Should There Be A Right To Have As Many Kids As You Want?

Ehrlich, Paul R. | June 14, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Maintaining a civil society depends on a general acceptance of certain human rights and a collective (governmental) suppression of practices that interfere with those rights.  The founders of the United States of America declared that everyone has a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Everyone, that is, except those with the wrong skin color.  Nonetheless, it seems to me that asserting rights is a good idea; it is one way that human beings become “ethical,” by discussing and deciding what kinds of social behaviors we want to encourage and discourage.  People are the only animals that can be ethical because they are the only ones possessing language with syntax, which allows the discussion, and it seems to me that we need more of such discussion.  I also feel, mostly because of things my mother taught me, that the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights[1] is pretty much on the right track.  Even where I think it sometimes misses the mark, I must still live by the laws that protect that human right.[2] I believe discussion of rights and ethics is good in itself and having a few generally accepted principles for sharing this planet with other people and other living beings helps guide policy.

This brings me to the “right” to have as many children as one desires. This right is commonly assumed to exist, although not explicitly propounded in any official statement. I know that simply raising the issue unsettles many for immediately the question of “how” comes to mind and people fear coercion; but my purpose is to set forth the need and to trust that compassionate, humane governance will design strategies and policies to achieve the goal. This blog is about the “need” and not the “how”—so please, stick with me. All rights, regardless of their putative origins, clearly have attached responsibilities and limitations where they impinge on other people’s’ rights.  The right to pursue happiness does not allow one to drive 100 mph through school zones, burn down other people’s houses for toasting marshmallows, or throw garbage over the back fence, no matter how joyous it makes you.  And your right to life does not include cutting out another living person’s heart to replace your failing one.  In order to suppress such activities, people form governments, and governments prohibit various actions because they interfere with one of the main functions of government – maintaining peace and order.  Since overpopulation is now a major threat to both, indeed to the persistence of civilization,[3] regulating the size of their populations is clearly a central duty of all national governments.

Unrestrained population growth is in direct conflict with most of our commonly accepted human rights; having too many people threatens the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of others. While the need for limitation and reduction of the global population is no longer debatable, the means remain open to discussion.  It is possible that giving women everywhere absolutely equal rights to men and providing everyone with access to modern contraception and safe back-up abortion might lead to the necessary slow decline in numbers.[4]  But that would be a very slow process in many societies, and the methods of achieving those goals would be controversial and difficult to implement.  More direct regulation, as in China’s famous (and at times too aggressive in some communities) one-child family program, might prove necessary in some cases.[5]

The risk of collapse is much too close to condemn the notion of population limitation, which is essential for the preservation of civilization, or to pussy-foot around it with euphemisms like “family planning.” People shouldn’t have the right to have as many children as they want just because they can plan the timing of their births.  Responsible reproduction is not just about supporting one’s offspring – it’s also about considering the world in which they and future generations will try to live, and that means carefully limiting their numbers.

There is real work to do if we are to bring global population size in line with resource limitations. We need to continuously calculate how much decline is required by when if the population is to be at a sustainable figure in 100 years or so.  We also need to redesign our economic system so that it doesn’t depend on growth; we need to begin now to shift society’s ambitions in a more sustainable direction. We surely don’t want to count on the inevitable resource wars (nuclear or conventional), refugee tragedies, pandemics, poisoning and starvation to achieve alignment between population and resources. Humanity needs to bring its best minds to solve the challenges we face, including achieving a population size in which it is possible for those most fundamental human rights to be realized—life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

[1] United Nations. 1948. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[2] For instance, one might argue, say, with part of Article 17 that says “Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.” The world might be considered more ethical if that read “No one has the right to own property alone or in association with others.” Hunter-gatherers did have little fixed property and much more equitable societies.

[3] Barnosky AD, al. E. 2013. Scientists Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century. Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B, National Academy of Sciences USA. 1993. A Joint Statement by Fifty-eight of the World’s Scientific Academies. Population Summit of the World’s Scientific Academies. New Delhi, India: National Academy Press, Union of Concerned Scientists. 1993. World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity.

[4] Bradshaw CJA, Brook BW. 2014. Human population reduction is not a quick fix for environmental problems. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111:16610-16615.

[5] Ehrlich PR, Ehrlich AH. 2013. Can a collapse of global civilization be avoided? Proceeding of the Royal Society B.

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Jason G. Brent contributed a response to the above article, which can be found here. Do you have something to add? We would love to hear your perspective, please add your voice to the discussion below. 

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  • dgrcotr

    I have long believed that women could rule the world if they united to voluntarily stop reproducing as a form of political activism. Even a temporary lapse in births would get the attention of constituent-dependent politicians and leaders.

  • Max Kummerow

    The concept of externalities (costs or benefits unintentionally imposed on others) helps clarify reproduction rights discussions. Other peoples’ children do have effects on my children and vice versa–from climate change, bidding up prices of land and energy, etc. We are social animals who save each other’s lives and kill each other. Obviously if you knew those extra kids would come to kill your kid you would want to regulate reproduction. Well, some overpopulated folks (and underpopulated folks, less often) do kill other people’s kids. So society can improve outcomes by paying attention to these external costs and benefits and then regulating reproduction. I think the key ethical issue is equal rights–no one should have more rights to children than anyone else. And we should value diversity (genetic and cultural). So maybe a subsidy for the first child (keep us all in the gene pool), neutrality for the second and taxes on the third to internalize the external costs that population growth imposes on others. A two child policy is enough, I think. Any country that got to two had to (most likely) make abortion legal and modern contraceptives universally available. Fertility kept falling once women realized they could choose fewer children. And some would never get around to two for various reasons. So a two child policy for everybody with economic disincentives to have more makes sense to me.

  • Richard Wilk

    I know I am entering late in this conversation, so I will be brief. It is time to raise some more “forbidden” questions, lurking in the background of any thinking about a more sustainable future. Here are some- should we have a maximum wage as well as a minimum wage? Do people have an absolute right to own vast fortunes? Is the market the only way we can ration or apportion limited goods?

  • JohnTaves

    Our population scientists, Ehrlich and the MAHB included, have failed to comprehend the fundamental concepts on this topic properly.

