I generally believe to give birth to a child or not is completely a woman's own decision. Personally I never want to have a child. However someone recently said to me that to insist on that belief would be a little selfish when a woman is in a country threatened by rapid aging and declining population, which could in turn lead to far worse consequences like economic collapse. What do philosophers think?

A fascinating question. Let’s first examine the question of whether one might have an obligation to reproduce. Under normal circumstances, we honor the autonomy of individuals in such matters, largely as an extension of the principle that one should have ultimate control over one’s body to the extent it does not harm others. Of course, that raises the questions of whether refusing to reproduce might harm or injure others, and what harm or injury is relevant. This is part of a larger question of whether not doing something can be understood to be a kind of harm. Are we obligated to save others in peril, for existence? It’s a big question, but I’m inclined to think that we do bear a limited obligation. If that’s true, I can imagine a scenario where someone with a terminal illness is the only person in the world with a certain genetic trait and that trait is required to produce a cure for a disease that will otherwise kill everyone else. The trait cannot for some reason be preserved in tissue samples. In that case, the person could be said to have an obligation to others to sustain the existence of that trait. But let’s face it, that’s an unlikely scenario. You raise a case where not having children would lead to economic collapse. Collapse of that sort would seem an injury or likely to produce injury, too. So, the logic of the question suggests we have an obligation to prevent that injury. But, practically speaking, I don’t think that’s so under present world circumstances. The world is already over-populated in my view, and so it would seem that there are plenty of people available to sustain economic activity. Really, a more relevant question today is whether we have an obligation to refuse to have children or at least to limit our reproduction to less than the replacement rate. I think that is so, because continued reproduction entails harm to others. Now, I can imagine that those who argue for the obligation to reproduce might argue for their point on cultural rather than economic grounds. It’s possible that negative reproduction rates in some parts of the world in conjunction with immigration from groups with positive reproduction rates will eventually lead to the elimination of a nation or culture. In that case, the question becomes whether or not we have an obligation to sustain the culture in which we live and have inherited. I think in that case the situation is rather like voting. Individuals are free to decide whether or not they wish their nation or culture to survive. The answer may be yes or no depending upon any individual’s judgment. So long as people are well informed about the risks to their culture’s survival and about the relevant qualities of their culture that will be lost, each individual gets a vote. Now, I think it reasonable from the point of view of cultural diversity and in light of an understanding of the treasures most cultures contain to start from the assumption that cultures should be conserved and sustained, but there is no a prior reason to think so in any particular case.

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