This piece begins a bi-weekly column devoted to reproductive issues.
By Naomi Scheinerman
Those thinking of having children or who find themselves accidentally pregnant ask many important questions: Am I ready to be a parent? Am I financially able to support myself and a child? Do I have the time and energy? Though these questions are undoubtedly crucial, they are incomplete. One should also ask: would the child want its life?
The politics of childbirth in the United States are replete with problems: states passing draconian anti-abortion legislation, a hospital keeping a brain-dead pregnant woman on a ventilator because of her nonviable fetus, employers denying paid maternal or parental leave, and religious groups denying their employees the freedom to choose contraception. Our system is also hypocritical: we stigmatize teen or single mother pregnancy while fighting contraceptive access; we fight expanding needed health care to poor and impoverished children while mistreating obese pregnant women; and we harass abortion clinics while pushing for abstinence-only education in schools.
When deciding whether to conceive, it is crucial to ask whether the fetus’s future life is optimal, rather than whether our life is optimal with a child in it. This does not mean that we are obligated to have a child when we can provide an optimal life, nor does it mean that we must define optimal according to one rigid standard. Rather, it means that we should reformulate “Are we ready to have a child?” as “Is the child going to be happy with this life?” I do not posit that either a woman’s right to reproduce or her interests and welfare should ever be compromised because of our concern for the fetus. Indeed, we too often disproportionately value the welfare of the fetus over the mother, resulting at times in tragic death. Though a fetus deserves our respect and women do have certain obligations to maintain a reasonable level of health for the fetus’s welfare, fetuses do not carry nearly the same moral standing as the mothers. Further, there is a connection between the above questions: if a woman, or man, is neither emotionally nor financially ready to have a child, then that child most likely will not want the life offered at that point in time.
There are certain philosophical objections one could raise with my position. First, the classic nonidentity problem: it is wrong to say that being born in a diminished state of existence has harmed a child because the child could not have existed otherwise, For example, a woman who gives birth to a child she knows has a debilitating genetic disorder has not harmed the child because that unique child could not have lived any other way. The problem with the nonidentity objection is that it assumes it is always good to create life, no matter what quality that life has. Further, it does not make sense to talk about eggs, sperm, embryos, and early stage fetuses as though they have consciousness and autonomous rights over their future selves.
A second possible objection is that precisely because the fetus does not have autonomous rights over its future self, we cannot project its preferences regarding life into the future. I agree with this statement, however it does not do enough to dispute my claim. I am arguing for reframing procreative decision-making to place the child as the most important recipient of its life, rather than the parents. This is not because the fetus has a right to that life, but rather because the child who is born has a right to the best life possible.
Many posit that having a child is a selfish act. However, this does not concern me: if it is selfish and the child is happy, what’s the problem? And if it’s not selfish, and the child is happy, again what’s the problem? There are many decisions prospective parents or parents thinking of having another child must consider. Reframing the question in terms of the perspective of the newborn child and the development of that individual would yield a far more desirous outcome for all involved.
Naomi Scheinerman is a Research Assistant at The Hastings Center. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa, with high honors and in distinction from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she received bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, political science, and Hebrew and Jewish Cultural Studies.