The Ethics of Childbearing
Writing at The Stone, Christine Overall wants us to give careful ethical reflection to the question of whether to have children:
If we fail to acknowledge that the decision of whether to parent or not is a real choice that has ethical import, then we are treating childbearing as a mere expression of biological destiny. Instead of seeing having children as something that women do, we will continue to see it as something that simply happens to women, or as something that is merely “natural” and animal-like.
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. Some reasons may be better — or worse — than others.
She notes how nobody asks the parents of a newborn why they chose to have a child, whereas there’s still the cultural expectation that couples who decide not to have children justify their doing so. This should come as no surprise: we’re biologically built and driven to be fruitful and multiply, religious commands for doing so remain prevalent, and women’s control over their sexuality remains controversial.
Overall believes the burden of justification should rest primarily on those who choose to have children because they take the ethically more risky path. Insofar as bearing and raising a child means responsibility for another person’s life, I agree with this, but given the ethical difficulties related to the means of controlling reproduction–abortion, contraception, and abstinence–this burden of justification is not so easily assessed. Both the decision to have children and the choice to remain childless have ethical import; both merit serious ethical thought.