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« The Feminine Hygiene Man | Main | Dean C. Rowan, Esteemed Film Critic »

June 24, 2012


I think Overall's essay can be blown away with a simple quote from Gibran:
"Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you."

That's why people don't have to justify why they procreate, whether by choice or accident.They are simply manifesting Life's longing for itself. To choose not to have children, on the other hand, requires justification at least to the near and dear who might wonder why the chooser elects to deny Life its normal path.

Norman, I agree with you it's not clear what view "out there" it is that she thinks she's answering.

"Perhaps people fail to see childbearing as an ethical choice "

Who are these mythical people who don't see having children as having ethical ramifications? Off the top of my head, I can think of issues out there in society like the ethics of sex-selection, adoption vs undergoing fertility treatment, surrogacy, childbirth and marriage, gay couples having children. Not to mention one of the biggest issues of last year, going by the news anyway: Octomom.

I suppose the specific question of 'does a person have a right to have a child' is not much raised. But unless you're a coercive eugenicist or a fan of human extinction, it's not clear why it should be.

We are running out of world, not people.

From Overall's photo, I would guess her to be a woman in very late midlife who made her own decision to have two children back when there was a population crisis but not a widely perceived resource crisis. If she gave birth 30 years ago, then a two-child family was in conformity with ZPG. What would she do now? Like Bill McKibben, have one?

If I were making the decision now for myself, and on behalf of a child that had not been conceived, I would be ethically obliged not to have any children yet I would desperately want one. For the present, I would hope no one would interfere with my legal right to make up my mind what to do in the presence of conflicts of which I was well aware, but I believe the Chinese model is not far away for us: heavy fines for having more than one child per family. What should be illegal, we have seen from how the Chinese have fared with this policy, is abortion for sex-selection rather than for child/mother health.

We have to make a better, more just world, and manage resources by many means, including placing a lower demand on the resources that exist. Having fewer children is one way to do this -- certainly a better way than culling "supernumeraries" who have already been born -- old people who produce nothing and use much, for instance. To refuse to consider having very few or no children as one among other means to bring about needful change may be within our rights -- a no-fly zone for legislation -- but options that are within our rights have nonetheless their ethical dimensions. Just look at all the things that are perfectly legal and ethically wrong, because they do not serve the common good.

As I read Norm's post, I don't think he is addressing the question of whether or not it is ethical to have children (or how many?) as Christine Overall is. His disagreement seems to be with Ms Overall's position that those who breed are never asked by others to explain or ponder the consequences of child bearing whereas non-breeders have to explain their choices all the time to friends and strangers. I agree with Norm that is BS. Except for the most feckless or the very young, parents in general and women in particular, think long and hard about the consequences of having a child. Very often one parent wants a child and the other doesn't. The one who does, has to explain. Sometimes, as in China (and for a short and dangerous time in India), they have to explain to the government.

@ Elatia,

Yes, limited and disappearing resources are of great moment at this point in history. There is hope, though, as long as women are provided with education, complete control over their reproduction, and a fair and sustainable economy. The proof? Europe. Italy, for example, has a negative population growth. Any potential slack in providing labor for the economy is quickly resolved by immigration from populations with a positive population growth.

If there were a banner which captured an important principle in this matter I would choose your words, above: "...I would hope no one would interfere with my legal right to make up my mind what to do in the presence of conflicts of which I was well aware...".

There are those who have no ability to feel or assess the important emotional aspects of considering child bearing and parenting, either for themselves or others. For them the decision to have a child is the left side of an equation whose terms can be neatly spelled out, including the ethical factors. I discount them from this discussion. The people (men and women) for whom Overall presumes to speak are, in my opinion and the words of Camille Paglia, a bunch of whiny, crybaby careerists.

I had children because I'm genetically predisposed at least to trying to do so. I would recommend having children to anybody because its sheer pleasure can be described either as a kind of purely irrational and rare joy or, for the more economically inclined, as a hedonic benefit of such high value that it will surely outweigh any of the substantial costs.

