This is the first of a regular feature on the LTI blog where we will respond to questions asked on our LTI Facebook page. If you have a question you would like to ask please leave a comment in the thread there and we will pick one regularly to respond to on here. This week’s question was about overpopulation as a justification for abortion.
The Argument from Overpopulation
In the western world it's especially common to hear that the overpopulation of the world provides justification for abortion. After-all if we can’t adequately live in the world as it is right now why should we burden the world with even more human beings?
Before I explore this argument in any depth it’s important to address the assumption that the world is in fact overpopulated. For a further exploration into the claim that the world is already vastly overpopulated Danny Dorling’s book Population 10 Billion is worth investing in to deal with a number of misunderstandings and falsehoods in this area. It's not at all clear that the world is in fact overpopulated and there remains debate amongst the scientific community to when or if this will happen. However, what is clear is that the failure of countries and individuals to take responsibility for how they live and how they use the world’s resources of which they are meant to be stewards of will continue to take its toll. Christians must take responsibility for how they live as good stewards and acknowledge that how they choose to live can and does affect other people. The world’s population will continue to increase but is abortion a morally permissible way of solving it?
I think it would be fair to describe this argument as eugenic; it’s the idea that certain people within our society should be encouraged to limit how many children they should have (or whether they should have any children at all). Abortion therefore functions as a means of population control. This argument is primarily directed at those in poverty it essentially encourages the poor to procure abortions so that what space is left can be used by those with more desirable traits, and who aren’t poor. So rather than responding to the factors that lead to poverty or investment in the better use of our resources it is argued that abortion should be encouraged to help the rest of us. It should be pointed out however that if this is ‘solving’ the problem of overpopulation then it is only a euphemism for eliminating those who are seen as the problem. This approach is the moral equivalent of throwing a grenade at a mouse.
The argument leaves us with what really appears to be a false dilemma; either abortion or overpopulation that results in global poverty. It may be true that many people’s preferred standard of living could be affected by an increasing population but selfish motives for a particular standard of living alone do not justify abortion. Life is far more than the sum of how many nice cars one has or how many nice restaurants one can frequent. To put one's pleasure above human life is morally impermissible. However, this is the one consistency with all arguments for abortion; they are always for the benefit of someone other than the preborn.
This false dilemma also leads to a number of other morally problematic conclusions. For instance if an infant, disabled, irreversibly sick, or elderly human being is a burden in an already allegedly overpopulated world shouldn’t killing them also be justified? From a consequentialist view they cannot yet or never will contribute to society in any materially meaningful way which means they are currently burdens taking rather than giving. From this perspective if the world were in fact overpopulated their killing should also be justified on the basis of its better consequences for those who can contribute. It could be argued that the infant will one day contribute in a material sense but the same argument would work for the preborn so the advocate of an already overpopulated world cannot accept this. This leaves the advocate of the argument from overpopulation in a moral quandary, because most of those who advocate this argument rightly don’t support the killing of infants, disabled, irreversibly sick or elderly human beings. Yet their view supports the logic in for it; unless, that is, they are assuming something about preborn human beings. This exposes the question begging nature of the whole argument, there is a hidden assumption that there is something about preborn human beings that provides moral justification for their killing.
Like all arguments in support of abortion the argument hinges on the moral status of the preborn. If the preborn aren’t fully human and the subject of personal rights, especially the right not to be intentionally killed for the benefit of another, killing them should be permissible if the preborn are not of sufficient moral value. In this instance the argument must be supported by a defence of the assumption that there is a morally relevant difference between preborn human beings and those that have been born before it can be accepted.
If the person who uses this argument cannot do so then they must explain why the argument from overpopulation does not also equally support the killing of infants, disabled, irreversibly sick or the elderly if resources are so scant in this overpopulated world. As Francis Beckwith has said ‘if the unborn are fully human, then this is also a good argument for infanticide and the killing of all humans we find to be financially burdensome or emotionally taxing.’.
In summary the problems with the argument for abortion from overpopulation are;
1. Current assumptions on overpopulation are unfounded or unproven.
2. It promotes a eugenic view of human life.
3. It singles out families in poverty.
4. It equates ‘solving’ the problem of overpopulation with eliminating the most vulnerable human beings in our society.
5. It promotes a false dilemma by suggesting that we must choose between overpopulation and abortion.
6. It promotes a standard of living above human life.
7. It suggests that the poor must make space for the rich.
8. If followed to its logical conclusions it suggests that the killing of infants, disabled, irreversibly sick and the elderly can be justified.
9. Killing those who cannot or won’t contribute to an overpopulated society could be morally permissible.
10. The argument is guilty of begging the question by making an assumption about preborn human beings that makes killing them morally permissible.
11. The whole argument hinges on whether the preborn are fully human beings and a subject of rights, it assumes not without any justification.
12. The questioner must explain why their argument does not equally apply to infants, disabled, irreversibly sick and the elderly.
13. It leads to absurd moral conclusions.
14. Even if true it does not support the pro-choice conclusion that abortion is a fundamental right that can be exercised for any reason throughout pregnancy.