My wife and I have twins, a boy and a girl, born with much assistance from reproductive technology. As a byproduct we also have, at a clinic in New York City, two fertilized eggs ready for implantation should a willing womb—ours, or a stranger's—present itself. The zygotes cost $1,200 a year to store. That’s a lot for a few square millimeters of real estate, but then again we’re talking Manhattan. We've given ourselves a year to determine the right thing to do with those zygotes. They are our puzzle to solve.
Why Have Children?, by Christine Overall, a philosophy professor at Queen's University in Ontario, is about puzzles like these—not the specifics of reproductive technology, twins, or IVF, but about the moral questions that arise when one decides to have children, or more children.
Must you? No, Overall says.
Should you? "Don't miss it," she says.
How many? One per adult.
To arrive there Overall (herself the mother of two children, Devon and Narnia) piles her readers into the bioethical tour bus for a journey into the realm of thought experiments. For example, what if he wants the baby but she doesn't? A flesh-and-blood woman must resort to abortion, pray for miscarriage, or keep the baby and deal with the consequences, but philosophers can offer up ectogenesis, the "gestation of a fetus outside the female body," as an option. Given ectogenesis, say thoughtful philosophers, a doting dad can take his vat-hatchling home and raise it without the merest inconvenience to a lady or her lady parts. That this option doesn’t exist without a willing uterus is immaterial; in thought-experiment terms, this hypothetical lab-grown baby is the very ticket to gender equity.
Not so fast, says Overall; only if the removal of a fetus for extramaternal incubation was "analogous to the ejaculation of sperm" would it truly be a gender-neutral, equitable process, and thus morally required. She’s suspicious, for given the grand history of operations upon women’s reproductive organs, ectogenesis would, most likely, suck. Undergoing the process would constitute a heroic action on the part of the woman. And so it’s not a moral obligation. Plus—and this is a point oft-made—"as long as it is within her body, it is subject to her bodily autonomy."
There’s more to see out the window of our tour bus. The “savior sibling,” for example—an optimized child, conceived via IVF and born and raised for stem cells or bone marrow to heal a sickly older brother or sister. Overall is against it; a child, she insists, is not a means to an end: “One would not start a relationship of any kind with a stranger by expecting—let alone demanding—the donation of blood or bone marrow.” There’s also the “Principle of Procreative Beneficence” of Julian Savulescu; he insists that we must make the very best babies possible, using IVF and whatever other means we have at hand. And the “Repugnant Conclusion” of Derek Parfit, which holds that if you have a few million happy people over here, and a few billion mostly miserable people over there, well, then the cumulative happiness of the miserable billions is greater than the cumulative happiness of the happy millions. And given that those billions prefer to keep on living their crap-sack lives, well—there you have it, a crowded, cranky world has more happiness than one where people have lots of room and wear natural fibers and drive hover cars. By not having babies and lots of them, ASAP, you are lowering the overall happiness of the world, bringing down the potential. Get on it.
* * *
I watched my wife limp down the street at 39 weeks pregnant (78 in twin-weeks), cars slowing so the drivers could stare. I waited with the vomit pan during her C-section. And in the mornings as I get ready for work, I watch her manipulate her darkened nipples into two little mouths. She is tired, but talking about babies wakes her up. Sometimes the twins hold hands as they breastfeed. I’m eager to teach them to high-five.
In short, my wife’s reality, her fundamental ontology, has shifted. I’m not fully sure how, but she is not quite the person she was before she became pregnant. I rearrange my life around the babies, but my wife has rearranged herself. She is a different person. An ethics of procreation should consider that difference, right?
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."
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.