Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Just Kidding

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Just Kidding

Article excerpt

Just Kidding Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate BY CHRISTINE OVERALL MIT, 272 PAGES, $27.95

This book, like my three children, frequently gave me a headache. Just as I was oblivious for much of my life to the problems posed by bearing and rearing children, so humankind was blissfully undisturbed for most of its history by the conundrums this book addresses. Why have children? Why have them now rather than later, or more rather than fewer, or a child one knows will be impaired? Why have them at all?

Until recently, few bothered to ask these questions. The inexhaustible engine of sexual desire guaranteed that offspring regularly appeared. For women, there were few alternatives to having babies and working for their survival, so motherhood was destiny.

Then along came modernity, giving men - and especially women - an ever-expanding set of choices. Contraception, artificial insemination, prenatal diagnosis, and the legalization of abortion meant that people could routinely determine when to have children, which children to have, and whether to have them at all. There are limits, of course, and science has yet to master nature. Men still need women's bodies, and women still need men's sperm, but much that was once left to merciless chance is now within our control.

Christine Overall, professor of philosophy at Queen's University in Ontario, is to be admired for her ambition in taking on the dizzying array of issues that arise when people confront their unprecedented reproductive options. The loosening of customary restraints, which encourages and follows from growing technical prowess, complicates the picture.

In keeping with the dominant discourse, Overall accepts almost without argument that reproduction belongs firmly in the realm of "rights," both positive and negative. In general, and with carefully defined exceptions, people should be able to refuse to have children, and should not be prevented from having them. Few in the Western world, whatever their political stripe, would today question these fundamental precepts.

What is more problematic is her treatment of the hard cases that strain the principle. She gives long and careful consideration to disagreements between biological parents over whether to continue a pregnancy and allow a child to be born. Taking a distinctly feminist tack, and consistent with current law that views abortion as a right that is individual, fundamental, and virtually absolute, she insists the mother's prerogative always trumps the father's. The father can never prevent the mother from obtaining an abortion or insist that she have one.

She recognizes that this asymmetry can curtail a man's capacity to become a parent or refuse that option, and so it potentially limits his reproductive "rights," but she justifies this incursion by pointing to men's need to enlist a women's body and thus her consent and cooperation. This natural necessity, she believes, more than justifies limiting a man's right to become a parent or not.

Tellingly, however, she then argues that the biological father should be charged with full financial responsibility for any child that his sex partner chooses to have, regardless of the man's personal resources and desires. She insists that "what the man cannot do, with moral justification, is to make an individual, unilateral decision during the pregnancy to reject all responsibility for the infant."

Overall's approach to this particular conflict is emblematic of her method generally. Too often she treats reproductive dilemmas as abstract analytic puzzles, dissociated from the broader institutional, cultural, and historical contexts in which they are embedded. She has little or nothing to say about the elaborate norms and institutions that have evolved over time to negotiate the dilemmas she identifies. She virtually ignores the role these structures play in guiding behavior and in potentially moderating or avoiding some of the ethical conflicts she describes. …

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