Commentary Abortion

I Am the Population Problem

Lisa Hymas

The population problem is all about me: white, middle-class, American me. Well-meaning people have told me that I'm "just the sort of person who should have kids." Au contraire. I'm just the sort of person who should not have kids.

This fall, world population will reach 7 billion people at a time of accelerated environmental disruption. This article part of a series commissioned by Rewire and with Laurie Mazur as guest editor, to examine the causes and consequences of population and environmental change from various perspectives and the policies and actions needed to both avoid and mitigate the inevitable impacts of these changes.

Here, Lisa Hymas explains how for population and personal reasons she has decided not to have kids. All of the articles in this series can be found here.

Both local and broad scale environmental problems often are linked to population growth, which in turn tends to get blamed on other people: folks in Africa and Asia who have “more kids than they can feed,” immigrants in our own country with their “excessively large families,” even single mothers in the “inner city.”

But actually the population problem is all about me: white, middle-class, American me.

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Steer that blame right over here.

Population isn’t just about counting heads, although by this October we will be counting 7 billion of them worldwide. The impact of humanity on the environment is not determined solely by how many of us are around, but by how much stuff we use and how much room we take up. And as a financially comfortable American, I use a lot of stuff and take up a lot of room. My carbon footprint is more than 200 times bigger than that of an average Ethiopian, more than 12 times bigger than an average Indian’s, and twice as big as an average Brit’s.

Well-meaning people have told me that I’m “just the sort of person who should have kids.” Au contraire. I’m just the sort of person who should not have kids.

When a poor woman in Uganda has another child—too often because she lacks access to family-planning services, economic opportunity, or self-determination—she might dampen her family’s prospects for climbing out of poverty or add to her community’s challenges in providing everyone with clean water and safe food, but she certainly isn’t placing a big burden on the global environment.

When someone like me has a child—watch out, world! Gear, gadgets, gewgaws, bigger house, bigger car, oil from the Mideast, coal from Colombia, Coltan from the Congo, rare earths from China, pesticide-laden cotton from Egypt, genetically modified soy from Brazil. And then when that child has children, wash, rinse, and repeat it all (in hot water, of course). Without even trying, we Americans slurp up resources from every corner of the globe and then spit 99 percent of them back out again as pollution.

Conscientious people try to limit that consumption, of course. I’m one of them. I get around largely by bus and on foot, eat low on the food chain, buy used rather than new, keep the heat low, rein in my gadget lust. But even putting aside my remaining carbon sins (see: airplane flights), the fact is that just by virtue of living in America, enjoying some small portion of its massive material infrastructure, my carbon footprint is at unsustainable levels.

Far and away the biggest contribution I can make to a cleaner environment is to not bring any mini-mes into the world. A 2009 study by statisticians at Oregon State University found that in America the climate impact of having one fewer child is almost 20 times greater than the impact of adopting a series of eco-friendly practices for your entire lifetime, such as driving a hybrid, recycling, using efficient appliances and installing compact fluorescent lights.

And so, for environmental as well as personal reasons, I’ve decided not to have children. I call myself a GINK: green inclinations, no kids.

Most people won’t make the same decision, of course, and I don’t fault them for that. Everyone has different circumstances and will balance their values in different ways. I believe in choice, and that means supporting choices different from my own.

But it needs to become easier for people to make the same decision I have, if they are so inclined.

The reproductive-rights movement focuses on the legal, logistical, and financial hurdles standing between women and control of their fertility. It’s essential work, needed more than ever in today’s hostile political climate.

But the cultural hurdles too often get ignored.

Here in the United States, the Pill has been available for more than 50 years. It’s now almost universally accepted that women will use birth control to delay, space out, or limit childbearing. But there’s not so much acceptance for using birth control to completely skip childbearing. At some point, you’re expected to grow up, pair up, put the Pill off to the side, and produce a couple of kids. Deviate from this scenario and you’ll get weird looks and face awkward conversations with family members, friends, coworkers, and complete strangers.

One 30-something woman I know who works for a reproductive-health NGO says that her colleagues pester her about her decision not to have children, telling her she needs to get started on that family or she’ll regret it. And these are people whose careers are dedicated to making birth control and reproductive health care available to all women! Pro-natal bias runs deep.

