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"Luke has never been to school. He's never had a birthday party, or gone to a friend's house for an overnight. In fact, Luke has never had a friend. Luke is one of the shadow children, a third child forbidden by the Population Police."
—Book summary of Among the Hidden
To try to solve an overpopulation problem, governments may limit the total number of children a person or couple can have.
There are a number of variations on this. Sometimes every couple is allowed a fixed number (frequently two); other times, the number allowed is tradable, luck-based, or determined by some kind of eugenic principle (parenting skills are less commonly judged). Enforcement methods may range from punitive taxes on extra children, through mandated birth control and sterilization upon the birth of the last child allowed, to outright killing of excess population.
These dystopias always seem to assume stable long term marriages, they usually offer some number of children per couple. Second marriages are ignored.
Only very rarely does it actually work. Often it signals a descent into Dystopia. It's also very common for the protagonist to be a child who exceeds the population cap.
This trope is most common in literary science fiction from the '60s and '70s; it died out as a trope because while it had its' heyday in fiction, the post-World War II Baby Boom came to an end as living standards and opportunities for women in North America and Western Europe expanded and people chose to have fewer children starting later in life. Since then, the pattern has held and spread to other parts of the world, largely making this a Dead Horse Trope.
Because population growth is considered a problem in Real Life, fictional Population Control is seldom directed toward encouraging or mandating births, either among some groups or the entire population. Inversions occasionally do crop up in works in which a Depopulation Bomb, Robot War, mass infertility or other threat has made humans an Endangered Species.
The entries on this page mainly concern keeping the population down by preventing pregnancies (through birth control or sterilization) or preventing illegal children (through abortion or infanticide). In some works of fiction, the government attempts to prevent pregnancies and control the population through banning sex or promoting/enforcing homosexuality.
In some cases population laws are repealed or at least slackened when the capacity for interstellar colonization is achieved.
See Also: Kill the Poor, for one instance where this trope is selectively applied.
- In Scrapped Princess, the entire world is allowed to have only so many human residents; when the population gets too big, the excesses are killed off by the Peacemakers.
- A major theme in Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, where this is practiced in villages, planets and entire universes.
- Inverted in Gundam Seed where the Coordinators' society--whose population was steadily reducing--in the space colonies actually mandated Arranged Marriage in the hopes of increasing birth rates. It didn't work.
- The movie Fortress (with Highlander star Christopher Lambert) has the protagonist and his pregnant wife try to leave a dystopian US after it implements a one-child policy to fight increasing population growth.
- Child Reduction Act. Families with more than one child must either pay a tax on the extras or send them to concentration camps.
- Z.P.G.. All parents are forbidden from having children for one generation (30 years). The penalty for violation is death.
- The Last Child. Each U.S. couple is only allowed to have one child. If the first child dies they can't have another.
- Mentioned in the opening expository voice-over in A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, as well as the Brian Aldiss short story it was based on "Supertoys Last All Summer Long", as a response to the polar ice-caps melting and flooding the coastlines.
- In Paul Verhoeven's adaptation of Starship Troopers, one of the female infantry recruits says that she joined because she wants to have babies, and it's easier to get a license if you're a citizen.
- In Supernova, despite the fact that there are multiple colonized planets, a couple on the ship still has to obtain a license to have a child.
- Notably averted in Soylent Green. That lack of any sort of population control at all is exactly the reason why it's such a Crapsack World to begin with.
- In Clive Barker's The Plague, having ANY children is declared illegal worldwide, as a mysterious ailment has caused all children under the age of nine (unborn babies included) to fall into a coma. Until a cure can be found, producing more comatose infants will only exhaust the resources already strained by the need to care for so many inert children.
- Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner has eugenically-based population control, with incredibly strict genetic screening requirements (e.g., people who carry color-blindness genes or genes correlated with schizophrenia are not allowed to have children).
- The title comes from the idea that, if you gave everybody on Earth something like two or three square feet, at the time of the story's start, they would just fit onto the island of Zanzibar. Even with the above, by the story's end, humanity would be well into the waters off Zanzibar...
- In the Known Space series by Larry Niven the number of children you can have is based on several factors: you can be assigned children based on a fixed metric, buy licenses for extra children, or even win them in a lottery (this last is the result of alien influence by a species that's attempting to breed psychic luck powers into humanity). At one point there are even legalized gladiatorial death duels for birthrights, winner take all. The ARM police go on "mother hunts" for those who illegally went over their reproductive limits, and very rare individuals are awarded an unlimited breeding license-- their genes are declared to be so useful that humanity needs them more than it needs the room and resources freed up by not having them. Notably Carlos Wu's genius and fitness gives him an unlimited birthright, while Beowulf Shaeffer's albinoism revoked his birthrights. So Carlos fathered Beowulf's son Louis Wu. However, by Ringworld only the lottery remains due to corruption in the boards, so all of Louis's children are Lucky.
