Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Is having children a choice? (paca)

I was recently an observer to a discussion of whether or not having children is a choice. I think the entire discussion was among people who have no children - and then there was me. It revolved around several issues, including Family Parking Only signs, adoption, the good of children to society, overpopulation, and the like. I won't tackle those issues directly here, but I thought I would discuss this idea of whether or not child bearing is a free choice or not.

In one sense, it clearly is. It's certainly possible to not have children and live a happy and fulfilling life. It's not quite as easy as it seems, but it is certainly possible. One could never have sex again. But if the stats on rape are true, then 1 in 3 women will have sex against their will (or is that the stat for sexual abuse, which may not be complete rape?). Some percentage of those will have children. But one could allow for multiple forms of birth control and abortion procedures. Every man could have a vasectomy and every woman get her tubes tied at the age of 13. Seriously though, even without all that, you could use abstinence and birth control and have some very small number of births.

In theory.

The problem is that child-bearing isn't the same sort of choice as, say, orange juice or apple juice. Virtually everything is a choice of some sort, but they aren't all the same. Here is an example of choices from the most constrained choice to a very free one.

1) Breathing. It's pretty much impossible not to breathe. Even if you are able to make yourself not breathe with immense will, you will eventually go unconscious and start breathing. The only way to not breathe is to kill yourself. Living is still a choice, as we don't have to live, but it's obviously a very contrained choice.

2) Eating. The consequences of not eating are the same as not breathing, but there is more freedom here. People choose to fast quite frequently. Some people can go months without eating before they die. Eating is a choice with a little more freedom than breathing, but it's still pretty constrained.

3) Falling in love. Many people probably never fall in love, I think, and they might be quite happy for it. And one can certainly choose not to act on the emotion. One can choose to take oneself away from the person inciting the emotion. One can even, probably, let the emotion go - I am thinking of monks here, where the form of love they feel is usually different than romantic love. But still there is a reason that the metaphor is "falling in love". Falling is not something you choose to do, by definition. If you chose to fall on the floor, you didn't fall, you collapsed or you laid down.

4) Making friends. Again there are people who live happy lives without friends, but by and large people like to have friends. Humans are social animals and most people who have no friends feel the worse for it. It is the exception rather than the rule for a human to spend large amounts of time with a number of people and never have friendly feelings for anyone.

5) Having sex. I think now we are getting to the important part, and not just because of the tie to child-bearing. Having sex is clearly an option. We don't have to have sex with anyone in our entire lives (obviously excluding rape here). We can wait to a certain age. We can wait until marriage. Sex is a choice. The idea of teaching abstinence in school is based on this notion of sex as a choice. But, my understanding is that the abstinence programs don't really work. I believe the studies indicate that abstinence programs lessen sexual activity for several months, after which the behavior returns right back to where it was before. Why? Because, while having sex is a choice, it is also a basic activity that humans do. Any social program based around the idea that people just won't have sex is doomed, because people in fact do have sex. It's interesting that many people who accept this fact and therefore fight for birth control for adolescents simultaneously think that child-bearing is a completely free choice - often because they are choosing to put it off themselves.

6) Working at a job. This is something that we can usually choose - the type of job, whether or not we want to do it at all, etc. Though, there are pressures that often don't make the choice that free. Paying bills, supporting loved ones, fulfilling a promise, legal obligations. There is certainly nothing that makes me sit at this desk - it's not a basic activity of life like sex, friendship, and breathing - but there are reasons that incline me to sit here.

7) Drinking a Pepsi. Some people don't like them at all. While there can be a caffeine addiction, this is a largely free choice.

That's good enough, I think. The point is that child-bearing, yes, is a choice, but I think it is a choice more like having sex or having friends than like working at a job or drinking a soda. Bearing children is what people do. It's what all animals do. It's what every living creature does. If you believe evolutionary psychology (and I don't really), bearing children is the purpose to life. People are going to have sex and they are going to have children. Simply saying that it is a choice, even though it is in a sense, is never going to be a productive belief. People will have children whether or not it is good for society or not. Most people will have children whether or not it is even good for them. People have kids.


Christopher Robin said...

It's certainly clear that people will have kids, we're at 6 billion and counting. However it is interesting to look at the population growth and birth rates around the world. Those places with easy access to birth control have the lowest rates.

This would suggest to me that at our stage of evolution we may in fact be able to make reproduction more of a choice. It would seem that without the choice of birth control the sexual desires will dominate, with the obvious results. However with birth control those who are willing to make the choice (and given the risks of child birth this may be self preservation) may chose not to reproduce. Whether this is triggered by population numbers/density, a genetic mutation, or some other factor I cannot say. But I truly feel that there are individuals who are driven not to reproduce (yet still enjoy sex).

However there also seem to be those individuals who are driven to reproduce. And I thank them for it, I'll need some kid to mow my lawn when I'm old and grey. I just wonder if we will over populate faster than we can adapt, like r type strategists from selection theory.

katze said...

I disagree with you for this reason:

Getting pregnant does not mean you have to bear or raise a child.

Even if you carry a child to term, it is a feasible option to give the child up for adoption or to abandon the child. For this reason alone, I think the choice to "have a child" (which I understand to mean "become a parent) falls far closer to the choice to "have a job" than the choice to "have sex". It may be a biological instinct for some people to procreate, but the choice to have and raise a child is a different one altogether, and is utterly separate from the choice to have sex (thus creating the child).

