Christine Overall’s Why Have Children?, reviewed.

Two Kids, Two Zygotes, and a Dilemma

Two Kids, Two Zygotes, and a Dilemma

Reading between the lines.
March 3 2012 12:20 AM

Then Again, Maybe I Will

Two kids, two zygotes, and a dilemma.

(Continued from Page 1)

Overall would say so and is a bit wearied—respectful but wearied—of systems that neglect these facts. She singles out the ideas of Parfit and Savulescu: These men, she writes, are often "oblivious to the fact that it is women ... who become pregnant and bear children and that it is their lives that are made better or in some cases unutterably worse by the conditions and circumstances in which they procreate." If your model of reality doesn’t take the female body into account then it’s a flawed model; forget the women and risk introducing "errors into moral reasoning."

Christine Overall.
Christine Overall.

Photograph by Bernard Clark, 2009.

But wait, this is philosophy, and abstract models of human behavior are the coin of the realm. Is it necessary to be so damn uterine all the time? Recently, as if to answer that very question, Rep. Darell Issa of California held a congressional hearing on health insurance and contraception with a panel of five clergymen—but no clergywomen. Five professional ethicists, each busily chipping away at access to contraception. We’ve had a few thousand years of ethical systems where virtue and virginity are synonyms, so is it too much to ask that the modern ethicist take into account the existence of women as a different class of human beings than men? And acknowledge that their bodies, and the lives that are bounded by those bodies, are defined by very real physical factors like, you know, crowning?

So, given all this pain and suffering, why have children? Perhaps you shouldn’t—the philosopher David Benatar, for example, says that life is a “serious harm,” and that as a result the creation of children brings only gloom into the world; each child is a harbinger of despair. But Overall favors existence (or at least she’s not violently against it). She questions parental motives—carrying on a name, handing down property, pleasing God—these are weak, if common, excuses for creating humans. “We human beings,” she writes, “have a sentimental attachment to our own species and culture.”

But even if there is no obligation to do x, x may still be a good thing to do. ... The best reason to have a child is simply the creation of the mutually enriching, mutually enhancing love that is the parent-child relationship ... in choosing to have a child, one is deciding both to fulfill one’s sense of who one is and at the same time aspiring to be a different person than one was before the child came along.

So that’s why—a thesis that, to be clear, is communicated in a host of parental clichés about learning more from your children than you teach them, being humbled by their wisdom, realizing what is most important, etc. None the less true for the cliché, of course. Do it for love.

And we’ve done it, for love, so what of those eggs? Do we let them thaw, and anger God? Do we do another round? Overall's analysis here is clear: We’re done. "One child per adult person, whether the person is single, in a heterosexual relationship, or in a same-sex relationship."


Check that; two healthy babies is miracle enough. So do we donate? Hand over the genetic material gathered at great personal and financial cost so that a stranger can carry a child of her own? It's a box you check at the clinic, and then they’re not your eggs anymore. These babies might look like us, but they would not be ours. We might never even know the children exist.

What is the moral thing? To let the stranger have a chance at that “mutually enriching, mutually enhancing love”? We are actually on the other side of the thought experiment—ectogenesis has happened, with much distress to my wife, but now it’s over. The frozen cells represent no more pain; they are stopped at five days old. It’s the not knowing, the mystery of it, the sense that there would be a relationship unexplored, a secret son or daughter. Can you ignore that possibility for the rest of your life? That’s the struggle. But if we can increase happiness, if we can help someone else manufacture their own bundle(s) of love, shouldn’t we say yes? That feels right, to me. Thankfully we have a year to decide, a year on ice.

See all the pieces in the new Slate Book Review.