Just this morning, prior to reading this post, I was thinking how uncomfortable I feel about the idiomatic notion of "having children." They aren't mine to own. Sujatha's Gibran quote is exactly right.

In Overall's defense, her generation--which is probably mine, I'm guessing--was brought up with a good deal of sideways glancing at couples who didn't produce offspring. "They're selfish," was the common assumption. I fail to see how that stupid observation requires an opposite and equally stupid one.

Dean, you may be in a perfect position to answer - albeit a one man survey - from both sides of the aisle here. You had children somewhat late in life compared to the other breeders here. What were you asked more by friends and family, "why not?" or "why now?" In either case, were they asking from an ethical angle or just curiosity?

I have a friend who was, until he retired 5 years ago, the world's leading expert on the social marketing of birth control. He worked in all African countries, most countries in South America and the Caribbean, and many countries in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region. A big part of his job was to find out what women really wanted, when they spoke out of the hearing of the men who ran their lives. Nearly every woman who ever spoke with him in confidence told him she would be most satisfied with three children. Her reasoning was based on the number of children she was likely to be able to feed and care for until they were grown. In other words, the number that would likely result in the fewest childhood deaths from want. My friend never met a woman who said she wanted none -- he did not believe such a thought was available to the women he got to know. Fewer children, all of whom lived, seemed to be the great good they were after. For ethical decision-making, it's hard to beat that, I think. Although whether to have a chld is a decision based on many things that lie outside ethics, as Dean and others say.

When I was 34, a friend my age could not conceive. Her discomfort with fertility drugs was very great. She and her husband adopted, and she swiftly became pregnant -- just like in urban legend. So she had two boys inside 13 months. Both children were ill from birth. The adopted child is developmentally delayed, with so many behavior disorders that adult success, for him, consists in staying out of jail and living supervised on a disability pension. The biological child has autism, RA and Tourette's. I could not imagine anything worse, and do not personally know any couple so unfortunate, if having healthy children is the greatest fortune. What this made me see will be obvious to any parent, but as a non-parent I had to learn it: with the best of intentions, a high skill set, a high income, an ability to love no matter what, and a life set up for parenting, you are not guaranteed healthy children, smart children, or even children who can experience simple happiness, friendship, freedom from pain, and eventually become self-supporting. So you had to tolerate that risk, and be prepared to be a steadfast parent who doesn't buckle in the worst of circumstances. Among the questions I believe potential parents ought to ask themselves before they decide and act to have children is whether they could shoulder the burden if their children were incurably ill from early days. Oh, it will never happen to them...but if it did?

When people asked me about starting a family, I am certain they consciously or subconsciously intended an ethical angle. Implicitly, they were asking, "Is this how you think a life ought to be spent?" My parents, of course, wanted grandchildren. I am an old dad, Ruchira, a circumstance that has turned out well, for the most part, for me and my family, although if I had it to do all over again I'd start earlier and have more. Three does seem optimal ("It's the new two," my neighbor father of a trio told me), but I kinda like the notion of five, six, seven... I avoided marriage and children, probably prudently, for many years, because I just didn't believe I was equipped mentally and emotionally for either. In retrospect, I was very likely right, if for the wrong reason. I imagined I'd be the worst sort of selfish father, distracted by his kids' needs, always wishing he had the time, money, and energy to do what he wanted to do, on his own, without domestic bother. Curiously, though, I had no idea what I actually wanted to do, but I was worried that it would occur to me too late.

Among my friends over the years, some have avoided having children, and some not. I mean that as I've phrased it. I have friends whose kids were, like this blog, accidental. Many of us not only did not take for granted eventually having children, but we assumed the default position was not to have children. This perhaps contradicts Overall's assumption that choosing to have them is the norm.

