Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate

Mary Warnock navigates the moral questions that come to bear on the having of children

March 1, 2012

Philosopher Christine Overall is right to establish at the start of this book - part of a series called Basic Questions in Bioethics - that whether or not to have a child is, or should be, a matter of choice. That, as she says, has been true since the advent of the Pill - and indeed since the days of Marie Stopes, who pioneered accessible contraception. Childbirth is no longer something that just happens. And it is a serious choice. To have a child is a life-changing commitment that is irreversible. Yet in even the quite recent past, although some couples deliberately decided that they ought not to have any children, either because of their chances of passing on genetic illness or because of their chosen nomadic life, for the most part the question of whether or not to have children did not usually seem to be a matter of moral choice. But these days, when we are all ecologists, there are hardly any choices that are without moral implications: there are virtuous and vicious paths in choosing what we eat, what we wear and how we get about. Society has become deadly earnest, and little can be thought of as private, or merely a question of taste.

I have to confess to finding this ethical solemnity a bit oppressive, especially as it too often leads to a kind of self-righteousness that contends that what I have chosen to do is what everyone ought to choose. To make matters worse, Overall holds that the moral choice of whether or not to have children rests almost entirely with women because they are more deeply involved than men in both childbearing and child-rearing. I cannot entirely agree with her on this. In so far as the choice is made on moral grounds, it seems to me gender-free, although slightly more common among men than women. When in vitro fertilisation was new, in the 1980s, there were those who, while not objecting on moral grounds to the procedure itself, nevertheless held that it should not be encouraged and argued that the NHS should not be expected to provide it. Infertility was a blessing rather than something for which a remedy should be sought. It must be wrong, they said, to spend scarce resources on treatment and research that would result in more babies being born into an overpopulated world. Whatever the merits of such (admittedly moral) arguments, they are surely nothing to do with gender. And even when a couple decide against procreation, perhaps on the grounds that the world is too precarious a place to bring children into, I see no evidence that this will be essentially the woman's choice.

However, to reinforce her point, Overall presents a chapter on the legal decisions that have to be made when a couple disagree about having a child when the woman is already pregnant. Such cases have come to court both in the UK and in North America, and the reasons adduced for the decisions, which in at least one case resulted in a woman's pregnancy being terminated against her will, make fascinating and sometimes horrifying reading. Overall judges, reasonably enough, that such an outcome must always be wrong and that here, too, what the woman wants should prevail: no woman should be compelled to have her pregnancy terminated because her partner does not want a child, but neither should she be compelled to carry a baby to term against her will. So in this case, too, the woman should have the last word as to her rights.

In her next two chapters, Overall examines traditional moral philosophy to see what it has to teach us about whether it is right or wrong to have children. She divides such philosophy into the deontological, rule-based and (roughly speaking) Kantian, and the utilitarian, within which an action or type of action is to be chosen for its consequences. What becomes clear from this discussion is the enormous literature that exists on the other side of the Atlantic, some of it bizarre, and written largely (although not exclusively) by men, who, shut in their ivory towers, appear to have taken leave entirely of reality. One such argument from the utilitarian camp is that one ought to have as many children as one is physically capable of, on the grounds that the criterion of moral goodness is the bringing about of the maximum quantity of happiness, and the more people there are in existence, the more happiness there can be in the world. Overall concludes, fortunately, that nothing that these philosophers say leads her to hold that there is a duty to have children or a duty not to do so. And she is not moved by the arguments of those adhering to a particular and extreme strand of feminism that motherhood is an insult to women.

However, she devotes a separate chapter to a particular utilitarian reason for having a child that, she argues, is always and necessarily wrong - the situation in which a child is conceived in the hope of his being a "saviour sibling", one who may, through the transplant of compatible bone marrow or kidney, save the life of an older sibling who is dying. The possible good consequences of the birth of such a child are entirely outweighed by the deontological consideration that the younger child is being treated not as an end in himself but as a means to an end and, of course, without his consent. Deontologists claim that he, the new baby, will be damaged by having been conceived merely as a means to an end. If his brother survives he will feel himself to be the less loved, and if he does not, he will be resented by his parents. Many people, including the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the UK's statutory body for in vitro fertilisation, use the same argument, but I cannot agree with it. There is not, after all, a stark choice between wanting a new baby so that he may perhaps save his sibling, and wanting the baby for its own sake. One can value things both for their own sake and for their consequences. If the transplant succeeds, gratitude will be added to love; if it fails the new baby will be some consolation. But as far as I know there is little hard evidence to support either side of the dispute.

In her final chapter, Overall turns to value theory, which, oddly, she treats as a new idea separate from traditional moral philosophy. She suggests that although, morally speaking, having a child carries a risk, because one cannot know ahead of time how things will go, nevertheless a good parent/child relationship is something we value highly, and so it is worth trying to bring it about. This seems a bit like Kingsley Amis pronouncing, truly, that nice things are nicer than nasty things. But however it is expressed, I believe this to be the great foundation of morality.

Reflecting on this debate, I am left feeling a bit ashamed of the thoughtless enthusiasm with which I and many of my contemporaries hurtled into childbearing after the Second World War. We did not think of it as "having a child". It was a particular baby we wanted, the child of our newfound husbands, belonging to both of us; and when we had one, we wanted another, the same, but not quite the same. And we had the new NHS to care for us. How innocent it all seems in hindsight.

The Author

Christine Overall's interest in philosophy began during her childhood in suburban Toronto. An avid reader, she loved the magical tales of E. Nesbit, Edward Eager and C.S. Lewis. "I finally had to give up my belief in and hope for real magic," she says, "but philosophy is an intense, ongoing source of wonder and an opportunity to use my imagination - however feebly - in response to difficult issues."

In 1974, while still a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, she was named professor of philosophy and humanities at Marianopolis College in Montreal. Three years later her son, Devon, was born. With no maternity leave, and teaching full-time, she finished her PhD in 1980. A year later her daughter Narnia arrived.

She recently spent five months as a visiting professor at Kwansei Gakuin University and fondly recalls Japan's polite, kind people, its architecture and its commitment to creating pockets of beauty where possible, although she found not speaking the language challenging.

Currently research chair in philosophy at Queen's University in Kingston, she has tried hobbies ranging from choral singing and rowing to synchronised figure-skating and karate, before settling on ashtanga yoga.

Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate

By Christine Overall

MIT Press 2pp, £19.95

ISBN 9780262016988

Published 25 February 2012

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