Some rights declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are routinely limited by law:

  • Right to liberty, access to public service, rest and leisure, to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, freedom of movement and residence (and, in some places, to life) is limited for criminal convicts.

  • The right to freedom of opinion and expression, to manifest belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance is typically limited where the opinion/belief is potentially capable of triggering social disharmony or violence.

  • The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association may be limited in pandemics.

  • The right to free choice of employment is limited for non-citizens.

Such limitations are allowed by Article 29:

Article 29

  1. In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

Now, taxation is supposedly one of such necessary limitations to the right to own property (Article 17). So is progressive taxation (variable rate depending on the level of income), albeit not necessarily necessary.

Presumably because of the word "family" in Article 16, the right to have children is deemed to be one of the basic human rights too:

Article 16

  1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.


Why is the very notion of the possibility to limit the right to have children depending on the level of income welfare use is so disdained? Why could it not be one of the many limitations to human rights, a counterpart to progressive taxation — which is very well welcomed?

Anticipating answers like "because such a limitation would not be purported in line with Article 29(2)", I explain further why it would be:

People on welfare benefits who have children place additional burden on taxpayers. This burden is inclined to grow exponentially because their kids have limited chances to learn how to earn, take benefits for granted and then have their own kids while still on benefits. Limiting the right to have children until the person is capable of supporting themselves would:

  • Motivate the person to make effort to become able to support themselves instead of relaxing on benefits
  • Promote and foster responsible parenting, limit the likelihod of youths becoming criminals
  • Ease the burden on taxpayers (or direct the money into infrastructure etc.), thus help "due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms" and "the general welfare".
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    The right to have children is considered a basic human right.
    – Joe W
    Commented Feb 21 at 2:59
  • @JoeW Citation? If you mean the right to found a family, that's what I quoted in the question. But so is the right to property, which is limited without any problem.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Feb 21 at 3:45
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    If you say that your right to property or liberty is deniable in case of incarceration, so is the right to have children, in case of incarceration. Are you saying instead that your right to have children should be denied if you don't have enough money? Because this long exposition about the universal declaration really really obscures that argument, in case that's the one you are making. Commented Feb 21 at 4:48
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    @Greendrake You are entirely entitled to hold that point of view. And, as soon as you convince a majority of people to think like you, you will be able to move in that direction by passing the appropriate laws. It is possible that a Supreme Court type entity will try strike down your law on such trivial grounds as human rights. But I wouldn't hold my breath for your movement even to get close to that stage - your view is likely to very much a minority view ;-) Commented Feb 21 at 5:29
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    @o.m. No issue with the close procedure duly followed, but that does not change my position that all those people who voted to close are wrong.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Feb 21 at 6:52

3 Answers 3


As the birth rate in many developed countries is now below the replacement rate and populations are declining, limiting the right to have children does not make any sense. Even if some really low-income family has lots of children and make heavy use of social funds, the state still needs these new citizens.

Due this the idea gets no attention.


I haven't read the detailed judgements for the arguments, but as point of information, US federal judges ruled "forced" or better said deceptive sterilization illegal around 1974

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Relf sisters and exposed the widespread sterilization abuse funded by the federal government and practiced for decades. The district court found an estimated 100,000 to 150,000 poor people were sterilized annually under federally funded programs. Countless others were forced to agree to be sterilized when doctors threatened to terminate their welfare benefits unless they consented to the procedures.

The judge prohibited the use of federal dollars for involuntary sterilizations and the practice of threatening women on welfare with the loss of their benefits if they refused to comply. As the litigation made its way through the courts, the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Services) withdrew the challenged regulations under which the government funded the forced sterilizations. The lawsuit’s exposure led to the requirement that doctors obtain “informed consent” before performing sterilization procedures.

It's not clear to me how you'd enforce this otherwise. Throwing in prison mothers could work to deter future pregnancies, but... (it's already after the fact), and ... (how long do you want to keep them there to make sure they don't make another "illegal child").

But it was still legal in the US in narrow circumstance after that (not relating to income though).

The sterilization of mental incompetents of all ages must also be sanctioned by a Review Committee and a court. However, personal consent is not required [;] it is enough that the patient's "representative" requests sterilization. 42 CFR § 50.203(a); 45 CFR § 205.35(a) (1).

The forced sterilization of mere criminals was ruled unconstitutional by SCOTUS in 1942 Skinner v. Oklahoma.

I have not quite followed the rest of this history.

