Sarah Conly ’75
Courtesy Sarah Conly ’75
Sarah Conly ’75

The argument driving Sarah Conly ’75’s latest book is stated unambiguously in its first sentence: “I’m going to argue here that we don’t have a right to more than one biological child.” In her new book, Conly makes clear that she feels it would be morally permissible to pass government legislation restricting how many children a couple can have.

Those inhabiting the planet today have a moral obligation to future generations, Conly asserts in One Child: Do We Have a Right to More?Given the environmental degradation occurring as a result of a growing global population — it increased sevenfold during the 19th and 20th centuries, from 1 billion in 1825 to 7 billion in 2011 — shrinking the world’s population is urgently important, she believes. Some would argue that state regulation would infringe on one’s right to choose how to live, but Conly argues that what people have a right to do is limited by how much harm it will cause others, including people who have yet to be born. Everyone has a right to procreate, she writes, but that right is not a right to procreate as many times as desired.

In addition to her moral arguments, Conly discusses strategies that can effectively and cost-efficiently encourage voluntary limits on childbirth, such as education, increasing contraception availability, and tax incentives. In terms of state interference, Conly argues that while government actions like sterilizations and forced abortions are wrong, that does not mean that all approaches to legislating population restrictions are immoral. “For us,” she writes, “the time to discuss the morality of reproduction is now, before the climate is made unlivable, before ecosystems are destroyed.”

Conly is an associate philosophy professor at Bowdoin College and the author of Against Autonomy: Justifying Coercive Paternalism.