The Right to Keep and Bear Children


In 1968, an ecologist named Garrett Hardin wrote an article for Science magazine titled “The Tragedy of the Commons.” A utilitarian and Malthusian, Hardin argued that the modern welfare state made it possible for people to gain the advantages of large families while socializing their costs. Therefore, the solution to overpopulation must be based in part on “relinquishing the freedom to breed.”

Peter Singer

Forty-five years later, Peter Singer — also a utilitarian and Malthusian — essentially repeated the “tragedy of the commons” argument at the Women Deliver Conference in Kuala Lumpur. Ironically, given his hero status among progressives and the venue at which he was speaking, Singer began to speak of “reproductive rights” as though they would very soon be a thing of the past and that the nations would soon need to force contraception and abortion upon the unwilling.

It’s possible of course, that we give women reproductive choices, that we meet the unmet need for contraception but that we find that the number of children that women choose to have is still such that population continues to rise in a way that causes environmental problems. … [We] need to consider whether we can talk about trying to reduce population growth and whether that’s compatible with the very reasonable concerns people have about women’s right to control their life decisions and their reproduction.

If it weren’t for his invocation of climate change, Singer’s faith in the population bomb would make him look like the last man on earth still concerned about the Y2K demon. In fact, to certain of the attendees, Singer appeared to embody the old colonial fear of brown people. Said Kavita Ramdas of the Ford Foundation in New Delhi, “We have been there before. … We have seen forced sterilizations. We have seen the fears that the West has of brown people overrunning the world. We are tired of being slaves to colonial masters.”

The Right to Bear Children

But this brings up a very interesting question, and “Franklin” did indeed bring it up in the combox of Luke Foster’s post in First Things:

Perhaps I will be permitted to raise the question of what would be meant by an “absolute right” to bear children. Did [Nadya Suleman], for example, have an “absolute right” to have octuplets through IVF? Does the Catholic Church consider it anybody’s right to have children through assisted reproductive technology? If a woman appears to be infertile, does she have an absolute right to fertility treatments to be paid for by the community (government, etc.)? Does an unmarried woman have an absolute right to bear children, even if she chooses not to marry?

Absolute rights are … well … absolute. Suppose just for the sake of argument that we manage to establish a colony on Mars and then lose the means to resupply it. There is only enough food and oxygen to support the original colonists. [Why would we establish a colony on Mars if we couldn’t make it self-sufficient? Utilitarians have a weakness for doomsday theoreticals whose premises don’t bear much scrutiny.] Do the women have an absolute right to bear children, even if it means the demise of the colony? This seems to me to be a similar situation to what Peter Singer is talking about.

To many people, this would seem to be a nonsensical question because we have a tendency to think of rights as absolute by definition; a contingent right seems to be as oxymoronic a concept as is “dry water” or “ethical journalism.” As hard as the Catholic Church has fought against contraception and abortion upon request, you would think we would hold it a woman’s right to have children, right?

Not quite. We hold that, having been brought to life, the child has a right to be born. But to speak of a “right to have children” is not so much false as it is inappropriate:

A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The “supreme gift of marriage” is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged “right to a child” would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,” and “the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2378, cf. Donum Vitae II:8; bold type mine)

The Dignity of Humans

The Church’s position proceeds from the assertion that humans have an innate, inherent dignity: we are all equally children of God, and no person is of greater or lesser value than another. (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 144) The first corollary to that postulate is that human life is of equal dignity, and may be taken only under the direst circumstances; the second corollary is that the human body is of equal dignity, and should never be violated or harmed. The same doctrine which denies abortion as a woman’s choice also denies it as an instrument of State policy.

However, the same essential human dignity which forbids the State to impose abortion, contraception and sterilization upon the unwilling also forbids us to speak of children as commodities to which adults are entitled. Indeed, the rearing of children isn’t a “right” but a responsibility that demands some self-sacrifice and self-denial. I discuss at greater length how IVF, surrogate parenthood and artificial insemination violate human dignity here and here; suffice it to say that the love of children doesn’t make all manners of creating children licit.

The Church and Utilitarianism

On the surface, it would appear the Church and utilitarianism come to the same position: no absolute right to breed. But because they proceed from different assumptions, they lead to different practical conclusions. The Church asserts the fundamental dignity of the child, and therefore willingly baptizes the children of IVF and artificial insemination. Utilitarianism denies the fundamental dignity of the human person, and therefore supports China’s methods of enforcing its one-child policy, including forced abortions and sterilizations.

Ironically, Singer was preaching his “greater good” doctrine at a conference where fear of the population bomb was notably absent. Hans Rosling of the Karolinska Institute “conceded that fears of a population ‘explosion’ are grossly exaggerated and the world’s population will likely peak at about 9 billion, and then start to fall;” this peak is expected to hit sometime mid-century. Babtunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, noted that some regions of the world have “more 65-year-olds than 5-year-olds and those countries have issues with how they are going to remain competitive.”

The commons disappeared through privatization, not overgrazing. If there is an ecological disaster waiting to happen, its causes are far more complex than simple population load, and won’t be staved off by imposing a worldwide one-child policy (and, most likely, it’s already too late for that). Hardin’s “tragedy of the commons” has served some use, but is now a reminder of how a memorable mental image can hijack debate for decades.

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1 thought on “The Right to Keep and Bear Children”

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