Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall

Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate by Christine Overall is a phenomenal philosophical exploration of one of the few questions that everyone at some point, consciously or not, confronts. The decision to procreate, as Overall argues, is one of the most fundamental and important decisions that a person makes in their life. And it’s so rarely treated as anything more than an individual and highly personal preference that this very thorough, rational, moral analysis of the question is simultaneously shocking and immensely valuable.

Last year my best friend gave me the audiobook I Can Barely Take Care of Myself to listen to as my husband and I moved from Providence to San Francisco. One of the chapters, my favorite, was about how people feel entitled to weigh in on the decision not to have kids. An anecdote she tells, one I’ve lived more than once, is at a party a perfect stranger, minutes into a conversation, brings up kids (usually their own) and then asks if she intends to have any. The author (and I) usually answer no, and try to move on. But then the stranger feels compelled, like some sort of child-bearing evangelist, to tell her (and me) how big a mistake it is, how much we’ll regret it, how having children is the single most important thing they’ve ever done and she (and I) are incomplete humans for not wanting to do it. It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just want to say “I’m barren” and walk away. But that’s a lie, I know that I’m fertile, and yet I know that neither child-bearing nor child-rearing is part of my life plan. And I don’t feel the need to justify it, especially not to strangers.

So the premise of Why Have Children? was an absolute surprise, and a welcome one, to me. The author argues persuasively that the higher moral burden is not on those choosing not to have children, but in fact on those choosing to have children. Because, essentially, the choice not to have children has fewer potential risks of harm both to the parent, to the possible child, to the society, and importantly to the environment. She examines the two questions of inherent rights: does one have an inherent right not to have children, and does one have an inherent right to have children. She finds that the former, the right not to have children, is stronger than the right to have children, ethically, but that there is a right to have children under specific moral circumstances.

And that right has to do with the creation of a relationship with the child. She examines a number of often-given reasons for wanting to have a child—the continuance of the family/species, the desire to love and be loved unconditionally, the sense of social expectation or prestige—and finds them all lacking. There are good reasons, she argues, for wanting to have a child, but these are not them. I’m not going to tell you what they are, because I think you should read the book. It’s philosophy, but at a level that is approachable for the non-philosophers among us. There is some dense reasoning, but it’s explained thoroughly and in a way that approaches accessibility.

The most engaging chapter for me came towards the end of the book, where she examines the environmental impact of reproducing and how that bears on our right or obligation to have or not to have children. The final chapter was perhaps the other most interesting part of the book, if only because she argues that unconditional love is in fact not a valid reason for wanting to have a child, and not even a desirable condition of parenting after a point. It’s another extremely well-thought-out argument that is shocking, perhaps even offensive to some of our social norms. But, as she says:

The idea of having unconditional love for an individual who is older than six or seven [providing for normal development, which she does earlier] suggests that it does not really matter who the loved one is. If love for a person is truly unconditional, then it is unrelated to the loved one himself. …

But who the loved one is does matter. Real human love is love for particular human beings. We love people for who they are. And most people want to be loved for who they are, not loved in a way that is indifferent to their particularities. …

But another and much better kind of conditional love is the kind that says, “I love you for who you are; I love you because you are you. I love you because of what you do, what you say, and what you are becoming. Your needs, hopes, and choices endear you to me.”

Ultimately, she says and I agree, the moral burden is heavier on those wishing to reproduce. It is in fact not an unreasonable thing to ask potential parents to consider their abilities, motivations, and capacity as parents to form a relationship that values their child for who their child is, and not who they hope the child will be. And, as she concludes, it is not an unreasonable thing to consider our environmental and societal impact in making these choices. Regardless of where you stand on this question for yourself, this book is immensely valuable in understanding all the various approaches, reasons, and questions one might ask when deciding whether or not to become a parent. And frankly, if you are already a parent, there is some great advice for how to parent ethically in here.

And not that it should matter, because her reasoning is extremely elegant and sound, but when I was telling someone about the book the first question (and seemingly the only one they thought was relevant) was “does the author have children?” The answer is yes, two, and she discusses it in the beginning and again at the end of the book.


[Check out what else I’m reading on Goodreads.]

[I tweet quotes from books I’m reading, and other stuff too, @ericamena]

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