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opinion | Sarah Conly

Here’s why China’s one-child policy was a good thing

Chinese grandparents took their grandchild to a public park in Beijing. The Chinese government announced Thursday it would end its one-child policy and allow couples to have two children. European Pressphoto Agency

China has just announced that it is giving up its infamous one-child policy. While the Chinese government has been creating more exceptions to the one-child rule in recent years, this is the first time officials have announced that all couples may have two children if they so choose. The change is being applauded around the world, but it raises the question: Is this really a good thing?

Of course, China has enforced its one-child policy in unacceptable ways. Forced abortions and forced sterilizations are simply assault and clearly violate human rights. Still, the idea that people should limit the number of children they have to just one is not, I would argue, a bad one, for the Chinese or for the rest of us.


The most recent estimate from the United Nations says we’ll reach a population of 9.7 billion by 2050. And we just reached the population milestone of 7 billion in 2011, meaning it will take just less than 40 years to increase our population by almost 3 billion people All of this from a world population of about 1 billion in 1800. China now constitutes 19 percent of the world population, and so a change in the country’s fertility rate will likely bring about that 9.7 billion even sooner.

The sad truth is that trying to support this many people will bring about environmental disaster. We can see the damage that is already being done by our present population of “just” 7.3 billion. We all know about climate change with its droughts, storms, rising sea levels, and heat. But it’s also soil depletion, lack of fresh water, overfishing, species extinction, and overcrowding in cities.

We are using resources unsustainably, and despite the frequent cries for a cutback in the use of resources and release in greenhouse gases, nothing much has happened. Today we release more greenhouse gases than we did before the Kyoto accords. More people will mean more unsustainable resource use, worse climate change, and, eventually, wars over scarce goods or massive population displacement and migrations to places with remaining resources.


Given the damage we are causing, and the suffering we foresee for all those who live after us, it is clear that having more than one child is just something that none of us — Chinese or American — has a moral right to do. We have no right to cause great harm to others when we can avoid this without great loss to ourselves.

Our claims about rights are always sensitive to context. We say that there is a constitutional right to free speech, but at the same time agree that there is no right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And it’s not that we always think an action has to promote the general welfare for us to say we have a right to do it: You have a right to sing as you walk down the street, even though your off-key voice may pain passersby. But we don’t have a right to cause devastating harm.

At this point, uncontrolled fertility is likely to have worse consequences than the false cry of “fire!” Even having two children — the replacement value for the population — as the new Chinese policy allows is likely to be too many children. Due to what specialists call “demographic momentum,” the population will continue to grow for quite some time even if we all cut back now to two children. By the time the birthrate stabilizes, the global population will be at an unsustainable level.


So, we don’t have a right to have so many children. We can live happy, fulfilled lives with just one child, and one child per couple will keep the human race going until we get to that point when we do reach a sustainable population and can go back to allowing ourselves to reproduce at replacement value — two children per two parents.

People will object.

Even if having only one child does no great harm directly to parents, many will object that it would severely harm us as a society. Some may argue that a declining population will cause the economy to collapse. (China’s change stems in part from its concern over how to maintain an aging population with a diminishing workforce.) Others will focus on the moral transgression — believing it will necessitate forced abortions or sterilizations, or the repression of religions that forbid contraception. Others worry that a one-child policy will result in a gender imbalance, as parents opt for a male child. We know this has happened in China, and how much worse that would be if it were worldwide.

The answer to the concern for material welfare may be easiest. It seems clear that an economy based on perpetual growth, located on a finite planet, is bound to fail eventually. Our economy only works as well as it does now because we are borrowing from the future, using up resources at an unsustainable rate. An economic system based on growth, where growth means more people using more resources, will eventually face a crisis. Changing it now, before the crunch, will be less painful than trying to do that when our backs are against the wall.


The moral arguments, too, have answers. Does the right to religious freedom mean we have a right to do whatever our religious doctrines dictate? Of course not. No one thinks that if a religion required, say, human sacrifice, those who follow it would be allowed to engage in ritual killing, no matter how sincere their belief. We want to accommodate religious practice whenever we can, even when that has some cost to social welfare. But again, if the cost is too great, we tell practitioners that in this case they need to amend their own ways. We’ve done this many times and will do it again. Typically, a change like this (allowing contraception) doesn’t cause an otherwise thriving religion to collapse and fail.

Gender imbalance, too, is a serious concern. However, it isn’t the one-child policy that causes gender imbalance. The cause is, in a word, sexism, where a culture finds women to be less valuable, and parents subsequently find girls less beneficial to the family. We know this doesn’t have to happen. Fertility rates have fallen greatly in Europe and the United States without any gender imbalance. And other countries that do show an artificial gender imbalance don’t have one-child policies — there’s just a preference for boys. What we need to do is change our attitudes, not have more children.


If we say there is no moral right to have more than one child, do we pave the way for forced abortions and sterilizations? No.

We may well be able to reduce the fertility rate without using sanctions at all, and that would, of course, be best. Most of us do what is right because we think it’s right, not because we’re afraid of punishment. We think murder is wrong and so (most of us) don’t murder. The same could be true for limiting how many children we have.

First, we can educate people about the need to have fewer children. It’s a sensitive subject, and even activist groups have regarded population as the untouchable third rail of environmental preservation. This is a case where avoiding a sensitive subject will only come back to haunt us, though. We can learn the advantages of having only one child, and get rid of the myths that some people still attach to that. Some think that even with the new freedom to have two children, at least most urban Chinese will stick to the old policy, and of course if people do the environmentally right thing without being forced to, that is best all around.

Second, we can make it easy to control how many children we have. We could make contraception free and readily available. (The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended that birth control pills should be available over the counter, which would certainly be a beginning.)

Or, we can go farther, and reward those who have fewer children, say with tax breaks. We know that in the past the fertility rate has been sensitive to finances, with fewer births in both the Great Depression and following the 2008 recession, so financial reward seems an effective mechanism. If, on the other hand, incentives aren’t enough, we can provide disincentives. Instead of tax breaks we can have tax penalties for those who have more than one child. In terms of money, receiving a tax penalty may be no different from failing to receive a tax break, but calling it a penalty can provide more motivation.

Lastly, if we ever did discover that we needed sanctions to get people to refrain from having an unsustainable number of children, they wouldn’t be physical in nature. Fines may be the best way to go, and again, there is reason to think suitable fines, fixed on a sliding scale relative to income, can be effective — not 100 percent effective, which no regulation ever is, but effective enough.

Of course, things might change. Maybe technological fixes will save us, ending our unsustainable depletion of natural resources and our contributions to climate change. When we speak of the future, we can never be completely certain. But, at present, when the probability of harm is high, and the damage in question is great, we have no right to risk the danger. Certainty isn’t required.

It’s new for us to think of something as immediately joyful as childbearing as harmful, and it’s hard to change our ideas when we are confronted with new circumstances. This is natural. Natural, but dangerous. We’re in a different world, a world of 7.3 billion and counting, and we need to recognize that and act accordingly. The job of government is not just to give present citizens anything they may want, but to pave the way for a prosperous, stable society for future citizens. Any kind of one-child policy will be unattractive, but the alternative looks to be worse.

Sarah Conly is an associate professor of philosophy at Bowdoin College. Her most recent book is “One Child: Do We Have a Right to More,” Oxford University Press, 2015.