Sunday, July 18, 2004
Abortion and coercion
But, as sometimes happens in the real world, things aren't so simple.
The population explosion in China (as in other developing countries) is really serious. If population growth doesn't get under control, and I mean soon, then the world is going to become a much worse place to live. Moreover, it doesn't look like the problem is going to solve itself, since the rational thing for any individual in a developing nation to do is to have a large family.
So what we've got is a looming catastrophe that can only be averted by reducing birth rates in developing nations, but we can't rely on individuals to make the choices that would bring about that result.
This is what philosophers call a Collective Action Problem.
One thing I don't know is how coercive China's policy is. Do the police show up in the middle of the night and drag pregnant women off to abortion clinics? Or, do authorities just do a lot of pestering and threaten not to give the family a voucher for a larger apartment? Such news reports as I've seen suggest the latter, but all of the rhetoric I've heard suggests the former.
I guess it goes without saying that the preferred policy would be to up the incentives for not having children, or for not having more than one. The hope there would be that people would then choose to limit family size of their own free will. But that seems so obvious that I don't know why China wouldn't do it, unless merely economic incentives haven't proved to be sufficient to outweigh the preference for a large family.
In such a case we'd have a true moral dilemma. Allowing the population to continue to grow would be indefensible, but so would any of the policies that might solve the problem.