Christine Overall, a philosophy professor at Queen’s University, Ontario, has a book out called Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate. In an interview on WBEZ, she talked about why she wrote this book – because it’s something people just don’t talk about. Why don’t people talk about the ethics of having children? It starts with what’s at the heart of the baby matrix in our society:–pronatalism. Pronatalist assumptions about parenthood hardly encourage us to question our procreative ethics.
Pronatalist beliefs don’t tell us to think seriously about whether to have children or not. Of course we are going to want to have them. We are wired to want them.
As Overall wrote in an opinion piece on NYTimes.com, “…people are still expected to provide reasons not to have children, but no reasons are required to have them. ..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.”
This is because we’ve lived with the pronatalist Destiny Assumption – that we have a biological instinct to have children. If we are all destined to have children, why do we need to provide ethical justification of this choice?
We’ve also been influenced to believe what I call the Normality Assumption – that it’s basically a fact that there is something wrong with us if we don’t want children. Here too – if we believe having children is part of the natural progression toward healthy adulthood, is there any reason to have to ethically justify our choice? After all it is what all well-adjusted people do.
And then there’s what I call the Fulfillment Assumption – the belief that the ultimate path to fulfillment in life is parenthood. Overall talks about “accounting” for our parenthood choices. Why would we need to do this when it’s the thing that makes a woman’s life complete, what makes a “man a man” and brings true meaning in life?
These are just three pronatalist assumptions, but all lead to the same destination-the exaltation of parenthood. When parenthood is so highly valued, is put on such a pedestal, it does not promote contemplating the ethics of such a choice. It does not encourage serious thought about one’s motives for wanting to create a parental relationship, what is best for the child the would-parents want to create, or the impact of another biological child on the world and those already on it.
So to really have the ethics of reproduction conversation, it starts with examining why we believe what we believe about parenthood and reproduction – To look the baby matrix squarely in the eye and call out where its tenets don’t represent the truth. Only by challenging pronatalist beliefs will the procreative ethics conversation take root.
One thing that annoys me about pronatalism is that the arguments used against being childfree are usually not the reasons that parents have children. Childfree people are criticized using reasoning that parents rarely apply to themselves. For example, we childfree need to be concerned about the long-term survival of the species, when no one who has children does so in the name of preserving the human race. Childfree people are supposed to think about our futures and what the future would be like without kids, when a LOT of parents never give any thought to what their lives will be like with kids.