Why Choosing to Have Children Is an Ethical Issue

The choice to have children is not just a prudential or pragmatic decision, nor can it be justified by appealing to “what comes naturally.”
We can no longer assume that so-called private life is only personal and therefore in principle immune to ethical examination. Image: Piron Guillaume, via Unsplash
By: Christine Overall

I suspect that most people eventually ask themselves the question “Why have children?” at least once or twice during their lives. In contemporary Western culture, it ironically appears that one needs to have reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them. People who are childless are frequently and rudely criticized and called to account for their situation. One woman who wrote about her decision not to procreate was “denounced as bitter, selfish, un-sisterly, unnatural, evil.” It is assumed that if individuals do not have children, it is because they are infertile, they are too selfish, or they have just not yet gotten around to it. In any case, they owe their interlocutor an explanation. They cannot merely have decided not to procreate. In contrast, no one says to a newly pregnant woman or the proud father 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.

This article is adapted from Christine Overall’s book “Why Have Children?

Indeed, the philosopher Rosalind Hursthouse says, “Just as a special context is needed to make sense of ‘What do you want to have health (or knowledge, or pleasure or virtue) for?’ so is one needed to make sense of ‘What do you want to have children for?’. Unions are ‘blessed’ not cursed with issue; those who have children are ‘favoured by fortune’; the childless are ‘unfortunate’; to be unable to have children is a lack, a privation, a misfortune.” In other words, Hursthouse thinks it does not make sense, outside of special contexts, to inquire into the motives or reasons for having children. This view suggests that having children is the default position; not having children is what requires explanation and justification.

These implicit assumptions are the opposite of what they ought to be. The so-called burden of proof — or what I would call the burden of justification — should rest primarily on those who choose to have children. That is, the choice to have children calls for more careful justification and reasoning than the choice not to have children simply because in the former case a new and vulnerable human being is brought into existence whose future may be at risk.

The lack of acknowledgment that childbearing can be a moral choice may be due to its assimilation to other processes thought to be normal parts of human life — like the phenomena of “falling in love” or being sexually attracted to another person. These aspects of human life are often regarded as the product of drives or instincts not amenable to ethical evaluation. For example, philosopher James Lenman claims that asking why we want children is “foolish,” for “it is partly just because we’re programmed that way much as we are for sex.” Some people, women in particular, believe that there is a “biological clock” inside them that generates a deep drive to have a child. It appears to be more than a simple desire to have a child; it is felt more like a biological force and is therefore very compelling. This drive is sometimes explained in evolutionary terms: Our very biological constitution determines that we bear children. The popular press likes to refer to the existence of a supposed “mommy gene.” Biologist Lonnie Aarssen writes about an apparently nongendered “parenting drive,” which he describes as “an explicit desire to have children in the future” and which involves “an anticipated experience of contemporaneous pleasure derived directly from ‘real-time’ parenthood per se.”

There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon or at least be very careful about acting upon.

The questions we should ask are whether such a desire is either immune to or incapable of analysis and why this desire, unlike virtually all others, should not be subject to ethical assessment. There are many urges apparently arising from our biological nature that we nonetheless should choose not to act upon or at least be very careful about acting upon. Even if Aarssen is correct in postulating a “parenting drive,” such a drive would not be an adequate reason for the choice to have a child. Naturalness alone is not a justification for action, for it is still reasonable to ask whether human beings should give in to their supposed “parenting drive” or resist it. Besides, the alleged naturalness of the biological clock is belied by those growing numbers of women who apparently do not experience it or do not experience it strongly enough to act upon it. As psychologist Leta S. Hollingworth wisely noted almost a century ago, “There could be no better proof of the insufficiency of maternal instinct as a guaranty of population than the drastic laws which we have against birth control, abortion, infanticide, and infant desertion.”

After all, human beings are thoroughly social entities. Our sheer survival means we have been socialized; we live not as individual “islands, entire of ourselves,” in John Donne’s words, but as a “part of the main,” an acculturated segment of the whole that is humanity. Because we are social beings, we do not just see the world; we instead see the world as we have learned to see it and as we sometimes choose to see it. All human behavior (except perhaps simple reflex actions, such as the movement of the leg in response to a hammer tap on the knee) is a reaction to the world as perceived. Once past the age of early infancy, we do not just respond like automatons to inner promptings. Instead, what and how we perceive and feel are at least in part a function of our experience and our learning. In seeing, hearing, tasting, feeling, or smelling something, we are engaged in a process of interpretation, a process that we have gradually learned as part of our socialization into our particular culture.

The inevitability of interpretation applies to our inner as well as our external environment. For example, if I experience a certain fluttering in my midsection, I may variously interpret it as anxiety, fear, anticipation, happiness, or just the need for a snack. Whatever inner promptings we may experience, they “always already” contain a social message, and they are “always already” open to reinterpretation. This description applies to the desire to have a child. Because of the inevitability of interpretation, it does not make sense to blame or credit instinct as the source of behaviors such as having children.

If we fail to acknowledge that the decision whether to have children is a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as an unavoidable fate and a mere expression of biological destiny. Instead of seeing having children as something that women do, we will continue to see it as something that simply happens to women or as something that is merely “natural.” But whatever our biological inclinations may be, we do have some control over our fertility, and the rapidly declining birthrate in most parts of the world is evidence of that fact.

If we fail to acknowledge that the decision whether to have children is a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as an unavoidable fate and a mere expression of biological destiny.