    Here are the fundamental concepts:

    1) Children must die at the rate of (x-2)/x where x is how many babies we average. A discussion about whether we have the right to have as many babies as we want, that does not mention this brutal fact of nature, is utterly useless. It is like a discussion on the motion of the planets without mentioning gravity. It is sickening that our population scientists either don’t know (x-2)/x or choose to ignore it. It should be taught to everyone. There are 4 ways to avoid that child mortality rate. a) an increasing subsistence production, b) a decreasing income differential, c) increasing age at birth, or d) a decreasing adult life expectancy. Clearly none of those factors can be changing forever. They are all bounded. The first has led us to believe that somehow we are still filling up the environment. We mindlessly assume that the bad stuff that happens when we average too many babies for too long has not happened yet. In spite of the fact that in the past several hundred years we have discovered new technologies that increase subsistence production (refrigeration, fertilizers, green revolution, etc…), we have always averaged too many babies. The groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality are the consequence of averaging too many babies world wide.

    2) Overpopulation is a very well defined term, but it is understood properly by almost nobody. It is defined as the situation where the numbers exceed what can be sustained indefinitely. “Indefinitely” is the key word. It means that the population must use resources faster than they renew in order to keep their numbers alive. We are blatantly overpopulated by that definition because we require fossil fuels, uranium, and countless other one way acts of destruction to maintain a stream of food sufficient to keep our numbers alive.

    3) If your descendants average more than 2, they will kill children.

    Ehrlich does not know these facts. If he did, he would focus on teaching them. Climatologists have done a good job of teaching that burning fossil fuels pumps CO2 into the atmosphere and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas. In contrast, our population scientists have totally failed to teach the 3 points above.

  • I am writing as an almost retired obstetrician-gynecologist. I chose this profession because of concern about human population, and have been motivated in my work by Paul Ehrlich. However, I do not always agree with this hero of mine.

    Perhaps Dr. Ehrlich is not familiar with the consensus document from the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 1984. Principle 8 of the Programme of Action states: “All couples and individuals have the basic right to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children and to have the information, education and means to do so.”

    Working daily in the field of human population, I feel as though I “… live alone in a world of wounds”, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold. I wish that people would all choose small families, but do not feel that I should have the right to criticize anyone for having more than one or two children. As the ICPD said, people have the right to decide freely the number of their children—and that includes 12. I delivered the 12th child of a woman a number of years ago and was amazed at the love that I sensed as I got to know that family. She had remarried after her first husband was killed. Was having her third child with her second husband irresponsible?

    What I think is that we should be limited to is educating people about the need for small families, and making it possible for them to limit their reproduction if they so wish.

    Richard Grossman, MD, MPH

    PS: I realized more than 20 years ago that I can reach more people with the word processor than with the speculum, and write the world’s only regularly appearing column on population issues. If you would like to get these monthly essays by email, please contact me at: (Please note that the hyphen is obligatory)

  • Thank you all for sharing your perspectives on this critical topic. A follow-up response from Jason G. Brent that considers more specifically the discussion surrounding coercive methods was just posted and can be found here.

  • liveoak

    Professor Ehrlich notes that this blog post is “about the need and not the how” of population limitation, and I think it’s important to keep these two separate initially for purposes of discussion. It may be that the need “is no longer debatable” by educated people who use their own cognitive processes and think for themselves, but why is it that, in a country like the US where education is widely accessible, so many fail to even consider, let alone “debate,” whether or not the population problem should be tackled? I think the answer, broadly speaking, is that certain kinds of social/psychological forces serve to shut down their cognitive processes when it comes to this issue. It may be that there are biological underpinnings to our desire for denial, but there is also a strong social inertia that is maintained by continual reinforcement of a customary way of thinking and acting, a “paradigm” that resists change even when it ceases to be appropriate for the conditions at hand. Not only should academia investigate this sort of resistance (there are lots of interesting things going on in the area where social psychology meets social ontology and phenomenology these days), I think it should be challenged at the level of everyday social interaction; concerned people who may have been biting their tongues for fear of social reprisal might discover that they can turn it around, even going so far as to point to the first nonverbal hints of a (probably unconscious) move to deny and to ostracize the messenger bearing a message they would rather not hear, asking
    for an articulated defense of the head-in-the-sand position and finding their
    opponents giving ground. And women who would rather not bear children should bring up the “need” for population limitation if family pressures are strong. There was a time in the 60s-70s decade when many young women did take such a stance, and they made clear their moral reasons for doing so. Yes, it may take courage to stand up against the social pressure of “the group,” but nobody said fighting for Life on Earth would be easy.

    When it comes to discussing the “means,” moreover, I think it’s very important to distinguish between internal and external control. There is a huge difference between “telling people how many children they can have,” threatening coercive measures if they do not comply, and working to enlighten the whole populace about WHY we all, together, have to sharply reduce our number of offspring. Why should we dualize into those who know what should be done and those who have to be told what to do? This kind of thinking plays a big role in the kind of material inequality we have in our societies now, and look at all the grief (including a pronatalist push by the underdog group to “defend” itself by becoming more numerous) that that causes. It may seem that achieving a certain upward move in our overall level of awareness will be harder to do than “enforcing” a sort of “management plan,” but the implementation, and consequences, differ greatly. And consider the kinds of communication resources we have available for spreading rapid recognition of our situation, especially if “social forces” can start working on the side of propagation rather than obstruction. How do you suppose the desire for fizzy colored sugar water was induced so rapidly around the globe, under the guise of “Coca Cola”?

    Of course, this brings in economics, another area that needs to be put on the table for discussion. Both our notion of “rights” and the present global economic system are social constructions. Most people don’t seem to realize this, they simply take these things for granted, and that why it all works so well, according to Berkeley philosopher John Searle. But just consider what humanity might be able to do if our obsession with that socially constructed object (our way of symbolizing “value”), “money,” could be removed as the dominating incentive for what goes on in the world, including pronatalist views that postulate an ever-increasing population base needed to care for the elderly (not to mention providing a growing labor pool for the privileged) as well as an enormous amount of direct environmental destruction. Social constructions can be changed, and we human beings are the agents who construct and maintain them–we have constructed the entire, fantastic fabric of abstractions that constitutes global economics today, just as we have constructed our expectations for desirable family size. Therefore, an aware humanity can decide, consciously, deliberately, and collectively, to change them. And certain particulars of our social constructions, it is becoming apparent, must be changed, because our very survival, and that of Life on Earth, depends upon it.

