Monday, August 16, 2010


Sam Smith

We recently ran a story about the Australian Anglican Church saying that overpopulation may violate the Ten Commandments. A reader wrote to propose "post-partum sterilization of both parents after one live birth. It doesn't impoverish anyone, and if carried out with no exceptions or special pleadings, is guaranteed to take care of Earth's overpopulation problem."

Neat, clean and effective.

Only one things wrong: it's inhumane and violates basic individual choice.

When the law is used as a weapon to make major changes in cultural behavior it can easily become a legal taser gun, effective perhaps in a particular instance but damaging to the society as a whole. Taser torturing someone or mandatory sterilization does not contribute to a sane and decent society.

This is why dealing with an issue like civil rights can be so complicated. You can integrate a school by law but you can't stop someone from hating someone else by law.

Lately, confusion on this issue has been cropping up in the discussion over population.

For example, the otherwise excellent Popuation Media Center has featured arguments about why stronger immigration laws are a good thing, based on the increasing influence of immigration on total American population.

Recently it forwarded an article by right wing pro life political activist Gary Bauer in Politico, in which he argued:

"People migrate to the United States to improve their standard of living. But the liberal wish of immigration amnesty may have deleterious effects on the environment, as millions of people from developing countries settle down in, or are encouraged to move to, the world's largest energy-consuming country and quickly embrace all the CO2-causing ways of the world's richest economy. . . U.S. immigrants produce an estimated 637 million metric tons of CO2 emissions annually. That's 482 million tons more than they would have produced had they remained in their home countries."

The argument is that keeping immigrants in their home country with a far lower standard of living is better for the environment.

There are a number of problems with this:

- It assumes that climate change is not really a global problem.

- It gives no value to the lives of the immigrants.

- It distortedly focuses the population argument on immigrants - specifically latinos - which plays into the hands of those who don't like immigrants for a plethora of other reasons.

- It takes attention away from other solutions that are not only more important but lead to more culturally harmonious results, such as expanding the use of birth control and encouraging later marriages.

In fact, the Population Media Center has been on the forefront of good thinking on these issues, including how one uses TV soap operas to change child-bearing practices. But, having lived through the civil rights struggle, I'm conscious of how easy it is for liberals to be distracted in a good cause by the fallacious arguments and agenda-setting of the right.

For example, the estimable George Kenney makes the argument in Huffington Post that:

"Liberals should take care not to feign too much outrage against those who question birthright citizenship. The meaning of the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment — if one stops for a moment to think about it — did not, when it was ratified in 1868, absolutely, unambiguously, and unconditionally allow birthright citizenship and, therefore, the Amendment's commonly accepted meaning having changed over time, those who defend birthright citizenship must be prepared to say why their reading of the 14th Amendment is more correct than the alternative."

His argument is an interesting one if you're with a bunch of lawyers having dinner in a restaurant, but the fact is that the 14th Amendment wouldn't even be mentioned today if it were not for some clever troublemakers on the right. My answer on the 14th Amendment is to end its huge court-created birthright powers to corporations - that is categorizing them as persons - and we can worry about the poor little sons and daughters of illegal immigrants later. Besides, we have too big a deficit to have ICE agents in every maternity ward.

Besides, I have an friend born in America who has an Irish as well as an American passport because his father was born in Ireland. Different places have different rules, just as America has had different rules at different times. And the more humane they are, the better.

What both the population and the immigration issue require is a careful balance between the power of the law and human wisdom and decency.

One of the reasons it is difficult to even bring up the population issue in liberal circles these days is because of its sorry history based heavly on law and power, ranging from enforced birth control programs to Nazi pogroms. As a result there is no more important issue being given so little attention.

The key to changing this is to recognize the inherent danger of using the law as a tool in dealing with the matter. It is a change that we need to make in the same way that Americans decided not to have so many children or the Japanese decided to get married later.

The minute the law gets involved in a punitive fashion, we find ourselves with the same sort of ugly crisis we had with segregation and are having now with immigration. Besides, we've had forty years of failure trying to deal with drug use through the law and it's failed miserably. Let's not add a war on population or a war on immigration to our list of failures.

Besides the environment doesn't recognize national borders. We’re all in this together.