Is Having Large Families 'Irresponsible'?

A beloved 87-year-old British TV naturalist has tackled the issue of overpopulation head-on this week, saying it "is irresponsible to have large families in this day and age," and even throwing tepid support behind China’s one-child policy. 

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“It's the degree to which it has been enforced which is terrible, and there’s no question it’s produced all kinds of personal tragedies. There’s no question about that,” said Sir David Attenborough, a BBC documentary host, in the latest issue of Radio Times magazine and as reported by the Independent. “On the other hand, the Chinese themselves recognize that had they not done so there would be several million more mouths in the world today than there are now.”

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A steady stream of tweets was in agreement on Tuesday, with folks saying Attenborough “just gets it” and praising him for touching on “the elephant in the room.”

But others, like Renee Bergeron, who blogs about mothering 14 children (five of them adopted), told Yahoo Shine, “My family may use more resources as a whole, but we certainly use less as individuals. Just one example is with diapers. I invested in a set of cloth diapers, which I used on six (!) babies, then sold to another family when I was finished with them.”

She added, “My children know how to work hard and they have amazing adaptive and people skills. Is it irresponsible to raise hardworking individuals? To raise children who do not feel entitled? To raise up a generation of citizens willing to contribute and help others? I don't think so.”

Talking about overpopulation is touchy, and even taboo, according to the population-control advocate organization How Many?, because it calls into question people’s race, beliefs about individual freedoms and religion (like the TV-famous Duggars, with 19 kids). But it’s a crucial problem standing in the way of saving the planet and feeding the world, say a host of activists.

“It’s a very sensitive topic, and [Attenborough’s comments] might not have been phrased as eloquently as possible, but there’s no question that if we want to figure out how to feed everyone on the planet, we have to stabilize population growth,” Janet Larson, director of research at the Earth Policy Institute, told Yahoo Shine.

The good news, she said, is that there are more than 200 million women around the world who do want smaller families, but who don’t have access to contraception or family-planning education. “The cost of meeting their needs is quite minuscule,” she said.

In the U.S., the fertility rate (average number of children that a woman bears in her lifetime) has been on the decline. But the population has not, said S. Philip Morgan, professor of sociology and director of the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The population in the U.S. has been going up every year for 200 years,” he told Yahoo Shine, and last year alone there were about 1 million more births than deaths.

So when Attenborough talks about large families threatening the planet, Morgan theorizes, he might not be talking about the U.K. or the U.S., but the world—where fertility rates hover as high as 2.6 in India, 3.0 in Israel, 4.6 in Iraq, and 5.7 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example.

On the other hand, Morgan notes, Attenborough “might actually think it’s worse here, as there’s no excuse in the U.S. We should know better.” He added that, basically, “It’s about resources.”

On the PRI radio show the "World," a recent series looked at population and family size. On one of the broadcasts, Maria Vandergriff-Avery, associate professor of sociology at Catawba College, pointed out that children in the U.S. have historically gone from being economic assets (in the 1800s) to economic boons. A 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated that a typical middle-class family in the U.S. spends more than $200,000 to raise a child today.

Still, the idea that Attenborough is criticizing folks in this country for their conscious decision to have large families is what has some large-family advocates bristling.

“His opinion is clear. Stop the large families and the rest of us can have more ‘stuff’” wrote Tania Sullivan on her blog Larger Family Life, about raising 12 children (with another on the way) in Kent, England. “Stop large families and have more STUFF! Yep, that’ll help the world.” She adds, “His sole belief is that the birth rate needs to be controlled in order to curb population. I find it ironic, therefore, that he has chosen to work against natural selection himself and to be fitted with a pacemaker. A typical overpopulationist opinion of: ‘Overpopulation? It can’t be me. It must be you!’”

Rebecca Woolf, who writes about raising four children on her popular Girl’s Gone Child blog, told Yahoo Shine in an email, “People can be irresponsible with no children. Or one child. Or 10. My goal is to raise empathetic human beings who treat the planet and its inhabitants with respect and care.”

She added, “Large families can be extremely positive experiences and I don't look at humanity as purely a drain on resources. We aren't cattle. We are intelligent and emotional creatures, some of whom excel in a family dynamic where the importance of contribution, empathy and teamwork are understood because they have to be.”

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