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.

Doll heads.
What's the right number of children to bring into the world? Why bring any at all?

Dennis Yang via Flickr Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

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.

Paul Ford Paul Ford

Paul Ford is a writer who lives in New York City. He is the sole proprietor of

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.

Why Have Children?
by Christine Overall
MIT Press

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?