    Ronnie Hawkins (sorry, “liveoak” is an old Disquis name)

  • Glenys Jones

    Thank you for not pussy footing around this important issue. If we, as a global community, are to achieve the optimal social, economic and ecological outcomes for public and planetary well-being, there is absolutely a need for strategic management of populations to levels that are consistent with those desired outcomes. The world’s decision-making bodies are notoriously bad at forward thinking, strategic planning and risk management for the common good. Perhaps this is because most people cannot readily visualise alternative futures and know that the decisions they make today will actually determine the future we get. Scenario planning and evidence-based modelling of projected alternative futures under different decisions/policy settings could play an important role in helping to shift the way the world thinks. We certainly need a shift in thinking!

  • Sarah Bexell

    I have been on the Ehrlich team since the day I heard about The Population Bomb when I was in graduate school studying endangered species. I grapple with these questions every single day. I have been working in China for 17 years, looking at the profound and bleak devastation and social unrest that overpopulation brings to this precious and life giving planet. In the U.S. teach sustainability and refer to many of your works, Dr. Ehrlich, and while many of my students agree with me, with you, and can see there is no choice but to (humanely) decrease the human population, the mechanisms are what alludes us all. Yes, access to safe contraception and even more safe abortions is part of the puzzle, access to education for girls and women and equal rights, but where I also get some push back, in the U.S., not China, is disbelief. I can show shocking graphs of climate change, species extinctions, depletion of natural resources, but in the U.S. we can buy buy buy buy buy, whatever we want, and we can still breathe the air, drink our tap water (maybe), buy organic food (if we are blessed with an income that allows this, which most are not) and recreate in beautiful parks that allow some reconnection to nature, if only on an annual family vacation. It is hard for my U.S. students to feel the pressure to act on this most pressing problem. However, I bring interns to China each summer and it is here that they see the devastation of over population, feel the toxins, see the social pressures, and really start to worry about the future. I would never advocate more air travel (!) but how can we educate our young people, as they are entering their child bearing years, with the sciences telling us of Earth’s limits? Share this information with them in a way that creates the much needed action on this most pressing problem? I agree with some of the other people commenting, having children is a drive for some women, but not for all, but many women either relent to societal or family pressures and have kids, or are never even given the opportunity to question whether or not they want to have kids!? It is assumed that having kids is all that makes you a whole person. How can we support girls in having the chance to consider what it really means to be a mother, young boys to really consider what it means to be a father? In short, no, it should not be a right to just have as many children as you want!

  • liveoak

    Paul pointed out the impossibility of our human population continuing to grow forever on a finite planet many years ago–I mean, how obvious could it be?!! I saw him on Johnny Carson when I was just a kid, and I thought then that this was a problem that surely my “wise” elders would deal with and “solve”–boy, was I wrong. Instead, it seems that just about everyone went into a long period of fingers-in-the-ears denial, making population limitation a “taboo” subject, ostracizing those who wanted to speak up about it, keeping us all in a state of bad faith while shoving more and more nonhuman lifeforms right out of existence–a MUCH greater moral wrong than making certain people “uncomfortable” by encouraging everyone to wake up, grasp the notion of finitude, and restrain themselves! (I find it positively shameful that Congress is still having debates about the evils of abortion, while there is nary a peep about overpopulation.) Nor did those of us in the rich countries do any favors to the people who now eke out a living in the most densely populated places on Earth when, instead of spreading the word about the need to “put on the brakes” everywhere and making the means of birth control freely available to all women around the world (including HERE!), we engaged in North-South finger-pointing and justified our own inaction by pretending to put regard for “culture” above recognition of the reality of nature. Do we really believe that someday all those who inhabit the spreading slums around most of the world’s urban centers will someday live in air-conditioned houses with two cars in the garage? The “backlash” against seeing our species in the context of the biosphere has already occurred and has continued for way too long. It may be too late now to pull ourselves out of our ecocidal trajectory, but at least we can show a little honesty as we, too, wink out of existence!

  • Kris Hughes

    While there is evidence that providing contraception freely will significantly reduce the birthrate, this is sadly offset by people’s inability to see the consequences of their actions. (Otherwise, people wouldn’t be doing things like driving cars.) I’m all for a birth reduction policy of some kind. I’m not convinced that a world of one child families is the answer, even though (or maybe because) I’m an only child. I think having siblings is enriching for people. Perhaps we need something like a lottery system, where some women will be allowed to have two children, and the rest will not be allowed to have any. I am really beyond caring that this isn’t “fair” or humane, or that the Nazis sterilised people. We need population reduction, not a “gradual slowing”.

    • JohnTaves

      Before there is any chance that we can enact such policies we must know the facts. Almost everyone knows that if you point a loaded gun at someone’s head and pull the trigger, it will kill them. We don’t know that if we average x babies, then (x-2)/x children must die. We don’t know that the historically remarkable string of discoveries over the past several hundred years has raised the sustenance production so that children can die at a lower rate than that formula dictates, but of course we cannot increase sustenance production forever. We don’t know that we have never managed to increase sustenance production as fast as our births have attempted to grow our numbers, thus averaging too many babies has always and currently is killing.

      We know how a noose can kill a person, but we don’t know that the groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality is caused by averaging too many babies world wide.

      You’d think that if Paul Ehrlich knew this, he would provide that education. He is a professional educator, right?

  • Mike Hanauer

    I think our successes show that while sex is a biological urge, having children is not. Social justice groups too often see social justice only in terms of present people, not future people, critters, and the planet. The only way we will get to authentic sustainability is via a 1-child family. Saving the environment, social justice, and income equality cannot be attained any other way since, even in the USA, we are now doubling every 60 years and now at at least double a sustainable population. We are NOW very OVERpopulated.

  • I would think that having offspring is pretty basic to our biological condition. It is human to accept constraints and conditions, but the closer we get to our biology the more controversial those constraints become. We condemn slavery because we understand it is wrong to force people to do work against their will. Telling people how many children they can have is not the same thing as telling people they can’t speed in a school zone. It’s not a serious constraint on my existence to have to slow down when I’m in a school zone, but it is a serious constraint to force me to limit the number of my offspring. Plus it directly threatens my identity. If I believe that others will force me to have less children, this threatens my fundamental sense of who I am and my ability to maintain my family heritage over the generations. This even gets into questions of eugenics, and who should and shouldn’t be allowed to have children.

