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'Why Have Children?': How to decide, ethically

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(Flickr/aloveletteraway) A  baby massage class for young mothers in the Netherlands

Recently, I read an advice column on the popular women’s issues website The Hairpin called “Ask a Married Dude.” The posts regularly get hundreds of comments (this one has almost 500), and is one of many popular columns on the site, including “Ask a Queer Chick” and “Ask a Bowl of Hummus.”

In the most recent installation, a woman writes in to ask about having kids.”When did you and your spouse feel ready to have a baby?” she asks. “Did you have a steady job? Did you feel like a grown up? How did you know you could take care of a human for at least two decades?”

Well, according to A Married Dude, having a baby is really no big deal. “Sometimes you just never really know,” the advice-giver writes, warning, however, that “[h]angovers are much more painful once you have a baby.” Your life changes forever once you have a baby, but not in a dramatic way. “Basically, it's like having a pet. So, yeah, the best way to prepare for having a kid is to have pets for a while.”

Okay, so, A Married Dude is not claiming to be an expert on parenthood. In fact, he’s pretty upfront about the fact that his only qualification for giving such advice is Being Married. Still, the popularity of the somewhat flippant recurring feature reveals how young people -- or at least, people of a reproductive age -- are approaching their reproductive futures. Their concerns focus around the questions:  How will my life change? Will I be able to go out with friends? Will I miss spontaneous vacations? Can I still get drunk?

Christine Overall, a philosophy professor at Queen’s University, Ontario, says the people who ask those questions are going about it all wrong (and she’s not just referring to those who are preoccupied with that last one). In her new  book, Why Have Children? The Ethical Debate, Overall argues that people should be thinking much less about themselves and much more about society at large when deciding to have kids. On Wednesday, she sits down with Tony Sarabia on Eight Forty-Eight to outline her argument and talk about the book.

Overall concludes that the ratio of one adult to one child makes the most ethical sense. The strongest reason to have a child, she says, is that it creates a unique kind of relationship -- one that lasts for life, and the only kind in which we create the other person. She denounces all other reasons as inadequate. Having a child because you like the idea of someone there to take care of you later in life, someone to bear your name, or as a method of strengthening a relationship, for example, are ethically irresponsible.

A human being’s environmental footprint in the developed world is immense. Yet Overall notes a strange contradiction in contemporary Western culture, one in which the burden of justification falls on those who choose not to have children rather than on those who do. This backward thinking, she argues, needs to be adjusted. Overall’s not saying we should never have children. She’s just asking us to consider the impact a child might have beyond our weekend plans for the next 18 years.

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