Many women who have not already had children find it difficult if not impossible to find a doctor who will perform a tubal ligation. Doctors warn that sterilization is an irreversible, life-altering decision. But having a child is an irreversible, life-altering decision and you don’t find doctors warning women away from that. The broadly held prejudice, in the medical profession and much of the rest of society, is that becoming a parent is the correct and inevitable choice.

Over recent years and decades, it’s become more acceptable for mixed-race couples to have children, and single women, and gay couples, and women over the age of 40, and that’s all good. Acceptance has been slower to come for the decision not to have children. There’s now a fledgling childfree movement, but some who are part of it say they still feel like they’re violating a taboo.

Real reproductive freedom has to include social acceptance of the decision not to reproduce. When we achieve that, it will mean less pressure on women and men who don’t feel called to become parents. It will mean less of a stigma on people who may have wanted to become parents but didn’t get the chance. It will mean a wider array of options for people who haven’t yet decided. It will mean fewer children born to ambivalent or unhappy parents, getting us closer to the goal of “every child a wanted child.”

And, it will mean fewer Americans making a mess of the planet, and a little more breathing room for those of us who are already here or on the way.

I recognize that I am the population problem. I’m trying to be part of the solution.

Let’s make it easier for others to join me.

News Law and Policy

McAuliffe Restores Voting Rights to 13,000 Virginians

Jessica Mason Pieklo

An order issued this week should restore the voting rights to about 13,000 formerly incarcerated people ahead of the November presidential election.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) on Monday announced he had restored the voting rights of about 13,000 formerly incarcerated people, responding to a Virginia Supreme Court order that had blocked McAuliffe’s more expansive re-enfranchisement order.

A divided Virginia Supreme Court in July struck down an executive order by McAuliffe that restored voting rights to more than 200,000 people who had lost those rights as a result of a criminal conviction. The court said the Democratic governor lacked the constitutional authority to issue an order broadly restoring voting rights, but would need to instead restore rights individually to each person who had applied.

“The process I have announced today fully complies with the Virginia Supreme Court’s order and the precedent of governors before me,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “It also reflects the clear authority the governor possesses to use his own discretion to restore rights of people who have served their time.”

Any person who has been convicted of a felony and is not incarcerated or under court supervision can apply to have their voting rights restored. The voting rights restored this week were for people who had applied before the Virginia Supreme Court blocked McAuliffe’s broader order.

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McAuliffe had promised to personally restore those individual voting rights.

Virginia Republican leaders criticized the move as political and dangerous. House Speaker Bill Howell (R) said in a statement to the Virginian-Pilot that McAuliffe “has restored the rights of some odious criminals.”

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: The Fight Over Voter ID Laws Heats Up in the Courts

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Texas and North Carolina both have cases that could bring the constitutionality of Voter ID laws back before the U.S. Supreme Court as soon as this term.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the state’s voter ID law.

Meanwhile, according to Politifact, North Carolina attorney general and gubernatorial challenger Roy Cooper is actually saving taxpayers money by refusing to appeal the Fourth Circuit’s ruling on the state’s voter ID law, so Gov. Pat McCrory (R) should stop complaining about it.

And in other North Carolina news, Ian Millhiser writes that the state has hired high-powered conservative attorney Paul Clement to defend its indefensible voter ID law.

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Alex Thompson writes in Vice that the Zika virus is about to hit states with the most restrictive abortion laws in the United States, including Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. So if you’re pregnant, stay away. No one has yet offered advice for those pregnant people who can’t leave Zika-prone areas.

Robin Marty writes on Care2 about Americans United for Life’s (AUL) latest Mad Lib-style model bill, the “National Abortion Data Reporting Law.” Attacking abortion rights: It’s what AUL does.

The Washington Post profiled Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. Given this Congress, that will likely spur another round of hearings. (It did get a response from Richards herself.)

Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson writes in Bloomberg BNA that Stanford Law Professor Pamela Karlan thinks the Supreme Court’s clarification of the undue burden standard in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt will have ramifications for voting rights cases.

This must-read New York Times piece reminds us that we still have a long way to go in accommodating breastfeeding parents on the job.

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