wrestle with ethical solutions to the problems that they see. The pessimistic view seems to value children no more than other living things. The optimistic view seems to provide a convincing pro-child argument, but cannot escape the reality that a lower rate of childbirth accompanies greater prosperity. The symmetric view favors distributive justice, but recognizes that fewer conceptions are the necessary practical alternative.

The symmetric view is not absent of truth, and it provides Christians with important ideas. For example, the choice of being single or having small families may be God's will for many. Procreation is not a commandment for everyone. In addition, God wants his people to be good stewards of the earth. We need not destroy the environment for the sake of economic growth. Contrary, scripture does not tell us to control population in the name of good stewardship. Procreation and dominion ethics do not have to be in conflict.

The procreation ethic values children unconditionally. This certainly is consistent with Jesus teaching us to love each other as we should love God. "Jesus replied, Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself." (Mat. 22:37-38) People should love children whether they have been born into either an upper income 21st-century household or the relative suffering often found within lesser-developed countries.

We should pray for assistance for children living in difficult circumstances. We should voluntarily redress the poverty of children through financial gifts. However, the most important gift each child may receive is Christ. Our efforts should focus first on the great commission. "Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Sprit." (Mat. 28:19) The best way to value children is to allow them life and then lead them to Christ.

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