Sunday, February 24, 2008

Making Babies

I have known a couple of people in my life who have dealt with a serious ethical concern.

Both of them have suffered severe health problems. Both of them have asked, “Should I have a child, when there is a possibility that this child will grow up with the same problems that I had, and that he or she will suffer as I have suffered? Does morality require that I forego having children of my own?”

I have given these people the same advice.

I ask, “Think back on your life, with the problems that you have had, and asked yourself if the life you have been given have been a blessing or a curse. Yes, you have had to deal with pain, and I am not minimizing that fact. However, you have also laughed, and loved, and experienced awe and wonder at great things that you have encountered in your life. So, you have to ask yourself, was it worth it? Would you have given up the love and laughter and wonder at the universe if that would have freed you from the pain?”

I then ask them to imagine that they are talking to their child, when the child is 30 years old or so and has gone past the trials and tribulations of adolescence. This is how morality would look at their situation:

“Look, kid, I would have given you the opportunity for love and laughter and wonder without the pain if I could have. It hurts me to see you in pain. That wasn’t one of my options. I could have saved you from the pain, but the only way I could have done that would have been to save deny you the opportunity for love and laughter and wonder. So, I had to ask myself whether or not you would have considered that to be too great of a cost. Would you take the love and laughter and wonder with the pain, or would you consider the pain so great that you would gladly give up the others?”

I invite the listener to imagine her mother asking her that question and to imagine what the answer would be. Quite often, the answer is that, “The pain was not so bad that I would have given up the love and laughter and wonder as payment to be rid of it. That would be too high of a price to pay.”

If that is the answer, I tell her that she would be doing a greater harm to her future child to by denying that child the opportunity for love, laughter, and wonder than by saving the child from pain. “You are talking about giving the child an option where, if the child was able to choose herself, she would have almost certainly said was the worse option.”

Of course, the answer could be that the price for experiencing love and laughter and wonder was too great, and the child, now an adult, may well decide that it was not worth paying. If this is the case – and only if this is the case does the parent do the child an actual disservice by bringing that child into the universe. In such a case, the parent gives the child that option that the child would not have selected for herself if given a chance.

So, I argue, “If you want a child, and you are willing and able to undergo the expense of caring for that child (because to have a child that one neglects is not a morally viable option) then one is morally free to go ahead and do so, provided that these conditions are met. And these conditions are met more often than people tend to think.

It is important to note that, even in this argument, where one provides a benefit to the child by bringing that child into the world, where the child has a reason to reflect on his life and say, “I am glad that I have lived,” it does not follow that the mother had an obligation to have that child. It does not follow that having children is a duty.

Instead, the fact of the matter is that giving the child a life that the child actually valued is a gift. It’s a present, for which the child (if the child had a life that the child truly valued) owes the mother a statement of gratitude. (Thank you, mother). It is not, in any sense, a duty or an obligation that I had a right to demand of her (or that anybody else had a right to demand of her in my name) regardless of the value that I would have placed in that gift.

Those who argue for the wrongness of abortion seem to understand this fact from time to time – that bring a child into this world is a gift, and not a duty. After all, they argue for abstinence rather than abortion – where abstinence would have been just as effective at denying me the gift of life as abortion would have been (or as using birth control would have been). How is the child who is not conceived as a result of abstinence in any way better off than he would have been being conceived and aborted?

The doctrine of abstinence recognizes that no child has a right to be born and that no parent has a duty to have a child. The doctrine of abstinence recognizes that life is a gift from the mother to the child, not a duty – and, as such, something the mother has a right to refuse, at least through abstinence, if not through abortion.

The idea that a person benefits if one is given a gift of life, where that person would prefer life with the pain of a defect over freedom of pain through the absence of life does not, in any way, generate an obligation to have a child

What it does say is that the parent who decides to abort a fetus with a birth defect, who claims that she is doing it ‘for the sake of a child’ – as an act of charity – is, in many times, quite simply wrong. Unless there is good reason to believe that the child would grow up into being somebody who would have given away all of his experiences of love, joy, and wonder for freedom of pain, the mother who aborts such a fetus is given that fetus the worst of the two available options, not the better. Claiming that the giving the fetus the worst of the two objections was done for sake of the child simply wrong.

Yet, it may be done for the sake of the parent. Because life is a gift that one has the right not to give, a parent may choose to abort a handicapped fetus because of the tremendous burden such a fetus might bring, to reserve the gift of life for a fetus that does not have the same defects, is a perfectly legitimate option. It is a pretense to say that the act is being done for the benefit of the fetus. It is no crime for the act to be done for the benefit of the mother.

Yet, at the same time, while we have good reason to allow a parent to allow the presence of a birth defect to determine whether she gives the gift of life to a child, we have good reason to condemn the person who bases this choice on the gender of the child. We have reason to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and to inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. A desire for boys over girls that plays itself out in terms of a population that values the welfare of women less than of men, and one in which there is simply more men than women (and thus the grief of competition with a large number of clear losers) is a desire that tends to thwart other desires. So it is a desire that we have reason to condemn.

So, here lies a set of related concerns on the legitimacy of having a child. The fact that a child might have a defect does not support the argument that terminating the pregnancy is for the benefit of that child, unless the pain and suffering is so severe the child itself would have exchanged all opportunities for love, laughter, and wonder for the absence of pain. Life is a gift, and nothing that a mother has no obligation to give. The burden of a deformed fetus also gives the mother justification to withhold the gift of life from a defective fetus in order to give it to a non-defective fetus. Yet, people generally have good reason to condemn the desire to have boys over girls (or to value males over females).


Anonymous said...

Um...the immediate objection that springs to mind at the end of your post is: if choosing a male over a female fetus reflect a bad desire, why does choosing a non-handicapped over a handicapped fetus not reflect a bad desire? Aren't there reasons to condemn a society that values non-handicapped over handicapped people, just like a society that values women over men?

One argument is that aborting a handicapped fetus could, on balance, reflect the neutral desire you mentioned earlier (the mother's desire to avoid the additional burden of raising a handicapped child), not necessarily the undervaluing of handicapped people.

Still, it seems like a point that warrants further exploration.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The types of defects that I had in mind as I wrote this post are extreme, causing life-long suffering and a very heavy financial burden. This very real and excessive costs are a real-world difference between 'handicapped' (in the sense that I was talking about), versus 'gender'. If a handicap were as trivial as a gender difference, then your objection would stand. There is something obnoxious in giving weight to a minor difference.