I read another article about parenting recently as I was thinking about my own thoughts and what I would add to the NYT’s “Room for Debate” series. And since it is tangentially related, I wanted to deal with it first before continuing. The article again comes from the New York Times. It is from their “Opinionator” series. The particular article is by Christine Overall entitled “Think Before You Breed.” Mrs. Overall is a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.
I have several problems with her article that I will try to outline below. The premise of her article is that people should carefully consider whether or not to procreate. On the surface, that seems to make some sense. Some people, it would seem, are not in the right position in life to bring a child into the world. Poverty, health issues, environment, or season in life could all play a role in affecting the future child. The mere uncertainty requires the decision to be made with careful thought, Overall would claim.
The first point to consider is that this argument is something that in human history is only recently possible. The ability of humans to consistently control the consequences of sex is a recent phenomenon. Since Overall seems to have no problem with birth control or abortion, she assumes that these are legitimate means to control the natural consequences of sex.
She fails to see this historical point when she states, “The choice to procreate is not regarded as needing any thought or justification.” The reason it is not is that it is the natural, historical consequence of the marriage relationship. But we live in a culture where sex outside of marriage is normal, accepted, and encouraged. Therefore, the natural consequences of sex occur in situations that our culture deems inappropriate. Therefore, it is argued, we have a moral obligation to consider whether we should limit the consequences.
Unfortunately, the damage to the institution of marriage is so pervasive, that many, and I assume Overall would be included, can’t see that this is even worth dealing with. The answer then is to treat the symptoms, in the form of birth control and/or abortion, instead of seeking the cure. The terminal patient is made to be comfortable in his last days. I would argue that the patient—the sanctity of marriage—is not terminal, but that is a different post.
She continues: “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.” Actually, this is a rather post-modern way of thinking. The all-about-me syndrome has stuck its nasty head into way too many arguments, this one included. I’ll lay my cards on the table: selfishness will never bring satisfaction. Sacrifice for another with the right motives does.
We still may see some validity in her point, though and personally wrestle with the issue. Is it wrong to consider whether or not to bring another child into the world? Again, we have the technology these days to ask that question of ourselves. The problem comes when we begin asking that question for someone else. Who gets to decide the rules and situations that would lead to a “yes, you should” or “no, you shouldn’t”?
But here is where she seems to appear noble: “My aim, I hasten to add, is not to argue for policing people’s procreative motives.” But one paragraph later she adds, “The burden of proof — or at least the burden of justification — should therefore rest primarily on those who choose to have children, not on those who choose to be childless.” Those phrases “burden of proof” and “burden of justification” sure seem like policing of motives to me.
And don’t believe that she is not policing motives—whether she thinks the state should or not. She certainly polices motives with both Octomom and the Duggars. With Suleman, most people might agree with Overall that Suleman had no business using technology to try to get pregnant again, but this is a far different issue than just having lots of kids. An aside: is there any difference in using technology to get pregnant than using technology to keep from getting pregnant or ending a pregnancy? Maybe that too is a later post.
When it comes to the Duggars, she seems irked that they chose to have so many kids even though they “…don’t struggle to support their brood…” and “the kids seem relatively content.” Huh? So what’s the problem? She mentions that she is not sure what God thinks about it. No, she’s not, so again, what’s her point? Her point is that she doesn’t think someone should have 19 kids. What about twelve or ten or eight or three. She and her husband chose to stop at two. Why two? I want to know if she would be perfectly fine with someone having 19 abortions in their life because they chose the “selfless” route of not having kids? She is certainly policing their motives.
Then, she again seeks to take the high road; though, the high road seems full of scorn: “We should not regret the existence of the children in these very public families, now that they are here. My point is just that their parents’ models of procreative decision making deserve skepticism. The parents appear to overlook what is ethically central: the possibility of forming a supportive, life-enhancing and close relationship with each of their offspring.”
Who would regret the existence of children? Why do the Duggars decisions deserve skepticism? On what basis? That Overall doesn’t think they can build relationships with their kids? Just because she can’t imagine doing so, does not mean others can’t, and with children spread out in ages so far, it’s not like the Duggars are dealing with the same issues 19-fold at once. She announces that her and her husband chose to have two and that they adore them. But couldn’t they have adored one better? Certainly with two, they had to split their time, didn’t they?
In placing procreation at the pinnacle of a person’s ethical debates—a conclusion that I find hard to fathom—she commits another flaw. She states, “In choosing to become a parent, one seeks to create a relationship, and, uniquely, one also seeks to create the person with whom one has the relationship.”
I would agree that we are responsible to create a relationship with our children. But once a child is born, our job is not to seek to “create the person.” Our job is to guide, direct, help, encourage, admonish, support, love, nurture, and protect, among others. Along the way, those things are part of the process of forming the child’s personality, but they are not the end all. I want to raise my children in such a way that they can make intelligent decisions in life about who they want to become, how they add to the beauty of this world, what role they will play in others’ lives for good. They will create their own person, not me.
Finally, I take issue with some of her language, both at the beginning and at the end. The title of her piece “Think Before You Breed” is insulting and betrays her real motives. What that communicates is that she views people who shouldn’t have kids as no different than animals. When used of human beings breed is a pejorative term. She starts off on the wrong foot and this attitude comes out again when discussing the Duggars children as a brood, another term that is used of the animal world.
She is wrong in her conclusions that “The individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path.” Why? Failure to procreate and bring into the world a person who could add to the beauty and knowledge and good of our world is certainly risky. Is that the standard for decision making now: ethically less risky? Can we chart that? Get a spreadsheet going for all my decisions so that I never take a more risky path when a less risky path is available? The truth is that the person who chooses childlessness takes the safe path for themselves, not the ethically less risky one.