    When it comes to basic biological facts about humans we need to proceed very cautiously. Any kind of forcing the issue is certain to produce a strong backlash. Religious and ethnic groups that already feel existentially threatened will react by encouraging people to have more children, and we can see some of this happening in the “right to life” movement and other fundamentalist causes.

    Much better results can be had by improving the basic conditions of society. Educating women, providing a more comprehensive and reliable social safety net – these are constructive goals that have the added benefit of lowering the birth-rate.

    There is also an important causal issue here: Is it really our increased population which will cause civilization to decline? We can see the decline coming because we can see that the number of people living is increasing but the amount of resources supporting them cannot increase indefinitely. The decline in civilization comes about depending on how we react to this gap. If we react by closing the drawbridge and scapegoating outsiders, we are heading for disaster. We could react by reducing inequality, making society more fair, allowing people to feel more safe and secure. Then people will be more willing to work together to solve our problems, and people will be less likely to want to have more children because they feel threatened.

    • Dave Gardner

      Charles, you articulate here many of the responses that so far prevent us from tackling this tough challenge. But I don’t buy it as a well-founded, scientific explanation of why this can’t or shouldn’t be done. It sounds like a laundry list of irrational excuses to avoid doing the right thing. Isn’t it true that, in this overpopulated world – crumbling under the strain of 7 billion – the only way ANY of us can maintain our “family heritage over the generations” is to limit the size of our family? Any other choice eventually guarantees there will be NO heritage.

      I’m also pretty sure my great, great grandchildren, if it turns out there are any, will know nothing about me. So much for family heritage. I don’t care if my genes are running around the planet in 100 years. But I do care that ALL the children of the world have a fair shot at enjoying what we got to enjoy (or hopefully something better – not to be confused with something more affluent). I guess I must be unusual, because I would not be offended by a legal limit on my reproductivity.

      • If we encourage equality, living with less, but with a more secure social safety net, people will naturally have less children. It does not need to be forced. Any forcing will be done by nature. My most important point is this: the collapse of civilization won’t happen because of the gap between resources and population, it will happen because of our predominant reactions to this gap. If government reacts by clamping down on everyone and telling them they can’t have more than two children they will rebel and have more just to spite the government. No-one takes kindly to being told how many kids they can have. The only place that you could get away with this is in totalitarian states like China. In times of crisis we need people to pull together, and telling anyone how many kids they can have has exactly the opposite effect. It’s not about population, it’s about good politics.

        • Dave Gardner

          Well, smokers didn’t take kindly to being told they could no longer light up in many public spaces, but we got past it and the world’s a better place for it.

          • The only way to get past having kids is going extinct.

          • JohnTaves

            This is an example of the stunning ignorance that most people have with respect to population issues. Somehow the notion of people averaging less than 2 evokes the ridiculous concept of extinction. It is correct that if we average less than 2 forever, humans will be extinct. I cannot comprehend how this is a matter of concern. It is mind boggling how stupid this concern is. How about we actually think through this?

            If we limit ourselves to 1 child, our numbers shrink to whatever we want. No, whatever THEY want. Let’s be clear on “we” and “they”. Anytime these future people conclude their numbers are low enough, they can limit themselves to 2 and the population will stop shrinking. Today we are consuming resources faster than they renew in order to keep our numbers alive, which means that to the best of our knowledge we are destroying the resources that future generations will need to keep the numbers we are attempting to saddle them with alive. We must average fewer than 2 if we care at all about preventable premature death. We are consuming the resources that they, the children we are creating, will need.

            If people choose to have none, causing human extinction, it is their choice. It harms no human. No human will ever experience human extinction. If there are 2 people on Earth after about 30 generations of averaging 1 child, and those 2 don’t feel like having a baby, it is their choice not ours.

          • You misunderstand me John. While it’s important to conceive of the problem as over-population, we also have to look at it on a ‘human’ scale. What motivates people to have kids and what motivates them not to have kids? In this case I don’t see it as a good idea to talk about rights to have only so many children. Who is to decide what these rights are and who gets them? By framing it as a rights issue you guarantee social instability. Any ethnic, religious or cultural group that feels in the least intimidated, will be doubly threatened by these rules to limit population.

            The best way to frame this dilemma is in terms of putting limits on consumerism and our economic system. This can be done politically. Providing a strong social safety net and putting the brakes on rising income inequality would go a long way to stabilizing population growth and increasing the general level of trust and good will. Trust and goodwill are the important resources that we need in order to deal with the tremendous problems we face. It is not the fact of the gap that’s the problem, it is how we respond to the gap that matters. We can respond by hunkering down, or we can respond by using trust and goodwill to build a more sustainable society together.

          • JohnTaves

            See the facts I listed in my comment to the article above.

            When we know these facts, we can discuss our rights. Without those facts, nothing will stop us from overbreeding.

            It makes no difference what motivates people to have babies. If we average too many, we kill children. Nothing has ever stopped us from averaging too many babies, so no “limits to consumerism and our economic system” or “social safety net” or lower income inequality has ever stopped us, and never will stop us, from averaging too many babies.

            Before you are tempted to tell me how those factors cause lower fertility consider what happens when your descendants average more than 2 children and everyone else has zero. Your descendants overpopulate the planet. Notice what this means. Population scientists have to prove that no group can exist that will pass along their beliefs (for example: god wants us to have a lot of children) to an average of more than 2 children.

            No amount of trust and goodwill will ensure that I do not have more than 2, and that my children will not create more than 4 grandchildren, or that their children will not create more than 8 great grandchildren. Only this very knowledge has a chance of ensuring we stop overbreeding, and thus killing children as a consequence.

            The concepts you mention are all created by our population scientists that look at the issue from a ‘human’ scale. They observe that millions did not have more than 2 babies, then correlate factors to those millions and mindlessly declare that these factors solve overpopulation. They manage to ignore the ugly fact that if all those factors resulted in zero babies, we still end up overpopulated.

          • You’re speaking in abstractions about over-population. If this is a moral issue than it has to be spoken of in terms that are understandable and acceptable to ordinary people. You are making a serious mistake when you see the problem as a whole and think that it boils down to forcing people everywhere to have less children. That way runs straight to the concentration camps and the gas chambers.

