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Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate
by Christine Overall
MIT, 272 pages, $27.95

This book, like my three children, frequently gave me a headache. Just as I was oblivious for much of my life to the problems posed by bearing and rearing children, so humankind was blissfully undisturbed for most of its history by the conundrums this book addresses. Why have children? Why have them now rather than later, or more rather than fewer, or a child one knows will be impaired? Why have them at all?

Until recently, few bothered to ask these questions. The inexhaustible engine of sexual desire guaranteed that offspring regularly appeared. For women, there were few alternatives to having babies and working for their survival, so motherhood was destiny.

Then along came modernity, giving men—and especially women—an ever-expanding set of choices. Contraception, artificial insemination, prenatal diagnosis, and the legalization of abortion meant that people could routinely determine when to have children, which children to have, and whether to have them at all. There are limits, of course, and science has yet to master nature. Men still need women’s bodies, and women still need men’s sperm, but much that was once left to merciless chance is now within our control.

Christine Overall, professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in Ontario, is to be admired for her ambition in taking on the dizzying array of issues that arise when people confront their unprecedented reproductive options. The loosening of customary restraints, which encourages and follows from growing technical prowess, complicates the picture.

In keeping with the dominant discourse, Overall accepts almost without argument that reproduction belongs firmly in the realm of “rights,” both positive and negative. In general, and with carefully defined exceptions, people should be able to refuse to have children, and should not be prevented from having them. Few in the Western world, whatever their political stripe, would today question these fundamental precepts.

What is more problematic is her treatment of the hard cases that strain the principle. She gives long and careful consideration to disagreements between biological parents over whether to continue a pregnancy and allow a child to be born. Taking a distinctly feminist tack, and consistent with current law that views abortion as a right that is individual, fundamental, and virtually absolute, she insists the mother’s prerogative always trumps the father’s. The father can never prevent the mother from obtaining an abortion or insist that she have one.

She recognizes that this asymmetry can curtail a man’s capacity to become a parent or refuse that option, and so it potentially limits his reproductive “rights,” but she justifies this incursion by pointing to men’s need to enlist a women’s body and thus her consent and cooperation. This natural necessity, she believes, more than justifies limiting a man’s right to become a parent or not.

Tellingly, however, she then argues that the biological father should be charged with full financial responsibility for any child that his sex partner chooses to have, regardless of the man’s personal resources and desires. She insists that “what the man cannot do, with moral justification, is to make an individual, unilateral decision during the pregnancy to reject all responsibility for the infant.”

Overall’s approach to this particular conflict is emblematic of her method generally. Too often she treats reproductive dilemmas as abstract analytic puzzles, dissociated from the broader institutional, cultural, and historical contexts in which they are embedded. She has little or nothing to say about the elaborate norms and institutions that have evolved over time to negotiate the dilemmas she identifies. She virtually ignores the role these structures play in guiding behavior and in potentially moderating or avoiding some of the ethical conflicts she describes. Marital status and sexuality, she repeatedly claims, are irrelevant and ethically inert categories with no bearing on reproductive decision-making.

So, although she argues from “basic principles” that fathers must support their children, she is oblivious to the fact that, despite the recent expansion of efforts to enforce that obligation, the numbers of children actually receiving material, personal, and financial support from their biological fathers has steadily declined. She never considers the possibility that a complex system of incentives and customs might advance salutary goals more effectively than edicts grounded in the logic of rights and the force of law.

She seems unaware that channeling people’s behavior through imperfect and sometimes arbitrary conventions that assign intelligible and reciprocal responsibilities, burdens, and benefits might best minimize the evils she seeks to avoid. The most important convention is, of course, marriage. It is indeed an astonishing shortcoming of this book that the word “marriage” is almost entirely absent—it does not even appear in the index.

Traditionally, marriage carried implicit premises and promises. “Only if you marry me and stand by me can you count on me to bear and help raise your children.” Charles Murray once suggested that marriage should form the sole channel through which men’s rights and responsibilities toward women and children are recognized. Women and their offspring could not call upon unmarried fathers to support them, and unmarried men would have no power over or access to their children without the mother’s consent. This draconian suggestion certainly comes at some cost to innocents, but its logic is a bracing reminder that an individualistic and rights-based approach too often gives short shrift to the social systems that promote virtuous behavior.

