When Not to Be Fruitful and Multiply

God commands mankind to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and conquer it, and have dominion over the entire animal kingdom (Genesis 1:28). We listened to God. The world population is now seven billion people and growing. How long do men and women need to continue growing as a species in order to fulfill God’s command? At what point must we cease multiplying?

Genesis 1:27-28, when understood literally, states that “God created human in his image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them and God told them: Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and conquer it (v’chivshua)…” Hence, according to the literal meaning of the verse, procreation is incumbent upon man and woman. Further, while “be fruitful (p’ru)” might demand us to produce offspring in any quantity, the phrase “and multiply (u’rvu)” stipulates that our procreation must result in an increase (“ribui”) in population. Traditional Rabbinic interpretation, however, states that the injunction to be fruitful and multiply applies only to males. The word v’chivshua is missing a vav, and so its drash, according to Rashi, is  “v’chivshah  (and man should conquer her).” A connection, according to this drash, is made between this command of conquering and the command to be fruitful and multiply: just as conquering is incumbent only on males, so is procreation incumbent only on males. The ramification of assuming that the command is incumbent upon only males is that one couple could bear two children, and even though the world population on average will in fact decrease, as explained below, the male would still fulfill the command according to Rabbinic understanding.

This is significant because at some point, the world population will reach the earth’s maximum carrying capacity, set according to natural resources such as food and water. At that point, perhaps we can safely say that we have filled the earth and conquered it. Then comes the question: once we have filled the earth and conquered it, must we continue to increase our population? Upon contemplation of this question, we realize that to exceed this carrying capacity would be to cause unnecessary death of people who should never have been born. We indeed find a precedent in Rabbinic tradition that propagation during a time of insufficient natural resources is frowned upon: Joseph made sure, the Rabbis explain, to give birth to his sons before the famine in Egypt, but not during the famine.

As a species, we must figure out a way to implement population control. China found a clever way—to tax heavily anyone who has more than one child. That strategy was far from ideal, though. Since males were valued more than females in Chinese culture, many parents resorted to abandoning newborn daughters in the hopes that they would give birth to a baby boy. Thus, in effect, the population problem was not alleviated.

To sustain the world’s population, theoretically, every two people would bear precisely two children. In practice, however, since not all children grow up and live to replace their parents and reproduce, approximately 2.4 children per two parents are needed to sustain the population. Then the question arises: since one couple cannot produce 2.4 children and since not everyone wishes to propagate, whom should we permit to have two children, and whom three?

We will never be able to control conception. Today, the permissibility of abortion is a hot political issue. When it comes to overpopulation, we must ask a much different question: should we impose abortions for those who exceed the limits on number of children? Should we outlaw having more three children?

Humankind, in the image of God, bears a sanctity unmatched in the universe. The questions of when life begins (at conception, in the womb, or at birth) and when life ends (at termination of heart function of at termination of brain function) therefore prompt endless argumentation and debate. The answers to these questions would indeed have ramifications to the question of imposing abortion. If we say life doesn’t begin until birth, it is much easier for us to justify imposition of abortion in the name of preventing overpopulation. If, however, we consider an embryo to be alive, then aborting it is killing it, and death is precisely what we are trying to avoid when we deal with overpopulation.

I raised the many questions above to raise awareness of this issue. These questions can only be answered after serious contemplation of human rights issues. The problem of overpopulation is complex and demands a dynamic, sustainable solution. To come to a universal agreement and international cooperation in achieving population control will be no less miraculous than life itself.