            The analogy that Paul Ehrlich made between rules for slowing down in a school zone and rules for limiting children is a example of the same kind of misplaced abstraction. Everyone agrees that we should keep children safe, so that rule gets traction. Very few people will agree to limit the number of children, so that rule will create unwanted dissension.

            In a sense, we all realize deep down that our civilization is unsustainable. The challenge is to get people to agree on a way to deal with the problem that is fair and that encourages people to work together to solve it. Leverage points are changing the economic, political, and ideological systems. You can’t change human nature, and it’s human nature to want to have kids.

          • JohnTaves

            You have failed to comprehend the concepts. I suggest you reread them and try to comprehend them and then suggest better ways to state them.

            I have not stated “that it boils down to forcing people everywhere to have less
            children.” I have stated that averaging too many babies is killing children. I stated that if your descendants average more than 2, they will cause child mortality. These are facts. This is knowledge that we must know. This is not some abstraction. These are not some propaganda statements. They are simple facts, like the fact that a gun bullet will kill if fired in the direction of someone’s head. Everyone seems to know that fact, but nobody knows the facts I listed. This ignorance is inexcusable.

            I did not state that we must limit the number of babies we are allowed to have. I stated the facts that obviously cause one to conclude that.

            Of course nobody will agree to limit the number of babies. Everyone is ignorant of these facts.

          • I think that we both understand that this is a moral issue, but we each understand the morality differently. For you it’s a matter of abstractions like the human race being bad for having too many babies. Humans are bad and they need to be punished by limiting the number of babies they can have. I’m saying that you are fatally misunderstanding the moral issue here. The moral issue is how we respond to the gap between population and resources. If we try to stop people from having too many babies we cross a moral line. We start punishing people for who they are and we start separating people into us and them.

            One way or another, people are going to die. People have died from the very beginning. If we can prevent someone’s death we try to and sometimes we succeed in saving them. That is all we can do. But we can be proactive by making our political systems more representative, and our economic systems more egalitarian. We can improve people’s lives. We can phase out consumerism, and curtail capitalism.

            You can never convince people to have less children without imposing a totalitarian or, in other words, a corrupt and immoral system. Let people make this decision by themselves, but if we create a strong social safety net people will simply decide to have less children on their own. Forcing this decision is morally wrong and crosses the line.

          • JohnTaves

            It would be most helpful if you could show me where my writing leads you to state that I want to “Forcing this decision”

            How do you expect people will “make this decision by themselves” without knowing that averaging too many babies kills children?

            Why do you have the belief that “less children” will be sufficiently less? How do you know it will not be too many.

            Do you understand the difference in meaning between these two sentences: “a loaded gun fired towards someone’s head will kill that person” vs “people are bad for building and using guns”? Can you show me which one matches my intended meaning and if it does not match my actual words, then why it doesn’t?

            Do you understand that morals can be changed with knowledge? For example, a large percentage of people in the united states 150 years ago thought that blacks were inferior humans and it was morally right to enslave them. Now of course you will have a hard time finding anyone that will agree with that morality.

            Do you understand that I did not specify any “forcing the decision”, yet the civil war did force people to stop enslaving black and that their descendants do indeed have different morals than their slave holding ancestors.

            These are honest legitimate questions asked because I don’t see how your 2 replies make any sense in response to my writing.

          • The moral issues roughly concern the future of human civilisation and the possibility of unnecessary suffering. You speak all the time in terms of basic arithmetic: We can’t have more than one children else children will suffer unnecessarily. This is an abstraction. You are seeing this in stark moral terms but you are hiding behind this mathematical abstraction. If I have two kids, or the guy down the street, or in another country, there is absolutely no connection to what you are saying. No one sees the results you specify. There is no connection between what you are saying and reality. Perhaps it is really true in some aggregate sense, if we calculate population statistics but nobody anywhere experiences the connection that you posit. Therefore it is an abstraction.

            The vast majority of people make decisions based on what they experience and what they expect given their experience. Very few people make decisions based on statistical aggregates. In order to change the way people make decisions you have to change their experience and their expectations. People make better decisions if they feel safe and trust the social networks and institutions that they live in. That’s where the change should be. Telling people to have less children will get no traction anywhere.

          • JohnTaves

            The people that suffer starvation related child mortality do see the results. It is not an abstraction for them.

            It bizarre that millions of people do not want a gun because they have been taught that a gun can splatter the brains of someone even thought these people have never seen a gun do that. It is odd that people pay more for organic products even though they cannot see any difference between the two. People wash their hands after going to the bathroom, but have never seen a virus or bacteria.

            Billions of people are taught and know countless abstract concepts that are entirely based on arithmetic and logical thinking. These abstractions affect behavior.

            I cannot make sense of your comments except to conclude you are unwilling or incapable of thinking it through to decide whether the statements I have made are indeed correct. It seems you are only interested in finding excuses to avoid that knowledge. Unfortunately your comments provide me with no insight as to why why scientists like Paul Ehrlich don’t know these facts.

          • A gun is not an abstraction. Statistics about how many people live and die is an abstraction. We can change our behaviour due to our knowledge and logical thinking. But people do not make major life decisions based on abstract statistical reasoning. The statements you’ve made are abstractions, but what I do notice is the sense of moral importance that you give them. This is misplaced morality. You cannot base morality on abstractions. Morality has to relate to how we live and prosper, and how to avoid suffering.

          • JohnTaves

            What statistics are you referring to?

            I think you have this exactly backwards along with scientists like Ehrlich. In the case of Ehrlich and other population scientists, I suspect they are so used to using big data, extrapolations, correlations, etc that they cannot comprehend that they have a poor understanding of the fundamental concepts that their whole area of research is based on.

            In your case your refusal to think through and comprehend the concepts leaves you with the conclusion that whatever I am talking about must be statistical abstractions. If you don’t know the logic, then of course it is a statistical abstraction. It is also very handy to have the concept of a statistical abstraction, whereby people do not act upon knowledge derived from that, so that you can throw concepts into that bucket to get rid of them.

            I wonder why people wash their hands. Bizarre.

            Anyone that is willing to write this: “We can change our behaviour due to our knowledge and logical thinking. But people do not make major life decisions based on abstract statistical reasoning.” clearly will make up whatever they want to conclude whatever they please.