- In another Niven verse, A World Out Of Time, the State has become a One World Order where Individuality Is Illegal, and only massive fusion-powered desalinators on every shoreline can provide enough fresh water for the massive population. A few generations back, the State instituted compulsory sterilization for all those with harmful genes, both for eugenic reasons, to save money on heath care, and to slow the rapid population growth. No wonder they're so desperate to Terraform.
- Ender's Game has a two-child limit enforced by punitive taxation. However, because Earth is governed by a somewhat weak version of The Federation, certain individual jurisdictions, particularly predominantly-Catholic ones, seem to have lax enforcement policies. Ender is a state-sponsored exception as his parents were supposed to breed a fleet-commanding prodigy and his older siblings turned out to be a sociopath and a pacifist.
- In Green Mars, one character proposes to fight overpopulation by giving everyone the tradable birthright to three-quarters of a child. (That is, each couple has the right to 1.5 children; they can then buy or sell half-children to get the number they want and can afford.) This doesn't ever get implemented, though.
- I Will Fear No Evil by Robert A. Heinlein has population control--it seems that each woman gets licensed for a set number of children when she turns eighteen.
- It also appears in Time For The Stars. Each family can have three children. Extra children are taxed and the family doesn't receive government financial help for them. Families can trade for each other's unused child slots or apply for reclassification for more children.
- In Podkayne Of Mars Marsmen apply to the 'Population, Ecology and Genetics' Board to be 'pegged' at a preset number of children, probably because of the necessity of not exceeding the support potential of the semi-terraformed colony. However none of the mentioned families seem to have any trouble getting the number they want. Podkayne's parents are in fact offered seven children but her mother prefers five as 'all she has time for'.
- The Shadow Children Sequence by Margaret Haddix is a series about a world where families can only have 2 children (the main character is, of course, a secret third child).
- Lisa Mason's future in her book Summer of Love has a lottery for who can and cannot have children, but include the concept of "skip-children", where frustrated parents can put their combined DNA in a bank to be born decades or centuries later, to be raised by a descendant.
- In The Andalite Chronicles, it is mentioned that the Andalites used to have population control laws, but that they were repealed because of the war.
- Carnival by Elizabeth Bear has an AI that determines the maximum stable population of Earth and selects people to be killed whenever it is exceeded.
- Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan Saga has many different planets, using different methods:
- Barrayar is underpopulated, and has unfettered reproduction (though it is somewhat "backward" and considers all sex out of wedlock to be illicit.)
- Beta Colony is a marginally habitable world, and has strict population control. All babies must be licensed, though getting a baby license seems to be about as difficult as getting a driver's license (at least for the first two.) Since contraceptives are legally required for all females (and hermaphrodites), all sex between consenting individuals is considered to be normal recreational behaviour, though they do have statutory rape laws.
- Athos is underpopulated, but since its entire population is male, it requires major technological assistance for anyone to reproduce. The actual cost of raising children to the age where they are self sufficient is a major part of the planetary government budget, unlike most other planets where it is part of the informal economy.
- The Cetagandan Empire is a group of planets exercising extreme bio-engineering, where every child "born" (at least among the Haut class) has its genetic makeup designed by the central government. What is more, it would be possible for the child's parents never to have even met, let alone had sex.
- Fred Saberhagen wrote a Twenty Minutes Into the Future book like this: Stripperific clothing and casual sex are societal norms but couples are limited to two offspring, with severe penalties for violations.
- Anne McCaffrey's Pegasus in Flight has limited children laws; theoretically, each woman is permitted two children (however, the rules can be bent by people with influence, such as the Center). The first protagonist is an example of an illegal extra child, who was retroactively legalized in exchange for services rendered to Law Enforcement and Order. It also has a plot with a child smuggling ring.
- Families in The Giver by Lois Lowry are allowed one male and one female child. They can choose how they space the children - it's all adoption, anyway. And if a child dies, then the parents can apply (or maybe are just given) another child of the same gender, with the same name. Not to mention that if any child is "defective" they are Released to Elsewhere. Yeah, it's a little creepy.
- In 2061 by Arthur C. Clarke it's explained that the one-child policy of China was eventually replaced by one where a person can have two children for free but any additional children cost a prohibitively-expensive fee which doubled with every additional child; one character, Sir Lawrence Tsung, is a multimillionaire who was able to afford to have ten children (his ninth child, William Tsung, has a shuttle craft named after him).
- In the CoDominium universe, Earth is so overcrowded the government is slipping contraceptive drugs into the
ProlesCitizens' food supplies and releasing infertility viruses into the ghetto/reservation-like Welfare Islands. Only those who move to frontier planets can have larger families.
