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Page last updated at 10:36 GMT, Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Is it selfish to have more than two children?

The Whitehouse family
One of the Whitehouse children lives elsewhere, leaving four remaining at home

By Margaret Ryan
BBC News

Is having more than two children selfish? The future of the planet rarely plays a part when planning a family, but that's got to change, say environmental campaigners.

Parents who have more than two children are "irresponsible" for placing an intolerable burden on resources and increasing damage to eco-systems, says a leading green campaigner.

Curbing population growth through contraception must play a role in fighting global warming, argues Jonathon Porritt.

This week, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), of which Mr Porrit is a patron, launched its "Stop at Two" online pledge to encourage couples to limit their family's size.

If you polled mums and asked them for 10 reasons why they would not want more children the list would include money, sleepless nights and the strain on relationships
Siobhan Freegard, Netmums website

Mr Porritt said earlier this month: "I think we will work our way towards a position that says having more than two children is irresponsible."

He is not advocating a compulsory limit but told the BBC that couples should "connect up their concerns with the natural environment with their decisions as prospective parents".

"Every additional human being is increasing the burden on this planet which is becoming increasingly intolerable," says Mr Porritt, who runs the government's Sustainable Development Commission.

Each extra person in the UK emits around 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum, he argues, but he warns population is a subject even some environmentalists think too controversial to discuss.

Graph showing fertility rate

The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) in the UK reached 1.90 children per woman in 2007. UK fertility has not been this high since 1980, according to the Office for National Statistics.

The UK population alone is expected to increase from 61 million to 77 million by 2051 but the OPT believes the UK's long-term sustainable population level may be lower than 30 million.

"The more couples decide to have just one or two children, or even remain childless, the more they can relieve pressures on rapidly deteriorating ecosystems and alleviate demand for dwindling energy and food resources," says policy director Rosamund McDougall.

If women in the UK stopped at two children, this would cut the UK's forecast population by an estimated seven million by 2050, the OPT suggests.

But for mother-of-five Rosie Whitehouse, green issues did not play a part in her and her husband's decision to have a large family.

Emma Quinton with five of her children (left to right) Kitty, Poppy, Clara and Sam holding Ronnie
Emma Quinton, 41, from Brighton, has six children ranging from 22 months to 10 years
'I never planned to have this many children. They got to a certain age and I wanted another'
Would consider having a seventh but worried about money and the emotional toll
'We would have started earlier and had more'
Benefit of a large family is that they learn to share and they do their bit for the planet by never flying long-haul

"Life isn't as simple as that," says Mrs Whitehouse, a former journalist.

"For most women the environment doesn't figure at all. I was making programmes about global warming when I became pregnant with my first son, who is now 20, and it didn't enter my head," she says, although she can understand why Mr Porritt feels justified in raising the issue.

"I didn't think about money and what it was going to cost either. I just had this romantic idea," she says.

Mrs Whitehouse, 47, who works full-time and lives in London, queries whether larger families necessarily place a greater burden on the environment.

"Money is important so you don't buy ready-made meals. I cooked up cauldrons of soup."

'No more toys'

And just because you have five children "it does not mean you have five times the amount of plastic toys," she says. "You just have to say 'no more'."

She has four children still living at home aged 18, 15 and twins aged 10 and says they are environmentally aware. But she does not believe green issues will be uppermost in her daughters' minds when they come to think about having a family.

Rosie Whitehouse's son
Being one of four children means sometimes you need to escape

"Pregnancy is introspective. It is a selfish time, especially when you first find out, " she says.

It's a sentiment echoed by mother-of-three Siobhan Freegard who says environmental considerations aren't even on the radar when couples think about how many children they want.

"If you polled mums and asked them for 10 reasons why they would not want more children the list would include money, sleepless nights and the strain on relationships," says Ms Freegard, of the online parent network Netmums.

