Canadian bioethicist asks, why have children?


Is it good to have children? Most people would think so, but there is a range of views amongst utilitarian bioethicists. Rebecca Bennett, from the University of Manchester, believes that having children is just another irrational experience like taking recreational drugs or dancing. “In most cases we choose to bring to birth children on the basis of unquantifiable and unpredictable ideas of what they will bring to our lives,” she says.

Matti Häyry, a well-known Finnish bioethicist working in the UK, believes that it is both irrational and immoral because the child might encounter suffering in the course of its life, and “it is morally wrong to cause avoidable suffering to other people”.

The latest contribution to this debate comes from a Canadian feminist philosopher, Christine Overall. She published a book in February which is currently making a splash in bioethics circles, “Why Have Children?” Dr Overall is delighted to have two children of her own. But she believes that the reasons most people have them are mistaken.

First of all, most people believe that existence is good for a child. Not necessarily true. It is impossible to measure the merits of existence versus non-existence. Furthermore, if the existence of one child is good, two must be better, and three even better. Where would you know when to stop?

Another class of reasons are essentially selfish. Some people want to perpetuate their family name. Others want someone to care for them and comfort them in their old age. Many people feel that parenthood will bring them happiness. But all these reasons are wrong-headed, Overall says. A child cannot be regarded an instrument for someone else’s happiness. That is clearly immoral.

Overall’s point is not so much that we should stop having children as that we should reflect upon it very, very carefully. Having children should not be something that just happens in a moment of romantic exuberance. Now that men and women have control of their fertility it must be a conscious choice. 

But what if everyone decided not to procreate?

Overall is consistent – she can’t see much wrong with that. "I have not found adequate reasons to show that the extinction of the human species -- provided it is voluntary -- would inevitably be a bad thing,” she writes. “We matter to ourselves, of course, but it is in no way evident that humanity matters to anyone else. If we were to disappear, members of other species would soon forget us and get along without us."




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