Do you think that the flipside falls into the same choice level or category? That is, is the choice to NOT have a child closer to the choice to "have a pepsi" in your opinion? In some ways, you have to make a far more determined stand if you want to not have a child, at least in my experience thus far-- though, for the record, I have not made the choice to NOT have a child (in fact, I'd like to have children in a few years, once I get my feet under me just a little financially and stabilize a bit in my career), but I *have* made the choice not to have children YET, and "yet" has turned out to mean "a long time after all of my peers started their families". So I've gotten a lot of flack for this choice, and I freely admit that this probably influences my view on this.

pacatrue said...

Lots of issues, huh? I think it is worth noting that of the two people who responded Chris has stated several times on his blog that he does not want to have children himself (and I think has gotten flack for it, right?) and Katze who says in her comment that her family is always getting on her for waiting to have children. I have read a lot of similar comments from others who also feel societal pressure to have kids, as if there is something wrong for them for not.

So, for the record, I am most definitely not arguing that it is somehow so natural to have kids that anyone who doesn't want them or even waits to have them is leading a lesser life. I am not one of those folks. I should add that, while I have one child already, N and I are purposefully waiting right now to have another. We are choosing against it. Moreover, we can certainly add in all the evidence that several societies are current choosing to have less children, such that Russia, Japan, and I believe some of Western Europe (and actually there was some U.S. commentator recently saying that white Americans needed to have more babies, for which he got in trouble) are moving into population declines. I have yet to see any convincing reason why a declining population is a bad thing in the long term.

So, all that said, as both Chris and Katze noted, I do think there remains a huge drive among humans to reproduce. It happens to be really great that the way we reproduce involves an activity which is fun enough that we'd do it anyway. But there are drives for both things - to have sex and to have children. I believe that if people conceived children by slapping each other upside the head really hard, there would be millions of couples slapping each other. Probably not quite as frequently as they have sex, but they'd still go for it, because they want children. That itself is the goal.

And I guess that's supposed to be my point. Many people, for love or biology or whatever, appear to want to have children, and we cannot deny that. This desire is so strong in them that it isn't the same kind of choice as a pepsi, or even what kind of job they do.

For the record, I was not one of those people with huge desires to have my own child. N did and I was cool with it, and I love my son very much, but I wasn't ever dreaming about having kids really. Bizarrely, the idea of adoption has always had tremendous appeal because I like children and like the idea of helping a child who needs someone. When I think about having more children now, and I do, I don't have any strong opinion on whether or not the child is biological or not, which seems to make me different from many others. In fact, there were enough complications from the last time that while we still can have children just fine, the idea scares me a little.

-E said...

hmm, well, here's my 2 cents.

i did want children, in that biologically frenzied way we call "the baby place" at work, for like 3 years before we even had a baby. now i feel much more mellow about baby2 who i expect we will start working on in the next year (TMI?)

and while i see what paca is getting at i am not sure if you should even seperate the choice for sex and choice for children because there are only 3 forms of 100% birth control and most people do not use them. for me the two choices are inseperably linked. and while today you can certainly attempt any combination of the two choices, i think this seperation solved some problems and created new ones that we aren't not dealing with very well.

and my final thought is that this world would probably be a better place if every child was wanted and loved whether they were chosen or not.

-E said...

d'oh! that double negative was unintended.

John said...

I believe that it is the case that Americans as a whole are reproducing below replacement rate, and that immigration is the only thing keeping our population from decreasing. I'm not sure if that's good or bad.

The reason that sex is a lot of fun, and that very few people avoid sex, is that millions of years of selective pressure has ensured that reproductive behavior is extremely pleasurable. It's a good thing, too, given the poor quality of human spermatozooa and embryos. The point is, the two can't be disentangled, although we now have the means to engage in sex while dramatically reducing the risk of pregnancy.

I tried to avoid biting, E, but you're being kind of pedantic. It is correct that there is no sure-fire way to avoid all risk of pregnancy ("100% birth control") when two fertile people engange in heterosexual sex. But that doesn't really matter to most people -- see the above bit on evolution. There are a number of barrier and hormonal contraceptives cheaply (or freely) availabe to Americans, however, that provide quite good protection, particularly when used in combination with one another. Kristy can provide some details on defense--in-depth to interested parties. So, I have to counter your assertion that you can't uncouple the desire for children and the desire for sex. I think that you're making a point, intentionally or not, that if you choose to have sex you're choosing to accept a certain risk of children. That's a somewhat different point.

I think that lots of people want sex and don't want children. I'm not sure that it's instructive to discuss this issue independently of age/stage-of-life. People change. Anecdotally, lots of many people sincerely don't want children, but change their mind as they age. But I do believe that it's a choice.

-E said...

actually that was the point i was trying to make, "that if you choose to have sex you're choosing to accept a certain risk of children." people who think they can "have their cake and eat it too" are frequently sucessful at avoiding pregnancy. but i know a woman who got pregnant after a tubal ligation... and there are lots more people who get pregnant when they thought they "couldn't".

kristybox said...

For those who are waiting:

Alanbox and I were married for nine years before we even decided to start trying. It was worth the wait. We are financially stable to some extent and I was able to work flextime because I've gone so far in my career. Plus, we are more prepared to handle the challenge of raising a baby.

pacatrue said...

And for N and I, we started dating in 1990 and B was conceived in 2002. How many of those years included activities which can produce children is a fact I will keep to N and myself.

Despite this, I still say that child-bearing is more like having friends and having sex than rock-climbing or drinking Zima. All four things are under a measure of your control, but people are going to have children, make friends, and have sex whether it is good for anyone or not.

-E said...

amen paca