There was an old woman who lived in a shoe
She had so many children she didn't know what to do
She gave them some broth without any bread
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one's youth.
Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. (Ps. 127:4-5)
If old nursery rhymes serve as any indication, people have been concerned about overpopulation for centuries. More recently, in 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote a best-selling book called The Population Bomb. He predicted mass starvation and other calamities as a result of overpopulation, although his conclusions were largely discredited later and his most dire predictions have not come to pass. More recently still, the United Nations revised their population projections for the next century. According to the U.N.'s numbers, the earth's population may reach 10.1 billion people by the year 2100. Justin Gillis and Celia Dugger report in The New York Times, "Growth in Africa remains so high that the population there could more than triple in this century, rising from today's one billion to 3.6 billion … a sobering forecast for a continent already struggling to provide food and water for its people."
Not only does the prospect of billions more people threaten the future health and well-being of many, but women and children face hardship in the present when it comes to childbirth and family size. In Afghanistan, for instance, a woman is 200 times more likely to die in childbirth than to be killed by a bomb or a bullet. Education for midwives, of course, can help alleviate those dangers without decreasing the number of children born. And yet many women in developing countries put their children up for adoption rather than struggle to provide for them at home. According to UNICEF, 90% of the 132 million children classified as orphans worldwide have at least one living biological parent. As families grow, parents often face increasing difficulties as they try to provide for their children's basic needs. In the past, Western nations have offered "family planning programs" as a corrective to population growth, and women in developing nations have responded positively. Many women choose birth control when offered: "Provided with information and voluntary access to birth-control methods, women have chosen to have fewer children in societies as diverse as Bangladesh, Iran, Mexico, Sri Lanka and Thailand."
It seems like a simple problem—too many people—with a simple solution: have fewer children. But the reality is more complicated. Despite exponential population growth in certain parts of the globe, the same U.N. report indicates that Western European nations and China are suffering as a result of population decline. Members of a relatively small and young workforce must attempt to support the older generation. The decrease in fertility rates in these nations has been linked to a combination of factors, including access to birth control and abortion alongside changing social mores related to the role of women in society. In China, government policy has curbed the population, yes, but at the cost of forced abortions, infanticide, and state control over women's choices. Ironically, some of these same nations are now implementing programs designed to increase the birth rate, as Germany's recent decision to subsidize in vitro fertilization treatments for couples indicates.
For Christians, any assessment of population control must consider not only the practical reality of family size and limited resources but also the Bible's view of family and human life. Starting with Adam and Eve's union in Genesis 1, the Bible upholds the family as a key social unit. It assumes that marriage arises not merely as a result of cultural influences but also and fundamentally as a gift from God. Moreover, the biblical writers assume that children are a part of marriage and that children are also gifts from God. The biblical writers demonstrate the boundaries God set for the ideal conception of children. Children ought to have, for instance, both a mother and a father and enough resources to survive and flourish. In support of marriage and children, social programs can address cultural practices that may lead to overpopulation, such as polygamy and promiscuity. On the other hand, many family planning programs include not only education about birth control but also unlimited access to abortion. Furthermore, the language of The New York Times article suggests that family planning programs focus solely upon women. While women certainly deserve greater choice than they often have when it comes to childbirth, women are not alone in these decisions. Rather, husband and wife together bear responsibility for both creating and nurturing their children, and family planning programs should support not only the women but the entire family unit, including the children yet to be born.
Yes, unrestricted population growth can put women in danger from childbirth and can put children in danger as a result of severely limited resources. But there is no simple solution to these problems. Western nations may increase funding for family planning programs in response to the U.N. report, but Christians can offer support for those programs only as they affirm a culture of human flourishing in the context of families making decisions about how best to care for one another. Most Protestants implicitly endorse the use of birth control as a proper means for women to steward their bodies, and yet we must avoid "family planning programs" that include abortion as a matter of course.
In response to the suffering experienced by men, women, and children in nations with rising populations, biblical scholar Sarah Ruden recently wrote in support of family planning programs. She focuses on Paul's defense of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and she writes, "Paul condemns by clear implication most of the conditions in the Third World that are blamed for catastrophic overpopulation: the forced marriage of young girls, the general oppression of women, marriage as "just what you do" and marriage as a mode of production. He insists that both men and women consider their own needs and choose freely what the best life will be for them as individuals." Though Ruden makes a compelling argument in favor of caring for people through family planning, her comments demonstrate that many people in the West, including many Christians, make choices about family size without any reference to the community at large. In offering support for women to receive education, gain access to birth control, and experience freedom to forgo marriage altogether, we must be wary of imposing notions of Western individualism upon these same women and their families.
Christians care about the needs of individuals across the globe, and yet we must not succumb to the idea that manmade programs are the ultimate solution to the world's ills. We follow Jesus in our care for one another, care that crosses global and even generational lines, and yet we put our hope in the day when Jesus will return to set the world right.
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Previous articles on population and children include:
Be Fruitful and Multiply? | Observers weigh in on whether Christians have a special responsibility to have children. (July 26, 2010)
How Many Kids Should We Have? | To answer the question, Christian couples need more than a few select Bible verses. (Her.meneutics, June 19, 2010)
Peter Singer's Swan Song | Bioethicist asks: 'Why don't we make ourselves the last generation on earth?' (June 14, 2010)
Deconstructing the Quiver | A review of Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. (February 20, 2009)
'Be Fruitful and Multiply' | Is this a command, or a blessing? (November 12, 2001)