In sum, by reducing the problem of men’s and women’s desire for children to the abstract analytical puzzle of “rights in conflict,” the author blinds herself to the evolved institutions, especially marriage, in which the varied interests and priorities of men and women were balanced and brokered. Perhaps there is no substitute for the practical infrastructure that allowed ordinary people to navigate the shoals of sexual choice. Without those structures, analytical paralysis quickly takes over.

Overall’s disregard of social institutions is coupled with an irksome tendency to insist on politically correct conclusions. On the crucial and long-embattled question of the influence of family structure on children, she cavalierly asserts that “there is no empirical evidence that social identity in itself either compromises or enhances parenting abilities.” On the contrary, considerable data show that children who spend their childhood years with their married biological parents have fewer cognitive, behavioral, and emotional problems than children who are raised by single or step-parents.

Overall offers the usual disclaimer that there are perfectly good single parents raising perfectly fine children—but that fact is not relevant. The question for policymakers and ethicists is one of risks to the population in general and of what society ought to aspire to as a desirable norm. In the same vein, although claims that gay parenting compromises children are on less firm ground—simply because there is far less reliable data on the question—recent research by Mark Regnerus and his colleagues suggests that the children of gay parents, at least in the recent past, do live more troubled lives.

Overall is at pains to minimize the significance of the biological connection between parents and children except as a purely logistical and practical matter, as when two male homosexuals encounter obstacles to their wish to become parents. Her agenda ought to be apparent: to avoid any suggestion that gay families are less than equivalent in every way to traditional two-parent heterosexual families. Achieving this equivalence comes at the cost of dismissing by fiat the reverence and value that have long attached to family blood ties. Instead of trying to explore and understand that reverence, Overall disregards it.

Why does any of this matter? If there is no reason to believe that unconventional behavior is costlier or more harmful than alternatives, and if all families are essentially equivalent in their positive and negative effects, there is no need to engage the implications of abandoning traditional moral restraints. That Overall lets herself off the hook by wishing away the facts should make one leery of her conclusions.

Although much of her discussion centers on rights, she also takes on the tough questions of what reasons we might have for choosing to exercise our rights. Asking why we should bother to reproduce at all, she grapples with the arresting position, recently advanced by the philosopher David Benatar in his book Never to Have Been, that we shouldn’t. Benatar starts with the observation that “we regret suffering but not the absent pleasures of those who could have existed.” Therefore, “coming into existence is always a serious harm” because it inevitably entails pain, whereas failing to be born is no loss.

Overall’s quite sensible retort is that pain and pleasure are necessarily tied to existing persons, so that the actual balance of good and ill always involves real people’s lives. What we ought to focus on is “improv[ing] our lives and our living conditions,” not bemoaning the fact that we exist at all.

Nonetheless, the aspersions Benatar casts on the decision to have children resonate in the practical reality of modern families. Overall points out that when women are given meaningful control over the number of children they have, most choose to have fewer. Modernity has been marked by a dramatic “demographic transition,” beginning in the late nineteenth century and continuing today, with more and more women deciding to forgo motherhood.

This disconcerting fact poses an urgent and unavoidable challenge both to our continuation as a society and to our very conception of the worth of human existence. Is the demographic implosion a response to practical costs and benefits, which might be amenable to amelioration, or does it tell us something deeper about a loss of purpose or faith?

Overall doesn’t dwell much on this question, although she does address whether the extinction of the human race is something worth caring about (it is, she believes). Instead, she concludes her book by defending the personal choice to have children. As a mother, the advice she would give to others is: “Don’t miss it.”

In ending on this upbeat note, Overall doesn’t pretend to analytic rigor, and it’s hard to see how she could. She invokes Pascal’s wager not so much for the precise parallel but for the notion that making a choice in the face of the radical unknown is unavoidable. Even with all the control and planning that modern science facilitates, the consequences of our decision to reproduce are still largely unpredictable.

We don’t know what our offspring will be like, what awaits them in life, or how they will turn out. We must love them “unconditionally,” although, as Overall acknowledges in one of the more thought-provoking passages of the book, it’s hard to explain exactly what that means when our children disappoint.

In the end, she points to a nonrational notion of human love, and the unique and unprecedented connection that arises when a child is born. We wouldn’t want to miss it, she says, but it’s not obvious why. Here, at least, Overall doesn’t so much duck this difficulty as quail in the face of the mystery.

Amy L. Wax is Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

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