Should People Have a Right to Have Children?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Many of my blog posts make some pretense of having something to do with a current event or news item. But sometimes I find myself thinking about larger issues of general principle that do not easily map onto any of the day’s controversies. This is that sort of post. I’ve recently found myself thinking about whether or not human beings should have an inalienable right to have children. It seems to me that we commonly assume that people do or should have this right, but it is not at all obvious to me that this is really the case. Here’s why.

Firstly, I want to make it clear that this is a normative discussion about what rights people should have, not a descriptive discussion of what rights they actually possess in various countries. Extant legal cases are not relevant to this discussion. With that out of the way, we can proceed.

Contrary to what Rand Paul would have us believe, parents do not own their children. We do not permit parents to neglect or abuse their children because we acknowledge one or both of the following:

  1. Children are individual citizens in their own right with legitimate interests that the state is obliged to defend.
  2. Children will one day become adults and the quality of their environment plays a substantive role in whether they become pro-social or anti-social people, with profound effects on the rest of society.

In other words, we protect children from abusive parents for their sake and/or for ours. The implication of this is that when parents make decisions regarding their children, the interests of those children and/or the interests of society are not merely an optional consideration–parents are legally required to consider those interests on some level.

If parents are required to consider outside interests when raising their children, should they not also be required to consider those same outside interests when creating their children? The answer to this question depends on which outside interests we are considering–those of the child or those of society.

If we’re talking about the interests of the child, it is difficult to speak of the interests of a particular child prior to that child’s creation because of the non-identity problem. Beings that do not exist by definition cannot experience benefits or harms, so babies cannot be benefited or harmed by coming or not coming into existence. Additionally, a child conceived by the same couple at one time is not the same child as that conceived by the couple at a different time or in a different manner, so we cannot speak of benefiting or harming the child by changing the time at which the child is created. E.g. a pregnant teenager cannot benefit her baby by aborting it and choosing to have a baby 10 years later when she is financially better established–doing this replaces one individual with another. The benefits of abortion can only be hers or society’s, not the baby’s.

For these reasons, we generally do not mandate that people have children or prohibit them from doing so based on the interests of the individual child under consideration. There is some disagreement about cases in which we have reason to believe that the child’s life would be intensely miserable or otherwise not worth living (e.g. when birth defects are detected before birth). But in most modern societies, there is no mandate that parents abort or kill such babies. Mandates of this kind have existed historically (e.g. Sparta), but they were not typically justified by appeal to the interests of the baby but to the interests of society.

What about social interests? While we cannot say that it is good for the child if the parents choose not to have children or to have them under different circumstances, we can certainly say that it might be better or worse for society. There are a variety of circumstances under which having children is an irreducibly social act:

  1. Underpopulation–society needs more citizens to maintain or enhance the standard of living (e.g. contemporary Russia).
  2. Overpopulation–additional citizens offer diminishing returns, dividing limited resources further and lowering living standards (e.g. Thomas Malthus).
  3. Environmental unsuitability–the parents and/or the state do not have the resources required to ensure that the child enjoys the kind of upbringing that is conducive to a pro-social life (e.g. abusive families).
  4. Genetic unsuitability–the child has defects that make it impossible for the child to live a pro-social life (e.g. infantile Tay-Sachs disease).

We widely recognize the principle that the right to swing one’s fist ends at another person’s face. Similarly, we ought to recognize that the right to make babies ends when doing so has serious negative social implications. Parents cannot protect society from bearing whatever costs their children impose indefinitely. Inevitably, the parents age or die and the state is left to deal with an adult who may be anti-social or otherwise incapable of sustainably contributing to our society, of coexisting with others in a non-exploitative way.

Think of it this way–we do not allow individual citizens in our society to unilaterally decide when to allow individual immigrants into our countries. Instead, we have collective immigration policies whereby we decide which immigrants to allow in and which to deny entry. It is a crime for an individual to escort immigrants into a country illegally, without the permission of the relevant immigration authority. This is because we recognize that immigrants are a matter of social concern–we want our immigrants to be pro-social people who will contribute positively to our society. It does not matter if the individual in question offers to keep the immigrants in his house for 18 years before letting them go–we know that eventually, the immigrants will be either a collective asset or a collective detriment to our society, and we rightly feel that society as a whole is entitled to a say.

It is no more reasonable for a couple to have children without consulting the rest of us than it is for that same couple to smuggle in an immigrant without doing the same. When immigrants and infants are likely to benefit our society, we should allow them to join and to become citizens, but when they are not likely to do so, we should deny them entry. The fact that the entry is from the womb rather than from across the border is a distinction without a difference.

All of this is predicated on an understanding of what it means to gain citizenship. With immigrants, we recognize that they gain citizenship because our society believes they are ready and willing to be productive, pro-social members of society. We require this of them because citizenship is a two-way street. We have obligations to our fellow citizens–we have to make sure they have fair access to opportunities, protect their liberty, ensure their security, and take collective responsibility when we neglect or abuse them and turn them into anti-social malcontents. In sum, citizenship is a reciprocal relationship between the citizen and society as a whole. The citizen contributes and in exchange we show concern for the interests of that citizen. It’s all very intuitive, when we’re talking about immigrants.

But for some reason, when we talk about infants, this is forgotten. Babies are just immigrants for whom a couple of our citizens happen to already have strong affection. It is still socially irresponsible for societies to automatically grant citizenship to babies without assessing whether or not those babies are likely to one day reciprocate the benefits of citizenship. We fear policies of this kind because we fear that we ourselves could potentially be denied the opportunity to have children. We make excuses, alleging that society’s standards would somehow inevitably be draconian or fascist, but many of those same people do not think that their country’s immigration laws are draconian or fascist. When we do decide that we don’t like our immigration laws, we change them. Is it so absurd to think of having children in the same social terms?