            However, I have to admit I never learned that there was a borderline that separates “knowledge and logical thinking” and “abstract statistical reasoning” and that one must not act on the second. Damn, I missed that lesson.

          • I am referring to the statistics that back up your claim that we can’t have more than one child without the sky falling. Tell me why is it so important that we don’t have more than one child per family?

          • JohnTaves

            Again, what statistics are you referring to? Point them out. Describe them.

            My comment to this article (currently the most recent comment, thus it is at the top) explains the facts that we are ignorant of. I mentioned nothing of a sky falling.

          • “If your descendants average more than two children they kill babies.” child starvation is – “the consequence of averaging too many babies world wide.” “Children must die at the rate of (x-2)/x where x is how many babies we average.” – This is your imagined scenario that requires statistical averages of the human population. It could well correspond to reality, but it doesn’t correspond to people’s experience. It is an abstraction, and has no connection to what most people having children will experience.

          • The sky is falling, my words, because resources are being outstripped by population. This is Darwin’s principle of natural selection. Biological populations always surpass the conditions of survival. For humans this is a moral problem because survival of human society is the ultimate goal. So we construct moral systems and all other forms of human institutions. Now we have to reflect on the nature of those institutions in order to solve the problem of sustainability.

          • This might give you a better idea of where I’m coming from:

          • JohnTaves

            I’ve read countless similar stuff. It is mind blowing that people can write this and totally ignore how many babies we average. Averaging too many babies in a finite environment is lethal. This is dirt simple, and this simplicity has nothing to do with the examples of “simplicity” that the article talks about.

            This is fundamental math.

          • You keep hammering home your statistical average births and deaths, and you can’t deal with the enormity of it all. Stop with the abstractions, come back down to earth. What we do everyday, how we relate to the people around us, what we say… everything has significance. You’ve given up before you start. You remind me of the “White Queen” in “Alice Through the Looking glass”. She could see something coming before it happened, so she freaked out before it happened.
            You need to get out from under your serious abstractions and relax a bit. You might actually be able to make more of a difference then.

            Of course, you can dismiss what I say, just as you are dismissing pretty well everything else around you. Your perspective is skewed because you”re out of touch with people’s real experiences.

          • JohnTaves

            I have already stated that I agree that people’s real experiences do not include this knowledge. I know people are not acting upon this information, because they don’t have this knowledge. I know our population scientists are ignorant of these concepts and therefore not helping to teach them.

            Your argument for maintaining that ignorance, is bizarre.

          • If you want to change the world you have to understand why it is the way it is. If people feel safe and secure they will have less children. So let’s make people feel more safe and secure. Ignorance is when you have an overly simplistic idea and you think you can change things by hammering it into their heads.

          • JohnTaves

            Ignorance (from google)
            lack of knowledge or information.”he acted in ignorance of basic procedures”
            synonyms:incomprehension of, unawareness of, unconsciousness of, unfamiliarity with,inexperience with, lack of knowledge about, lack of information about;informalcluelessness about

            Teaching is the concept of explaining a concept so that one is not ignorant of that concept. I intend to teach. I intend to end the ignorance associated with this topic.

            I do understand why the world is ignorant of this concept. Any group of people that figured this out, and acted on it to ensure they did not overbreed, was subsequently outbred by surrounding groups and the knowledge effectively went extinct. Evolution cannot allow this knowledge to exist. Evolution requires that the species overbreed.

            I don’t understand why our scientists don’t know this. I don’t understand why Paul Ehrlich, a professional teacher, wrote this paper and never bothered to mention that creating too many babies kills children. I highly doubt he has the idiotic train of thought that you have suggested, where he decides that “averaging” is a “statistic” and thus will not be acted upon by people, thus concluding the information regarding the consequences of creating too many babies should remain unknown to the world. At the very least, I assume he knows that people wash their hands entirely caused by the knowledge derived from statistics.

          • “The real problem is entirely about premature deaths and that totally depends upon how many babies we average.”

            ” I don’t understand why Paul Ehrlich, a professional teacher, wrote this paper and never bothered to mention that creating too many babies kills children.”

            “I intend to teach. I intend to end the ignorance associated with this topic.”

            Part of getting people to listen to you is listening to them, getting to know where they are at. For someone who is so single-minded about ending people’s ignorance, you do a pretty poor job. You call people ignorant and stupid which is a non-starter, and betrays your immaturity and lack of patience.

            How can anyone see the equation that you are making between having babies and killing babies if nothing, and I mean nothing in their experience corresponds to your idea? I have never once met a parent who told me that they are going to stop having kids because having more than one child means another baby dies prematurely.

            This idea is a pure abstraction with absolutely no connection to reality. If I wash my hands, it means I’m less likely to catch contagious diseases. This has a direct effect on my life. If I have two children, there is absolutely no evidence that this causes a baby somewhere else to die prematurely.

            You may have a legitimate concern about over-population, but you need to listen without prejudice to what people are saying, and you need to re-frame your message and get rid of the fantastic abstractions. Otherwise you will continue to talk to yourself, and no-one will have the slightest interest in listening to you.

          • JohnTaves

            I apologize for doing a poor job, being immature, and having no patience.

            There is a total disconnect in this conversation. You have failed to understand the concept I am trying to convey. I have reread every exchange between the 2 of us, and you have failed to interpret my writing as I have written it. You keep inventing different meaning.

            I suspect this all boils down to the fact that you, everyone else in MAHB, and population scientists are completely unwilling to believe that averaging too many babies is killing children. The whole framework for understanding population concepts that population scientists use, assumes that this is not possible. This is making it very difficult for me to convey the simple concepts that all population experts are overlooking.

            The proof that births are causing child mortality is straight forward logic. It requires no statistics. It is NOT a “fantastic abstraction”. It is simpler than the logic that leads us to conclude that washing hands reduces disease.

            It requires knowing that humans have existed for a very long time with respect to how fast our numbers can grow. It requires knowing that right now there are groups of children dying of starvation related causes. It requires knowing the exponential nature of reproduction. It also helps to know a modicum about evolution, in particular how the larger animals group themselves into tribes, gaggles, troops, etc.

            I totally understand that my statements are utterly ridiculous. It makes no sense that thousands of population experts are failing to see something so simple. You have a choice. You can either dismiss my claims and go on repeating the same statements that make it perfectly clear to me that you have no intention of learning something new, or you can take a chance and suspend your disbelief and try to figure out the concept.