The bottom line would certainly seem to focus the minds of many parents, judging by recent research. The average cumulative cost of raising a child from birth to the age of 21 is about 193,000, according to a survey by the insurer Liverpool Victoria.

Ms Freegard says it is "crazy" to think the impact on the environment would even figure in the family planning process.

She has two sons, aged 12 and six, and a nine-year-old daughter. With the birth of her youngest, she felt they were a proper family, although managing three children hasn't been easy: "It was messy and I lost control of things, but in a good way."

And as one of five children herself, she extols the virtues of a large family, for example in having siblings to share caring for a parent.

"It's about having some support and sharing the load. I wanted to recreate that for my own children."

A selection of your comments appears below.

I have to say that I disagree with the women in this article; I'm the very proud mother of an 8 year old daughter and during my pregnancy, as I thought about how I wanted to care for her - we chose organic food and non-disposable nappies - I became acutely conscious of her potential impact on the environment; further highlighted every time I then washed a non-disposable nappy! When I consider the possibility of having more children I do think of their impact on the environment and, as I've become more aware of the environmental and social issues facing our society, I would be far more likely to foster or adopt a child.
Lucy , Benfleet, UK

I have three children. I feel it is my duty to attempt to repopulate the World with intelligent individuals in an attempt to offset Mr Porritt's stupidity. Idiocy-offsetting, kind of like carbon offsetting, just a little more immediate.
Kirstine Berry, Bracknell

I don't think that deciding not to have kids for the sake of the world at large is crazy at all. It's one of the reasons we have decided not to have any children. That and the fact that we wouldn't want any child of ours to have to endure the increasingly bleak future that is coming. These people who have 5 children - what if they each had five children etc? The world can't sustain the people it's already got. Having lots of children shows a lack of thought and care, in my opinion.
Hannah Wilson, Cardiff

I agree that people should definitely take the environment into consideration when it comes to starting a family, and that really having two children is enough. However I think it's unfair to blanket judge the population by calling it 'irresponsible' to have more than two. My partner and I, in the near future are planning to start a family and though we probably would have stopped at two (for financial reasons) the environment would not have been at all considered. I agree that raising awareness of this issue is essential but judging ready established large families is not the way to do it.
Lou, Shropshire

In addition to the environment there is the economy to consider. If population growth surpasses economic growth, then a country gets poorer. Many poorer countries are trapped in a situation where population is exploding and the economy cannot cope with it. Although China's one child policy is controversial, it may have been one of the factors that led to China's rise in the world economy
Katie, Cork, Ireland

"Is having more than two children selfish? The future of the planet rarely plays a part when planning a family, but that's got to change, say environmental campaigners." No, condescending environmental extremists are selfish for presuming to tell the rest of the world what it may or may not do. What a beautiful family the Whitehouses are!

It's all very well to tell people to limit the size of their families. I was lucky enough to have two girls but sadly one of them died when she was in her twenties. Sadly tragedies do happen sometimes and this should be taken into account.
Sue, Minehead

I would agree it's selfish and irresponsible to have more than two children. What's "crazy" is that the environment doesn't figure in more of our decisions. It makes me rather sad that these people who decide they need a large family don't seem to consider adoption. There are many children already in this world who would greatly benefit from a loving home, surely this is a far better way to have a large family?
Linden, Winsford, Cheshire

I am very passionate about this issue! I personally have chosen not to have any children, as I believe it is simply unethical to do so considering the disastrous environmental state of our planet, and the vast numbers of children who already exist that do not have homes. I may have selfish hormonal desires to procreate at times, but values and ethics are vastly more important. Anyone who considers themselves environmentalists should strongly consider doing the same.
Elyse Kleidon, Bellingham WA, United States

Either have one or more doesn't matter as long as each child have the full attention and good care from the parents. However, if I can choose I would pick only two... a family ticket of four would go anywhere and easy to handle while travelling.
N Durham, Brigg, North Lincolnshire

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