But there are many things about having children that one cannot know until one actually has them. It might therefore be argued that one cannot know what a childless life will be like until one commits to living it. Given the unknowability of the outcomes of a decision to have a child or not have a child, it may seem unfair to elevate the decision to the level of ethics.

However, many significant ethical decisions are similar to this particular decision: We cannot know or know well all the possible outcomes of the choices we consider. Some things do just have to be experienced. Nonetheless, the indeterminate results of human freedom do not relieve us of the responsibility to consider carefully the moral aspects of our decisions. Moreover, although our own experiences of and reactions to having a child or remaining childless may be difficult to predict, it is possible to observe the effects on other people who have made those decisions. We are surrounded by people who have had children or have chosen not to. As with many important life decisions, we can learn something about the nature of the choices by observing others who have already made them. So the difficulty of making the choice whether to have a child or not and the unknowability of the outcome in one’s own case do not preclude seeing procreation as an ethical decision.

Nevertheless, it might be objected that the question whether to reproduce or not is merely prudential, not ethical — that it is like other major life decisions, such as whom to marry (or whether to marry), where to live, what career to choose, and so on. These decisions affect primarily the chooser’s welfare; hence, they are not inherently ethical issues.

But virtually every area of human life has ethical dimensions, including seemingly pragmatic choices of what to eat, what form of transportation to use, how to heat or cool one’s home, and so on. We can no longer assume that so-called private life is only personal and therefore in principle immune to ethical examination. Questions about choosing whether to have children are of course prudential in part; that is, they are in part practical in nature, and they are concerned about what is or is not in one’s own interests. But they are also ethical questions, for they are 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 questions therefore profoundly affect the well-being both of existing persons (the potential parents, siblings, grandparents, and all the other people with whom the future child may interact) and of potential persons.

Children are both vulnerable and dependent; they will have a lifelong emotional interdependence with their parents. Procreation decisions are about whether to take on responsibility for a new life or new lives. Questions about choosing to procreate are also closely tied to how we define our own lives and how we interact with our social and physical environments.

These decisions also have profound implications for the community or communities in which we live. Philosopher Mianna Lotz argues, “There exists a (generally unacknowledged) distinctly collective interest in procreation being undertaken with a seriousness, intent and purposiveness that reflects and expresses concern or regard for the moral community itself, understood at its broadest level as comprising both moral agents and moral subjects.” This collective interest requires us to “relinquish our relatively recent yet now widespread preoccupation with procreation as principally, even exclusively, a private and individual matter. … Questions of procreative morality are not posed exclusively within the sphere of private individual morality or the procreator–child relationship, but always fall also within the scope of collective morality.”

When it comes to choosing whether to have children or not, there is a moral right and wrong to the choice, or at least a moral better and worse.

Lotz suggests several possible explanations of why our specific reasons for procreating matter morally. One possibility is that our reasons are “predictive of the quality of parenting, and derivatively of the quality of life or welfare of the future child.” However, Lotz says, the empirical information available does not suggest much of a connection between “procreative motivations” and “parenting capacity.” Instead, factors such as parental mental ill health, domestic violence, alcohol and drug misuse, and socioeconomic deprivation better predict bad parenting, including the abuse and neglect of children.

But notice that some of these factors might in certain cases also affect parental motivations. For example, a woman who is the target of domestic violence might want to have a child because of the illusion that doing so will eliminate the abuse. Or a woman who is addicted to alcohol might think that having a child will somehow help her to stop drinking. Because children generally do not solve their parents’ problems, the implausibility of these reasons suggests that a motive for procreation might in some cases predict potential problems in how the child is treated. That is, some parental motivations might be indirect predictors of bad parenting. (In my book, I argue that at least one motivation for parenting — the quest for a “savior sibling” for an existing child who is ill — does have a substantial effect on how the new baby will be treated.) More generally, we cannot be indifferent to the potential implications of procreative motives for parenting behavior.

A more plausible explanation, Lotz says, for why our reasons for having children matter lies in what children “express”: the “meaning or message” (whether it is intended or not) that is conveyed by one’s procreative motivation, whether it is conveyed to family members, to people outside the family, or even to the child herself. I agree that our procreative motivations may have this signaling effect. And even if this particular effect is small, our motives for procreating (or not) remain morally significant for the other reasons I have suggested. When it comes to choosing whether to have children or not, there is a moral right and wrong to the choice, or at least a moral better and worse.

Although choosing to have children or not to have children may involve many feelings, motives, impulses, memories, and emotions, it can and should also be a subject for careful reflection. Whereas in the past procreation was not a matter to which women’s will or ideas or decisional capacity had much application, now it is something that women can potentially control, that they can make truly their own. As Lori Leibovich points out in her book “Maybe Baby,” “Couples can opt out of parenthood, women can have children into their fifties, single women can procreate on their own, and gays and lesbians can start families — or not. All of the old rules about childbearing no longer apply.” Moreover, the decision whether to have a biologically related child or not is one that may be made repeatedly over a period of years. Many women (and men) do not simply choose once and for all whether to become parents; rather, they make decisions about their life goals and parenting plans on several occasions, including during pregnancy itself.

As philosopher Diana Tietjens Meyers observes, “When asked why they want or don’t want to have children, most people are flummoxed. Highly articulate individuals lose their fluency, grope for words, and stumble around, seizing on incompatible explanations and multiplying justifications.” On its face, choosing whether to have children may not seem like the sort of decision that is deserving or even capable of analysis. That doesn’t mean it isn’t.

Christine Overall is Professor Emerita of Philosophy and University Research Chair in the Department of Philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario. She is the author of, among other books, “Why Have Children?,” from which this article is adapted.

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