            I cannot cram it into anyone’s head. I can only hope someone will want to learn it.

          • Charles Justice

            You make a connection between having more babies and killing children that is purely theoretical, but which has no empirical support. No one sees any evidence for this connection. No parent of more than one child sees babies dying as a result of their having more than one baby. Babies die and babies live and grow up. But no one sees any connection between one and the other. It’s not a question of being unwilling to see the connection, there is no connection, except in your imagination.

            I was giving you the benefit of the doubt by calling it an abstraction. You desperately need to come back down to earth and see actual causal connections. Here are some basic ones: Inequality is a strong factor in creating poverty, injustice, social unrest, crime, over-population, reduced life-spans, malnutrition, and widespread ignorance.

          • JohnTaves

            Starvation related child mortality, the exact symptoms one expects to find when we average too many babies for too long, is happening right now. That is the empirical support.

            I agree nobody sees the connection. This is the ignorance, or in the case of population scientists the denial, that I am trying to correct.

            Clearly you are totally uninterested in taking the correct choice I stated.

          • “Clearly you are totally uninterested in taking the correct choice I stated.” Ask yourself this, John: What would your response be if I used those words? Even using the words “the correct choice” tells me that you are seriously out of touch with reality. You are pedalling abstractions rather than real arguments. Go back to the drawing board and talk to some real people.

          • JohnTaves

            If someone was trying to tell me there is a concept that I do not understand, I would try to learn it.

            I am sorry you are not interested in learning.

          • Don’t be sorry John, I am interested in learning. Just not interested in learning abstractions that have nothing to do with reality.

          • trilemmaman

            All modern instances of starvation today and over the last 50 years are NOT a function of too many children. During the Ethiopian famine 1980s there were three truck loads of produce coming out of the highlands for every truck filled with famine relief grains. It was poverty that killed them…not a shortage of food. In the Bangladeshi famine (1970s?) the excess rains that washed out the rice farmers crops in the lowlands…resulted in a bumper crop of rice in the higher elevations. The farmers on the lowland could not afford to buy the rice available. The Irish Potato famine was similar in that the excess rains the caused the potato blight resulted in a bumper crop of Corn. Corn the potato farmers could not afford to buy and the government was unwilling to donate to the starving. Your “emperical support” is imaginary thinking.

          • JohnTaves

            How about we rephrase this: “It was poverty that killed them…not a shortage of food.”

            to be this: “They died of starvation, even though other people had food that could have been used to keep them alive. That other food, therefore, must have been wasted”. (maybe it was wasted by making the other person’s waist line bigger than necessary, or maybe it was wasted by being thrown out. It doesn’t matter.)

            Yes, of course there is wasted subsistence. Why would anyone expect zero waste? More importantly why do you put a judgement on how much waste is too much? Should we all live like Nazi concentration camp inmates before you will conclude the wasted sustenance is low enough such that we are killing by averaging too many babies? What level is the right level such that below that efficiency level, we are killing but above it we are not causing death by averaging too many?

            The United Nations makes the same bad argument when they state that there is enough food to feed everyone. Of course you can pick some finite time span, (e.g. last year), and show that the number that died of starvation could have been kept alive by the food that was wasted during that time. The problem with this line of analysis is that time keeps ticking on. The births are relentlessly attempting a higher population while food production is finite. If they didn’t die, the population would have been exponentially larger for the next time span you pick. That relentless attempt has been going on forever so you can’t logically claim a specific time span (e.g. 1970s), show there was enough food in that finite time span to conclude that births are not killing.

            “The farmers on the lowland could not afford to buy the rice available.” — Yes, I agree that the ones that starved to death were totally unable to offer anything to other people to get them to hand over some of their food. Why didn’t the ones that starved just go and pick it off the ground? Why did they need other people to give them food? Food just grows on this planet. Why didn’t they hang out by the shore and pick clams, or find some mushrooms, or kill the deer that tries to eat the berries that they were going to eat? What stopped them? Were the Irish, Bangladeshis and Ethiopians too stupid to do this? Did lions or tigers herd them into areas where this sustenance was not growing?

            Obviously other people prevented them. Other people ensured they couldn’t walk to the shore and pick up some clams. I don’t mean to be rude, but what do you think averaging too many babies produces? It produces other people. You can’t argue that we are not averaging too many babies by citing the poor actions of other people. This is like saying a gun did not kill the child, because a bullet was found in the child’s body.

          • trilemmaman

            Today the greatest food problem is obesity. There is more than enough food…and that capacity grows far faster than the population. It’s not sustainable because of farming practices…but could be if we adopted nature’s capacity for growing plants… Your bullet in the baby analogy isn’t even close to making sense. For every child that dies of starvation…about 10 die from infectious diseases caused by lack of sanitation, access to basic health care and illiteracy…all a function of poverty…not a lack of food in the world. But I don’t expect reality to shift your thinking. Your mind is locked into you ‘overpopulation/starvation’ concept and there isn’t a fact in the world that will change it. And because of that…more children will go hungry, die and more will be born, because you lack the capacity to understand the reality of poverty…and how in that condition…parents having children makes economic sense and survival sense. They have excess births because their children die…and they need at least one or two to assist them in growing crops/earning money, begging…and taking care of the parents in their old age. I’m guessing you live on Social Security.

          • JohnTaves

            I made no statements that disagree with your statements regarding the amount of food there is. I totally agree with the reality that you are describing with respect to the amount of sustenance there is in relation to the population size on day whatever. I have no problem with the assertion that capacity grows faster than the population. I agree that the people that starved to death were unable to buy food that was available. I agree with all of your statements about diseases and illiteracy. I do not agree or disagree with the statement that we know how to grow and distribute sustenance sustainably to feed the current numbers. The only thing I disagree with is that these points prove that births are not killing. They cannot prove that averaging too many babies is not killing. I will try a different analogy. Discovering that hypothermia killed the victims of the Titanic disaster does not prove that a lack of life boats did not kill them.