In a slightly broader perspective:

Forced sterilization, with its history of racism and eugenics, is banned under multiple international treaties. Thirty-seven European nations and the European Union have ratified the Istanbul Convention, which declares, without exception, that nonconsensual sterilization is a human rights violation.

The Rome Statute (of the ICC) even declares it a crime against humanity when done against a group (which the poor would probably qualify as)--Article 7 (1) (g)-5. [In ICC's case law "‘any civilian population’ is not limited to groups distinguishable by nationality, ethnicity or other distinguishing features."]

Both of these are relatively recent treaties (from the past 12-25 or so). [And since this was brought up in the comments: China is not a party to either.] OTOH the much older 1948 Genocide Convention has a similar prohibition in its article II:

(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group

However, the definition of group in that convention is more complicated. It does not cover political ones for instance, at Soviet insistence. I'm not so sure about groups defined by wealth/income. I suppose the Soviets would have also wanted them excluded from the convention, because--you know--they targeted the rich.

Note: the original Q asked:

Why is the very notion of the possibility to limit the right to have children depending on the level of income is so disdained?

It was later edited to condition on "the level welfare use" instead.

For a discussion of rights to give birth that makes little difference. But in case someone wonders why mention income and not welfare above.... it's because I wrote that before the Q was changed.

You also say

Limiting the right to have children until the person is capable of supporting themselves [...]

Leaving aside all moral/ethical discussion of rights, how exactly do you propose that could be done, in practice? China fined people who had extra children; apparently they even called those fines "social maintenance fee". How are fines going to deter the most poor, if welfare is to be provided them?

Capping child welfare in an attempt to limit the number of offspring was actually tried in the US, with poor results.

Twenty-four states implemented a family-cap policy in the early years of post-1996 welfare reform. Few states bothered to evaluate these policies, but findings from almost all large-scale analyses assessing the impact of these family caps indicate they have had no effect on child bearing – that is, there was no demonstrable decline in births among women receiving welfare. The first family-cap evaluations were conducted in New Jersey and Arkansas, two states that implemented a family-cap policy in the early 1990s, prior to the 1996 legislation. The evaluations found no difference in births among those subject and not subject to the family-cap; but a significant increase in abortions was reported in New Jersey. Several other studies were carried out using data from the early 1990s through the mid-2000s to compare fertility-related behaviors among women in states with and without the family-cap policy. Most failed to find that these caps had the desired effect of discouraging births among aid recipients.


Most of the surveyed officials did not believe the policy reduced births to low-income mothers, but some said that the cap addressed public worries about people on welfare. In fact, a North Dakota official described the family cap as a “feel good policy [that] makes the State Legislature and general population feel that at least some attempt is being made to alter… participants’ reproductive behaviors."

An Alaska official candidly opined that the cap hinders “families from adequately providing for their child because [they] lack the funds that are needed."

In the seven states whose officials indicated that evaluations had been conducted, respondents had little knowledge about what became of those findings. Notably, none of the 24 states had plans for future evaluation of the effectiveness of family caps.

This, by the way, is not exactly a limit on the rights to have children in the sense of giving birth, at least not in the negative sense of the rights that is preferred in US law, but it could be considered an infringement in the positive sense that's sometimes employed/preferred elsewhere. I.e. welfare is not regarded as a right in the US, but kinda is in other places. (Fun fact: the UDHR, even though it was even ratified by the US Senate, is not considered legally binding.)


Lemme answer the TLDR question...

Why don't we deny people who are too poor the right to have children?

First off, let's just say you are not the first person to think of this. Many of us will know people who say things like "well, all those people do is have more kids (to get on welfare)". Some of it is just snark and venting, doesn't mean it's grounds for policy.

In fact, this idea has been the subject of numerous SF dystopian tropes and satires.

With that out of the way, your idea is facing some strong headwinds...

It would run afoul of human rights legislation.

Not least because some countries experimented with forced sterilization in the 1920s and 1930s.

It is NOT a popular idea.

Of course, if you could get enough like-minded people to support the idea, laws could be passed. Which then might be opposed by supreme courts on the basis of human rights. But I doubt you would anywhere near a sizable proportion of people to support your idea.

Why not? Well, among other things your equivalency to denial of liberty in case of incarceration is a false equivalency. Someone goes to prison because they have been convicted of a crime (and no, they typically don't have a right to have children there). People can't congregate freely during covid? It was a mass epidemic and quarantine has been the oldest disease management system in existence.

Is poverty a crime here? Is welfare (since the OP insists it's nothing about poor people, merely welfare recipients)?