- In David Brin's Uplift universe, all reproduction has to be carefully screened, both as population control and as a prerequisite to joining the Galactic civilization. Probationers are those who fail-- they are permanently sterilized to avoid spreading undesirable genes. Client races have a card-system, colors determine how many kids you can have, and a White Card is an unlimited liscence-- your genes are so good, anyone who wants them can have them.
- A short story 'The Sliced-Crosswise Only-on-Tuesday World' by Philip Jose Farmer, involves a world so overcrowded that it couldn't support more than a seventh of humanity; so Human Popsicle technology was perfected, allowing for each person to be awake only one day out of each week. The story had a Downer Ending, after working hard to get on the same day with a woman he's fallen in love with after seeing her in her cryo-tube, he finds she has worked equally hard to get onto his old shift...
- Later expanded into the Dayworld series of novels.
- In Larry Niven's and Steven Barnes's Saturn's Race, the world discovered that a vaccine distributed throughout the third world nations twenty years prior had the deliberate side-effect of causing sterility in the children born to the inoculated.
- In The Declaration by Gemma Malley, people who have signed the Declaration are not allowed to have children. That doesn't stop them, though, and the kids end up in Surplus Halls, or worse.
- The Bladerunner (no relation) by Alan Nourse had the government require sterilization as the price of medical treatment. A "bladerunner" was someone who smuggled surgical tools for doctors willing to perform unauthorized medicine (doctors weren't permitted to take medical equipment out of the hospitals).
- A variation of this based on gender is put out in The Dark Elf Trilogy. (See the Forgotten Realms entry below, as these books are the ones that defined those rules.) The main character (who has since become well known) was, incidentally, a third son.
- In Inside Out by Maria V Snyder, the population is divided into two castes, the Uppers and the scrubs. Scrubs are encouraged to have as many children as possible and are denied birth control. Men and children who break the rules are executed, but fertile women who commit infractions become "breeders", kept chained down and constantly pregnant until their bodies give out from the strain. Uppers, on the other hand, are allowed one child per couple. If there's an accident with their birth control, the extra child is dyed to look like the scrubs' ethnicity and given to a scrub foster mother. The overlords use this to foster class division, telling the scrubs that the Uppers are spoiled rotten and telling the Uppers that the scrubs are too lazy and selfish to use birth control despite their overpopulation.
- In Mikhail Akhmanov and Christopher Nicholas Gilmore's novel Captain French, or the Quest for Paradise, all colonies impose birth licensing policies once they reach a certain population density. While there are plenty of dystopian governments, even the nice ones do it. There is a group of women, whom the titular space trader nicknames "the Frantic Mothers", whose goal in life seems to be to bear as many children as possible, regardless of who the fathers are. They will do anything to move to a new colony that encourages this sort of behavior, including paying for passage with sex (preferably with a fertile male, for obvious reasons). Since the protagonist had himself sterilized (completely reversible), the Frantic Mothers are a little disappointed in him. Since most humans in this universe undergo a procedure that stops aging, it is possible for the same woman to be the progenitor of several colonies (imagine how many babies she can make in several centuries).
- In The Caves of Steel, Earth licenses couples to have a number of children based on the parents' genes and social contributions. This is presented quite neutrally (Asimov considered overpopulation to be a major threat). Spacer societies are considered less moral, since they combine population control with eugenic breeding programs and mandated late term abortion.
- In the Uglies-verse, parents are prohibited, and also incapable because of the whole pretty-mind-thing, of having more than one child every ten years. This keeps the pretty parents able to focus on one child, and keeps sibling bonds from forming. It's surprisingly effective.
- In Cyril Kornbluth's horrifying dystopia Shark Ship, the ocean-dwellers have a two-child limit (with officers of the ships forbidden children altogether for fear of nepotism.) It turns out that the land-dwellers implemented a one-child policy, and this, together with their glorification of violence and torture, has effectively provided a solution to the problem of overpopulation. A Final Solution, as it were.
- Robert Westall's dystopia in Futuretrack Five has The Futuretracks: 'jobs' which are designed to help thin out the Unnem populace: most are geared towards a life in which either regular contact with direct violence kills followers, or significant (and artificially increased)risk kills them.
- Sea Quest DSV had an episode with an island nation where street kids were hunted by death squads as a population control measure, which was almost definitely based off the Marcos Government in Real Life.
- On one of the worlds the Sliders visited, the population was kept low by heavy marketing of birth control (billboards advertised "Birth Control Cola"), and by ATMs which dispense free money to anyone willing to enter a lottery in which the winner must commit suicide via poison. "Winners" are treated like royalty until their time comes, and the ones the Sliders met considered it an honor. This was the result of them paying attention to one Reverend Thomas Malthus, who argued that human population growth would always outpace food production. As a result of their ubiquitous reinforcement of birth control, there are only 500 million people in the whole world.