            The thing that boggles my mind is how people pick and chose what they pay attention to. You didn’t provide any explanation for how births cannot ever kill, and if you don’t do that, you need to produce some sort of threshold for the level of inequality or wasted food. You ignored that. I pointed out how any discussion of subsistence supply must factor in time, because births are relentlessly attempting to grow the population, but you ignored time. You came close by asserting that subsistence has been growing faster than the population, but surely you can’t intend to suggest that therefore subsistence can grow forever. You completely ignored the fact that groups of people can only be denied subsistence by other humans, the very thing that averaging too many babies creates.

            Why? Why do people ignore what I write, and simply repeat the conventional wisdom? Isn’t science about thinking? Isn’t it about checking your assumptions? Isn’t it about checking your logic for flaws?

            I claim that Earth is finite. I claim that averaging more than 2 babies attempts to grow the population at an exponential rate. I claim that humans have existed essentially forever because our ancestors go back essentially forever. I assert that the only way nature can stop the population from growing is by ensuring only 2 offspring on average make it to reproductive age, which means nature must kill children to stop the attempted growth. I assert that there is no mechanism that ensures we do not average too many babies. I assert that starvation will be the swing producer if other causes of death do not kill children fast enough. I assert that only humans can prevent humans from getting subsistence that simply grows on this planet. I assert that because we group ourselves, we expect that the starvation will be suffered dis-proportionally by the weakest/poorest groups, in other words, we don’t expect it to be evenly distributed across the population. I assert that failure to get sustenance IS poverty.

            Regarding more data related observations, I assert that humans have existed for over 100,000 years, which is plenty of time for exponential growth to have grown our numbers to trillions. I assert that the bulk of human history does not have exponential population growth.

            I assert that we have always had groups of people suffering starvation related child mortality.

            Can you find anything wrong with these assertions besides the fact that they lead to conclusions that are different from the beliefs that population experts hold?

          • JohnTaves

            Yes, we do need to reflect, but unfortunately you’ve tuned out. (I am stating this for other readers, in the hope that others will comprehend what I am stating and reach out to me.)

            If you do choose to reflect, you might want to consider these “statistics”.
            1) Yes, Darwin’s principle does indeed depend upon a death budget of (x-2)/x children. This provides the deaths that can be selected out without shrinking the population.

            2) Yes, we certainly do form societies. I call them groups, but they are also known as families, countries, tribes, herds, gaggles, troops, etc… They are formed to increase the individual’s odds of survival and to produce offspring. These groups effectively export the required (x-2)/x deaths onto the weakest groups. That’s why we have so much trouble spotting the deaths for what they are and that’s why we have groups of people living in horrible squalor suffering starvation related child mortality.

            3) We don’t need to reflect on anything if we want to solve the problem of sustainability. It solves itself. The resources being consumed faster than they renew will run out. The problem as you understand it is bogus. The real problem is entirely about premature deaths and that totally depends upon how many babies we average. If you don’t care about premature death, then there is no “problem of sustainability”.

          • JohnTaves

            I have no idea why you dismiss these facts as “statistics”, except to label them as something that people will ignore. They are fundamentally sound statements given that the Earth is finite and reproduction above an average of 2 attempts exponential growth to infinity. Nothing can escape this brutal realty. This is so far from statistics I can only conclude you are religiously opposed to thinking it through for yourself.

            However, your whole concept of people being unable to change their behavior in response to statistics is nonsense. We wash our hands. If bacteria and viruses are not abstract, and the correlation between washing hands and better health is not from statistics, then I must be abstract.

          • “the consequences of averaging too many babies worldwide.” This is a statistic. See the word: “averaging” – that’s a statistical concept that has nothing to do with why people decide to have children. The brutal reality happens to the impoverished in the third world and in the U.S. . So the solution is to eliminate inequality as far as it is possible.

          • JohnTaves

            Oh, I see. The word “averaging” means that it is statistics and thus the concept can be ignored! Ignoring the fact that averaging too many babies attempts to grow the population to infinity, which clearly is lethal in a finite space such as Earth, allows one to conclude that the solution is to eliminate inequality. Therefore in order to show population scientists that averaging too many babies creates the inequality, and therefore solutions like eliminating inequality cannot possibly prevent us from overbreeding, I just need to find a synonym for “averaging”.

            I am totally aware that people do not use this “statistical concept” when they decide to have children. Nearly 100% of people are ignorant of these concepts. Oh crap, % is probably a statistical concept which means you will ignore this too.

          • The human population will probably never get over ten billion. It is on it’s way to a major decline in this century. You just have to look at the graphs in Limits to Growth to realize that. There is no possible way to escape this because population growth has exceeded the finite amount of resources on Earth. We could mitigate the effects by putting the brakes on Capitalism, reducing consumption, and encouraging more self-sufficiency.

  • Lisa Schipper

    Paul. You know that I agree with you. But how do we break this down? Shouldn’t people who have greater environmental footprints (eg wealthy in the US and other carbon-intense countries) be the first to be limited? I often find myself shocked that people in wealthy countries want to have 3 children. Is it a sense of entitlement that drives this? Is it simply selfishness? Why would they not consider giving equal space to everyone on the planet? Why should their family take more? This leads me to find many of the same patterns that I see among people who believe that vaccinating is bad – they simply do not care about the well-being of others. But the stupidity of this is that well-being of others creates well-being of yourself, so by not thinking about others, you are also hurting yourself. But how does one communicate this to regular people without insulting them? That is where I get stuck. Lisa

    • Kris Hughes

      You are confused. Vaccination adds to the overpopulation problem enormously.

    • JohnTaves

      Lisa, your comments are another example of the stunning ignorance our population experts are leaving us with. Our population scientists are doing an absolutely horrible job of understanding the basic concepts and teaching them.

      There is no such thing as “the first to be limited”. Every person on the planet must limit the number of babies they make. If your descendants average more than 2, they will cause child mortality at the rate of (x-2)/x where x is how many babies your descendants average. Everyone else on the planet can have 0 babies, but yet your descendants will kill children if they average more than 2. Notice what this tells us about our beliefs and morality. Mor importantly, notice how Paul Ehrlich, a leading expert on population issues, totally failed to mention the formula (x-2)/x. This article is asking if we should have the right to have as many babies as we want, and there is a formula that dictates the rate that children must die depending on how many babies we create.

      I should not have another baby if I have already created 2. There is no “first to be limited”. I should not have a baby if my parents already have 4 or more grandchildren. I should not have a baby if my grandparents already have 8 or more great grandchildren.