Gaia Doesn’t Care where your Baby Comes From

Guest Post by Dominic Wilkinson, Associate Editor, Journal of Medical Ethics

In a provocative paper published today in the Journal of Medical Ethics, US theologian Cristina Richie argues that the carbon cost and environmental impact of population growth in the West should lead to restrictions on artificial reproduction.  She points to the substantial carbon emissions that result from birth in developed countries like North America.  Seven percent of the world’s population contribute fifty percent of the world’s CO2 emissions, and children born by in vitro fertilization are likely to be in this seven percent.  Richie argues in favour of a carbon cap on artificial reproduction and argues that IVF should not be funded for women who are “biologically fertile”.

Richie is correct to point to the enormous carbon cost of additional human population. One of the most significant ways that individuals in Western countries can reduce global carbon emissions is by having fewer children. However, her focus on artificial reproduction and on the “biologically fertile” is not justified.

Richie ignores questions about the moral implications of climate change and climate cost for natural reproduction.  She sets to one side “the larger realm of sexual ethics and procreation”.  Yet there are two reasons for thinking that this is a mistake.  First, as Richie notes, “Reproduction-related CO2 is primarily due to choices of those who have children naturally: a huge majority of all births.”  Only 2% of all children born in the UK are conceived by IVF.[1]  Therefore interventions to reduce the number of children naturally conceived will potentially have a fifty fold higher impact on carbon emissions.  Secondly, it is profoundly unjust to apply restrictions to reproduction only on those who are unable to conceive by natural means.  It could be justified to limit the reproductive choices of women because of concern for the environment.  However, if this were justified, it would be equally justified to try to limit the reproduction of the naturally fertile and the naturally infertile.  It is ad hoc and unfair to confine our attention to those who must reproduce artificially.

Second, Richie proposes that public funding for IVF be confined to those who are “biologically infertile”, excluding same sex couples and single women.  However, she provides no reason at all for restricting the availability of IVF for these women.  Put simply, the carbon cost of artificial reproduction is exactly the same for a woman who is infertile because of endometriosis or polycystic ovary syndrome or because she does not have a male partner.  The only possible reason for making a distinction between biologically infertile and biologically fertile women is because Richie believes that lesbian and single women are less deserving of public funding because of their lifestyle choices.  However, that argument, as problematic and contentious as it is, is completely independent of the question of environmental impact.  The carbon cost of children born to gay couples is likely to be exactly the same as the carbon cost of children born to women with endometriosis.

The carbon cost of additional births might well be sufficiently important for the state to justify limiting reproductive freedom.  However, if the state is going to interfere in couples’ decisions about whether to have children or the number of children that they have, it should do so fairly and equally.  Carbon caps should be applied equally to those who conceive naturally and those who require artificial reproductive treatment.  They should not be used as a way to discriminate against those who are single or gay, or have some other ‘undesirable’ characteristic.



  • unity_ministry

    This is going to sound extremely cynical, but with good reason and from long experience of dealing with the intellectual dishonesty of the religious right.

    Cristina Ritchie is not just a US theologian she is, specifically a Roman Catholic theologian operating our of a privately-funded Jesuit University, “Competing interests: none” strikes me as a masterpiece of understatement for someone is quite clearly and disingenuously trying to put an environmental spin on the promotion of Roman Catholic dogma.

    The operative phrase here is “jumping the shark”.

    • Hmmm. I wonder whether that’s perhaps a touch over-cynical. To sustain your suspicions, one would need independent evidence about the motivation to write. Absent that, don’t we have to treat it as being in good faith – especially since (as it strikes me) there’s nothing significant about her argument that couldn’t have been made by a non-Catholic.

      • unity_ministry

        That would depend on how you define “good faith” in the context of an argument in which one of key parameters, the restriction of IVF treatment to only those who are “biologically infertile” is a fixed point derived from religious belief rather than being one that follows logically from the preceding arguments.

        As Dominic correctly points out, whether a woman is “biologically infertile” or simply choosing to undergo IVF because they don’t wish to conceive by a more conventional means has not bearing on the environment impact of the conception. The distinction being made is based on a moral position which has no bearing or relevance to the core argument.