Elatia's friend's story is heartbreaking, and a very real and important caution to all prospective parents, biological or adoptive. Older parents-to-be know the routine of ultrasounds and possibly CVS or amniocentesis to test for Down Syndrome and other genetic defects. Because my wife is a practicing Catholic and I entirely support her decision respecting the disposition of the fetus, we were prepared (or so we thought) to see any pregnancy through to term. At one ultrasound with our second child, the nurse's expression changed. She muttered something about the test result data not appearing, and that she would have to call for results. I sensed what was going on, and despite my full awareness of the risks going in, I grew very worried and afraid. I was shocked by my reaction. I had believed having a child with Down Syndrome--which, admittedly, is not as serious a condition as those with which Elatia's friends had to deal--would not be a big deal. But in fact it would have demanded an adjustment well beyond the ordinary one required for a healthy child. Our second child was born healthy, and she remains so, but I'll never forget the dose of reality served us during the pregnancy.

Dean, if you and your wife were resolved to bring any pregnancy to term, you were much better prepared than most for the full meaning of parenthood, for the full measure of what it takes. But -- whew!!!

Nine days out of college, I married, and at 19 it did not occur to me to have children quickly. Over the next 5 years, I saw that women in the arts who had children "died to that generation" as Joseph Campbell would later put it. He and his wife, btw, were resolved non-parents for precisely that reason -- they had work, they lived in and for that work and for each other. In the same period, I saw men in the arts become neglectful fathers who placed the burden of making enough money and finding enough time on their wives, women artists mostly. A woman who marries an artist has usually acquired not a partner but a child, anyway, so she has typically been the mensch all along. Please understand, I am not speaking from prejudice but from observation of myself and my peer group, over many years. I firmly believe that successful parenthood is for calm, cheerful women who have the ability to set their highest work ambitions aside in favor of creating a happy and healthy family, and who can do this without resentment, because they believe that creating a happy and healthy family is precisely their best and most important role. Mothers I have seen who are highly conflicted sometimes create healthy children, but mostly they create tragedies, even though they are capable of great love. Deciding you can "have it all" is quite different from knowing how you most need to flourish, and knowing that with your decision about that, you are risking much more than your own well being. If only...


Some very sobering observations. I do not intend to trivialize your comment, but women married to artists reminds me of a New Yorker cartoon of decades ago. The sketch showed side-by-side head stones in a cemetery. The following was inscribed on them.

Here lies Edwin Williams
Poet, Writer, Artist,
World Traveler, Vagabond,
Sculptor, Philosopher,
Polymath, Adventurer,

Here lies Edwina Williams
Long suffering wife
of Edwin Williams

Very funny! You are not trivializing my observations. If I were rewriting the inscriptions in the cartoon, however, the headstone for Edwina would read: "Long-suffering wife of Edwin, and, of the two, the more gifted artist and writer as well as the possessor of the (much) higher IQ."

I have a tremendously apt tale. Does anyone know who William Wetmore Story was? He was an American lawyer turned sculptor who lived and worked in Rome in the 19th century. By far his most famous work is the funerary monument to his wife, Emelyn Story, in the Protestant Cemetery of Rome. It is one of the most deeply affecting such monuments in the world -- even people who unhesitatingly call this kind of stuff Kitsch admit this gets to them.

William Wetmore Story enjoyed successful commissions and outlived his wife by one year. This is his funerary monument too. Of Emelyn Story, nothing is known but her name -- a haunting one, to be sure. The sculpture is almost always referred to as "The Angel of Grief," or, as the grave of Emelyn Story. This is what visitors to the Protestant Cemetery, where Keats and Shelley are also buried, ask to see. So closely identified is Emelyn Story with the grieving angel that people have forgotten her husband, the sculptor, lies there, and almost never even know his name. Only a specialist of the period or a connoisseur of expat life would be able to tell you more than a line or two about William Wetmore Story, but no one who knows the monument fails to be saddened by the death of his wife.


I am still laughing at your inscription for Edwina. Also, it captures the core of your prior comment.

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