Is it "irresponsible" to have more than two children?

Yes, says an advisor to the British government on environmental policy.

Published February 3, 2009 8:00PM (EST)

Here we go again! Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the Sustainable Development Commission, which advises the British government on environmental matters, has caused a fracas by suggesting that it's "irresponsible" to have more than two children.

"I am unapologetic about asking people to connect up their own responsibility for their total environmental footprint and how they decide to procreate and how many children they think are appropriate," Porritt, a father of two, told the Daily Mail. "I think we will work our way towards a position that says having more than two children is irresponsible."

As Salon readers know, the view that two-is-enough hardly puts Porritt on the radical fringe when it comes to espousing how many children is the "correct" number per family. Bill McKibben, the environmental writer and global warming activist, made the case for half that number in his 1999 book "Maybe One." Then, there are the good folks over at the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, who contend that if you must raise children adopting them is the only sensible and ethical way to go.

However, it's obviously a whole different ball of wax when a government advisor who helps influence federal policies starts arguing that fewer kids are better, since it raises the specter of intrusive government interference in private child-bearing decisions. See China's one-child policy and the radically gender-imbalanced society that it's resulting in.

"The unpleasant aspect of this is the idea that how many children you have should be down to the state," a spokesperson for the Pro-Life Alliance told the Daily Mail."Wherever we have seen such policies being imposed, such as in China, we have seen a preference for male children and a rise in infanticide."

In Britain, the birthrate is at its highest in almost 30 years, which according to the Daily Mail is due to both high teen pregnancy rates and higher birthrates among immigrants. Porritt added: "We still have one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancies in Europe and we still have relatively high rates of pregnancies going to birth, often among women who are not convinced they wish to become mothers."

Sure, there are statistical outliers, like the single mother of six in California who just gave birth to octuplets. Yet, the average woman worldwide has 2.6 children in her lifetime, which is way down from more than four children in 1970.

What makes women choose to have fewer children? Population experts concur that it's not simply access to safe contraception and abortion. Education and economic opportunities are extremely important, too. For instance, declines in illiteracy rates among female populations have been tightly correlated with declines in fertility rates.

If Porritt is so concerned about the birthrate, maybe he should start trying to figure out how to improve the educational and economic opportunities for the poorest women in his country.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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