Second, once you accepted that the government can say that someone shouldn't have children just because they are poor, you've established a precedent of government intrusion into some of the deepest, most personal, human activities and choices. What's the next policy reason someone can't have children? And which other activities does "the government" get to decide is off-limits? On the basis of which group membership?

Quite, quite, the opposite of the libertarian ideal.

So, to conclude...

  • not a popular policy in the least (majorities rule, within limits, remember). It has no broad natural constituencies:

    • lefties will hate the attack on the poor
    • conservatives are often pro-life, and in at least some countries, increasingly populist.
    • some/many (of the few) libertarians will rue the government intervention
    • irrespective of political affiliations, many people would find the idea morally and ethically repulsive (look at the question's vote tally, merely as asking about a hypothetical policy). Regardless of whether they are right or wrong, they'd most likely heavily outweigh the proponents of this policy.
  • ethically/legally it would run afoul of the legal guard dogs - supreme courts - that are, among things, supposed to prevent majoritarianism

  • solving a non-problem: most developed countries struggle with too low population rates, not too high. Keep in mind as well: more and more young people are struggling financially, compared to older people. So, let's put obstacles in the way of people having children, until they are past their best fertility years. Great idea.

p.s. Assuming this is related to the other question about inter-generational welfare... This is indeed a problem - generation after generation of families being stuck in poverty. It was a valid question to ask (if not in the way it was framed). Lots of money has been spent to improve upwards social mobility in a number of countries and it would indeed be nice to know what works best. Well, one thing we know from the developing world is that birthrates correlate negatively with years of schooling for women. And since we know there is also a wealth correlation...

p.p.s. How would you take care of the exceptions and edge cases? "Pregnant, again, Mrs. Smith? Your abortion appointment is next Tuesday 8:30 AM". "Mr. Johnson, I see your wife is 4 months pregnant, but your dotcom just laid you off and you filed for unemployment. I am sure you'll understand". "Mrs. D, this is the Child Enforcement Services calling, your social credit rating has slipped from 72% to 69%. You will have to terminate". "Ms Deng. 3 years running on disability? You will have to be sterilized".

This sounds overwrought and silly. And it is, on purpose. But, behind a lot of bureaucrat-speak, this is what this policy boils down to.

Does this serve any economic purpose? Well, let's take a detour through death penalty laws. Skipping all the counter arguments, two arguments for them are a) some people are just so evil they don't deserve the same protection as others and b) why keep them alive at society's expense? I actually sympathize, as far the perpetrator's rights go, with argument a). Take proven perps like Robert Pickton, Micah Xavier Johnson or Anders Breivik. Do they deserve any rights? Not really, by themselves. * Likewise, you could build elaborate arguments on some select, in-it-for-the-money "professional welfare" folk. Thing is, how many people are we talking about, and how much would it cost to validate that this policy only gets applied to the very worst people? The answer with the death penalty is no, it doesn't save money. Likewise by the time you've deployed the correct bureaucracy, as well as taxpayer-funded appeals, to ensure only the really, really bad get penalized as per this proposal, how much will you have saved? How much when you get slapped with a wrongful application ruling?

* I truly hold no sympathy for these kind of people. But a society that bays for blood, even in the most justified of cases, is, to me a society that demeans itself. A society that upheld the OP's proposal, in the current state of affairs, would not be a desirable society to me. But that's, like, just my opinion. In the case of Breivik an opinion laudably shared by the Norvegian people.

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    Last compulsory sterilization cases in the US were around 1975 IIRC. niwrc.org/restoration-magazine/november-2020/… ; splcenter.org/seeking-justice/case-docket/relf-v-weinberger Commented Feb 21 at 19:33
  • 1. Running afoul of legislation is not an impediment to make changes to it (this is what politics is all about after all). 2. No equivalency to denial of liberty in case of incarceration. That was just a preamble, one of the several examples showing that basic human rights can be limited in principle (because some people argued that having children is a basic human right). The equivalency is to the limiting of property rights. 3. It's not poverty that would be the factor, but attachment to welfare. No issue with people having kids however poor they are unless using public funds for it.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Feb 22 at 0:53
  • Re "solving a non-problem": overall birth rates are irrelevant given that welfare receivers are in minority. A minor decrease in the birth rate (of who would likely become welfare receivers when adults) would be outweighed by the lower tax burden on the working class, which in turn would increase their birth rate.
    – Greendrake
    Commented Feb 23 at 0:43

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