I’ve been looking forward to reading Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate, a recent book by philosophy professor Christine Overall. In the meantime, she’s got a provocative opinion piece on the New York Times website: “Think Before You Breed.”
“Choosing whether or not to have children is … the most significant ethical debate of most people’s lives,” she writes, arguing that people ought to have good reasons for procreating. Here are some choice excerpts (emphasis mine):
[P]eople 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. …
The decision to have children surely deserves at least as much thought as people devote to leasing a car or buying a house. Procreation decisions are about whether or not to assume complete responsibility, over a period of at least 18 years, for a new life or new lives. Because deciding whether to procreate has ethical dimensions, the reasons people give for their procreative choices deserve examination. …
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. The choice to have children calls for more careful justification and thought than the choice not to have children because procreation creates a dependent, needy, and vulnerable human being whose future may be at risk. The individual who chooses childlessness takes the ethically less risky path. After all, nonexistent people can’t suffer from not being created. They do not have an entitlement to come into existence, and we do not owe it to them to bring them into existence. But once children do exist, we incur serious responsibilities to them.
Christine Overall is not childfree herself — after much consideration, she and her spouse chose to have two kids, she tells us. But in one key way, she’s more like the childfree than like other parents: she thought long and hard about her decision. Too many people just fall into parenthood without giving it the real deliberation it deserves, while people who consciously decide not to have kids tend to have clear, well-thought-through motives.
So, on top of all the other good reasons for skipping parenting, Overall provides us with a strong ethical case. Now I’m looking forward to her book more than ever.
(Read a bit more about Overall’s book in this recent post.)