- Star Trek the Original Series has a third season episode, "The Mark of Gideon", where a planet's failure to deal with this led to ridiculously extreme overcrowding (though no problems with health or resources, apparently). The episode first aired in 1969.
- The Last Child was a mediocre TV Movie set in the near future when couples were limited to only one child, even if the child died before puberty.
- In the 22nd century of Terra Nova the protagonist was sentenced to six years in prison for having a third child. Fortunately they don't care about population laws in the virgin frontier of 85 million BC.
- Inverted on the new Battlestar Galactica, in which the possibility that couples' reproduction might have to be made mandatory in order to sustain a decimated human species was broached soon after the destruction of the Colonies.
- The Drow families in Forgotten Realms are only allowed two sons at any one time, though they can have as many daughters as they like. They sacrifice the third to Lolth. Unless one of them conveniently dies beforehand. Drizzt Do'Urden was the third child of his family, but one of his brothers was assassinated shortly after his birth, so they didn't have to sacrifice him. This tradition exists because Lolth herself demands it. She has...issues...with men, to put it lightly.
- Inverted in another dark elf example, from the old Role Aids third-party D&D supplement line: In Elves, dark elf society is virtually lawless, except that it's prohibited to kill a female dark elf before she's produced at least two offspring. Backstabbing and feuding would probably wipe out their population if not for this rule.
- In Mass Effect, the Quarian Migrant Fleet has to keep tight control of its population due to the limited resources. Tali mentions that they're currently running a one child policy, but also that the limit changes depending on the population and available resources and that there have even been some periods when the population dropped far enough that positive population control was used.
- The population of the Kaka clan in Blaz Blue is kept at 100 by the Applied Phlebotinum that created them. A shortage of males keeps the population count from rising quickly, while parthenogenesis ensures that there will always be at least 100 Kaka.
- The Combine from HalfLife 2 are more thorough and have a no child per family policy, enforced by suppression fields.
- In Schlock Mercenary, Earth (Or rather, the United Nations of Sol) seems to have certain population-control measures set up to prevent undesirable genetic characteristics from spreading to future generations. The only such limit that has been mentioned so far is for the overly moronic - basically, stupid people aren't allowed to have children - but one must assume that other characteristics are likewise limited. Since over-population isn't a problem (plenty of planets to colonize, and space-station colonies to boot), such people can still have children, though - by 'ordering' genetically-designed kids at private companies, getting them grown in tanks, and then raising them... apparently, the Nature-Versus-Nurture debate ended with victory for 'Nature' somewhere along the line.
- A variation in Dan and Mab's Furry Adventures, when the number of Souls of the Fae is physically limited. When one of them becomes "available", it can be given or auctioned, allowing one to produce offspring. They also sometimes let their soul randomly regenerate, causing, on one occasion, Mab's tea to turn into a baby.
- The Big Bad emperor of Red All Over orders every third child to be killed upon birth (and by draftees, no less).
- China's one-child policy, although there are many loopholes.  China's experienced the same "prosperity + improving women's rights = smaller families" formula as happened in the West starting in the '60s and '70s - the one-child policy now largely stands on its own institutional inertia.
- Nazi Germany had a variation as well. "Pure" Aryans were encouraged to have as many children as possible, and birth control was outlawed. "Undesirables," including those of other races and the mentally handicapped would be forcibly sterilized or killed.
- Rather violently inverted in Romania under communist rule. President Nicolae Ceauşescu outlawed abortion, birth control and sex education, and instituted a 'celibacy tax' for women who failed to have children, with the goal of increasing the country's population. It worked, but it didn't end well. The generation he created turned out to be the one that overthrew him, ironically.
- Like the Sea Quest DSV example above, the Marcos reign in the Philippines had death squads unofficially target street children.
- Partially inverted in the time of Louis the Sun King in France, when any family with ten or more children was tax-exempt in order to boost the population for more soldiers a generation down the line.
- In Vietnam during the 1960's, they had a two-child policy. It was stopped in 2003, although they are considering reviving it.
- Some regional governments in poorer parts of India have introduced the "honeymoon bonus", offering money to newlyweds who agree not to have children.
- In Russia, Vladimir Putin's government introduced financial reward schemes to encourage people to have more children. It's unclear to what extent it was responsible (probably not very much), but since then Russia's population has stabilised and is once again growing slowly.
- Inverted in the New France colony where people where given a reward to have many children.
- Likewise inverted in Fascist Italy, where women were given medals for having many babies, and soldiers were required to salute pregnant women.
- Somewhat inverted in the case of the Soviet Union, where there was a tax placed on being a bachelor. While it is not explicitly a pro-birth measure, the implication was that it would lead to more births.
- You can have two kids if you live abroad (or, presumably as many as you want if you've emigrated permanently), if both parents are only children, if you've divorced and remarried, or if you're an ethnic minority. Also, money helps.