Sex and the Overpopulation Alarmists

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Last week Sir David Attenborough gave a speech to the Royal Society of Arts in London in which he urged leaders to combat the problem of overpopulation. His main point was that we need greater awareness about all the problems it causes when people have too many kids.

I’ll skip the rebuttal of the overpopulation alarmists’ claims since others have covered the issue well (Father Frank Pavone has a good overview of the subject here). What strikes me most about the anti-population-growth crowd’s position is a disturbing disconnect in their message:

They discourage people from having children, but they do not discourage people from having sex.

As I’ve said elsewhere, this is a dangerous message. Its potential to wreak havoc on individuals and societies at large can hardly be exaggerated. It makes women lose control over their bodies and makes societies see babies as the enemy of sex.

Contraception is usually touted as the panacea that will make adopting the zero-population-growth worldview easy: Just use contraception, and then you won’t have kids when you’re not supposed to! the thinking goes. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Even the country’s biggest advocate of contraception admits that it’s not the solution it’s touted to be: in Family Planning Perspectives, a publication of Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute, John A. Ross estimates that a woman using a contraceptive with a 1% failure rate has a 70% likelihood of experiencing an unexpected pregnancy over a 10-year period—and that’s assume she’s using it flawlessly to achieve the 1% failure rate in the first place. When a woman lives in a society that greenlights sexual activity in the name of contraception but places restrictions on the circumstances for having children, she is left without real choices when she finds herself staring at two unexpected lines on a pregnancy test.

And the more extreme the disconnect between the restrictions on children and restrictions on sexual activity, the more disastrous the results. Abortion becomes commonplace. Infanticide becomes acceptable. And baby girls lose out more than anyone. To get a glimpse of this process in action, read this sobering article in The Economist which asks the chilling question: What happened to 100 million baby girls? There is a hidden bloodbath going on in China and other parts of Asia right now, and female babies are the targets. Most noticeable is the chart toward the bottom of the page which overlaps the strictness of the one-child policy across China with the imbalance of the boy-to-girl ratio: the more strict the policy, the more little girls are missing. Could there be a more anti-woman situation? Notice that the Chinese government doesn’t tell couples not to have sex; it just tells them not to have kids. So children are still being conceived, they’re just not surviving to be counted in census numbers. This is Exhibit A in the critical lesson that pretending that sex does not create babies does not make it true.

In his speech last week, Sir David said that there is a “strange silence” in general society about the supposed population problem. I’d like to point out that there’s a similarly strange silence among population control advocates on the issue of sex.

Even if there were a looming global population crisis, the reality is that there is only one humane way to rein in population growth: by reining in sexual behavior. The population control advocates’ energy would be far better directed trying to re-link sex and marriage and children in the minds of the populace: this study from MIT points out that pre-contraception societies had natural population control checks when people understood that sex meant marriage and marriage meant children and thus waited to get married (and therefore have sex) until they had accumulated enough resources to support their offspring. This meant that some people had to wait a very long time to get married, and therefore had fewer total children. It reduced population levels in times of need without creating that dangerous disconnect between the sexual act and the new life it creates.

I believe that most population control advocates mean well, and sincerely believe that they are saving us from a future global disaster. Yet what these folks are missing is that they’re igniting a global disaster right now—albeit one that takes place mostly behind closed doors—when they stand against new human life while utterly ignoring the act that creates those new human lives in the first place.