Missing the Point on Large Families

Laurie Mazur

The public shaming of Nadya Suleman and others who choose to have more than two children is the wrong approach. Instead of focusing on those who make questionable choices, why not focus on those who have no choice?

As the
nation sinks deeper into economic crisis, we are transfixed by the story of Nadya Suleman, an unemployed
single mom who chose to have 14 children by in-vitro fertilization. Meanwhile, British environmental advisor
Jonathon Porritt set off a firestorm by suggesting
that it is "irresponsible" to have more than two children.

The
intensity of both debates suggests a growing unease with the relationship
between human numbers and resources. In Suleman’s
case, the resources are financial; given her lack of financial support, people
ask, what right does she have to bring so many children into the world? For Porritt and his supporters, the resources are
environmental: population growth and resource consumption, they say, have
outgrown the planet’s capacity to provide for us all.

There is
some truth to both arguments. The relationship between human numbers and
economic well-being is complicated, but there is a strong association between
large families and poverty. The relationship between population growth and the
environment is equally complex; resources are distributed so inequitably and
used so wastefully that it’s impossible to determine how many people the
Earth could support. But it is clear that slower growth would give us a
fighting chance to manage many environmental problems. Smaller families are not
a panacea for the economic and environmental problems before us – but they
could help lower the hurdles we must leap.

Still,
the public shaming of Suleman and others who choose
to have more than two children is surely the wrong approach. Instead of
focusing on those who make questionable choices, why not focus on those who
have no choice? Right now, some 200
million women in developing countries lack access to family planning services,
and countless others lack the power to make real choices about childbearing
because of crushing poverty or gender discrimination. Even in the United
States, half of pregnancies are unintended,
and too many lack access to the health care they need to plan and space healthy
pregnancies. 

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The
ability to choose the number and spacing of our children is a fundamental human
right. That choice – or the lack thereof – has huge implications
for the health and well-being of women and their families. At a family level, it can determine whether children get
the education and other resources they need to grow and flourish. At
a global level, it will determine whether
human numbers — now at 6.8 billion — will climb to eight or even 11 billion
by mid-century. 

These are problems we know how to
address. Real choice means access to voluntary family planning and other
reproductive health services. It means education and employment opportunities, especially
for women. And it means tackling the inequities – both gender and
economic – that are associated with rapid population growth.

Nadya Suleman has captured our attention, but she is not the
norm.  In general, where people have
the means and the power to make real choices about childbearing, they have
fewer children, and invest more in each child. Some people will make choices we
disagree with. Let’s stop worrying about them, and turn our attention to
those who have no choices at all.

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