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Since when were babies 'carbon legacies'?

4 August 2014
By Jennie Bristow
Editor of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service publication Reproductive Review, and co-author of the book Parenting Culture Studies
Appeared in BioNews 765

Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the US theologian Cristina Richie states that the 'Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ARTs) industry' is 'an often overlooked source of environmental degradation'. ARTs, claims Richie, are deserving of 'special ethical attention, as they not only absorb the "typical" medical resources like buildings, medical instruments and intellectual capital, they are unique in that they alone create carbon legacies in addition to having a carbon footprint'.

Carbon legacies? Richie is talking about babies. These babies, the longed-for little bundles of joy and worry that fertility doctors dedicate their careers to bringing into existence, are reduced by Richie's analysis to carbon-emitting consuming machines, stomping their outsized footprint over the world. By regarding procreation through the lens of environmentalism, Richie draws the conclusion that the only way to create an 'environmentally sustainable reproductive technology industry' is not to have one at all.

She doesn't say that, of course; as this is an article that purportedly discusses ethics and therefore tries very hard to look subtle, clever, and complicated. But her argument is fundamentally predictable and daft.

Richie's way of lessening the 'burden on the already over-taxed ecosystem' by reducing the numbers of babies being born has a long and inglorious history. Generations of population controllers have told us that for the 'greater good' of society, we should restrict the fertility of poor women, disabled women, and women in the developing world. In more recent times, campaigns such as the Optimum Population Trust have used environmental arguments to cajole people to pledge to 'Stop At Two'– voluntarily curbing their fertility in order to reverse population growth, and thereby 'taking another green step towards environmental survival for all'.

These arguments are all objectionable. Women's ability to control their fertility through contraception and abortion is a great thing, because it gives them the choice of how many children to have, and when to have them. Population control policies, on the other hand, are fundamentally opposed to women's choice, and seek to use contraception and abortion to control women's fertility for other ends. The argument that ARTs should be restricted for the 'sake of the planet' is just another form of population control.

Richie insists that the problem with reproductive technologies is not so much population growth, as consumption: 'the carbon emissions that each medically assisted birth leads to'. She complains: 'Even if fertility clinics were otherwise "green" and used recycled energy, renewable materials and functioned off the grid, they still could not offset the carbon output of their products under current production models'.

In this formulation, babies are again reduced to carbon-emitting 'products' of the ARTs industry. This startlingly misanthropic statement betrays the one-sidedness that runs through today's obsession with the problem of consumption – an obsession which, unfortunately, is shared by many more than Richie.

The positioning of human beings as consumers of resources ignores that they are also producers of resources: if it weren't for the things that people produce, there would be nothing to consume. Similarly, the idea that reproduction is a problem ignores the reality that it is only through a process of continual renewal that human life, like any life, can sustain itself and develop solutions to the problems that arise. That's why individuals should be able to have the babies that they want – and why society should embrace reproduction, not try to restrain it 'for the good of the planet'.

Richie claims that she only wants to eliminate 'wasteful' aspects of the fertility business – such as funded ARTs for 'those who are not biologically infertile' (that is, single and lesbian women). But as she concedes, this would hardly make a dent in the 'carbon emission of humans', as 'the fertile might choose to have biological children through natural means' – so this, in turn, would 'have to be addressed through individual or national carbon caps and is beyond the reach of the ART industry'.

So much for the attempt at clever ethics. All Richie is really saying is that people should be pushed to have fewer children, because she thinks that would be a green thing to do. How nice it would be if we could stop talking about babies as 'carbon legacies' and welcome the technological developments that enable people today to have the number of children that they want.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
HAVE YOUR SAY
Population control (User:97777 - 06/08/2014)
With mass space travel being unavailable there ARE eventual limits to growth of human population on this planet. Enlightened persuasion and reasoned argument about family size with respect to quality of personal life now and human life in the future is not some form of authoritarian repression. Right to attack right wing, anti-choice, homphobes, wrong to emotively rule out voluntary constraint on family size as an option.
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