March 1, 2024

Pioneer in population ethics has misgivings

Daniel Callahan says that greying of population is worrying

A pioneer in the ethics of population control is having misgivings. Daniel Callahan, one of the founders of modern bioethics, writes in the latest Hastings Center Report that his earlier interest in the ethical dimension of bringing down birthrates seems to have missed something.

In a retrospective look at his work in the 1970s seeking to set down ethical guidelines for the work of population controllers, Callahan says that fear of excessive population has been followed by fear of excessive decline.

Ever since the 1970s, I had become addicted to reading a leading demography journal, the Population and Development Review. About four or five years ago, I began noticing a shift in its articles. There were far fewer on population limitation… The goal was and remains zero-population growth (ZPG), taken to be 2.1 babies per woman, on average, but where previously the aim of many groups was to get down to ZPG, the new emphasis was on getting birthrates back up to it. How and why that had happened was the question that demographers (and I, as an onlooker) were trying to answer.

Back in the era of the “population bomb”, many were tempted to take an apocalyptic view. Callahan himself wrote in the journal Science in 1972:

[E]xcessive population growth… poses critical dangers to the future of the species, the ecosystem, individual liberty and welfare, and the structure of social life. These hazards are serious enough to warrant a reexamination and, ultimately, a revision of the traditional value of unrestricted procreation and increase in population.

After a burst of enthusiasm in the 1970s, bioethicists abandoned population studies for clinical work. But Callahan suggests that the “the downstream problems that emerge from technological and social advances of medical progress” are certainly worthy of examination. He lists a few:

* Changes in the dependency ratio;
* fears that a declining number of younger workers will sap economic vitality and;
* "what, in other contexts, would seem a clear public health problem: increased hazards to mother and child from later procreation and, for many, the impossibility of having children at all (helped but not overcome by in vitro fertilization)…"

The fundamental bioethical question in population studies, says Callahan, is “freedom of procreation”. At the beginning of his career the focus was how far governments could go to limit birthrates. Now it is their policies to raise them. ~ Hastings Center Report, May-June