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Originally posted by Christine Overall for the New York Times here.
As a young woman in my 20s I pondered whether or not to have
children. Is there a way, I wondered, to decide thoughtfully rather than
carelessly about this most momentous of human choices?
It’s a tough decision because you can’t know ahead of time what sort of child you will have or what it will be like to be a parent. You can’t understand what is good or what is hard about the process of creating and rearing until after you have the child. And the choice to have a child is a decision to change your life forever. It’s irreversible, and therefore,compared to reversible life choices about education, work, geographical location or romance, it has much greater ethical importance.
Choosing whether or not to procreate may not seem like the sort of decision that is deserving or even capable of analysis. The Canadian novelist Margaret Laurence wrote, “I don’t really feel I have to analyze my own motives in wanting children. For my own reassurance? For fun? For ego-satisfaction? No matter. It’s like (to me) asking why you want to write. Who cares? You have to, and that’s that.”
In fact, people are still expected to provide reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them. It’s assumed that if individuals do not have children it is because they are infertile, too selfish or have just not yet gotten around to it. In any case, they owe their interlocutor an explanation. On the other hand, no one says to the proud parents of a newborn, Why did you choose to have that child? What are your reasons? The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought or justification.
Nonetheless, I think Laurence’s “Who cares?” attitude is mistaken.
We are fortunate that procreation is more and more a matter of choice. Not always, of course — not everyone has access to effective contraception and accessible abortion, and some women are subjected to enforced pregnancy. But the growing availability of reproductive choice makes it clear that procreation cannot be merely an expression of personal taste.
The question whether to have children is of course prudential in part; it’s concerned about what is or is not in one’s own interests. But it is also an ethical question, for it is about whether to bring a person (in some cases more than one person) into existence — and that person cannot, by the very nature of the situation, give consent to being brought into existence. Such a question also profoundly affects the well-being of existing people (the potential parents, siblings if any, and grandparents). And it has effects beyond the family on the broader society, which is inevitably changed by the cumulative impact — on things like education, health care, employment, agriculture, community growth and design, and the availability and distribution of resources — of individual decisions about whether to procreate.
There are self-help books on the market that purport to assist would-be parents in making a practical choice about whether or not to have children. There are also informal discussions on Web sites, in newspapers and magazines and in blogs. Yet the ethical nature of this choice is seldom recognized, even — or especially — by philosophers.
Perhaps people fail to see childbearing as an ethical choice because they think of it as the expression of an instinct or biological drive, like sexual attraction or “falling in love,” that is not amenable to ethical evaluation. But whatever our biological inclinations may be, many human beings do take control over their fertility, thanks to contemporary means of contraception and abortion. The rapidly declining birthrate in most parts of the world is evidence of that fact. While choosing whether or not to have children may involve feelings, motives, impulses, memories and emotions, it can and should also be a subject for careful reflection.
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