Why Have Children?
The Ethical Debate
The MIT Press, $27.95, 272 pp.
St. Augustine famously said that he understood what time was until someone asked him: “What is time?” Then he was baffled. The question “Why have children?”—the title of a new book by Queen’s University Philosopher Christine Overall—works similarly. Most of us presume we know why until asked, and then we may find ourselves at a loss for a good answer. Well, this is a culture that puts everything up for grabs, and what seems self-evident one day is called into question the next. That is not necessarily bad. It is the philosopher’s job, after all, to remind us, as Socrates would, that the unexamined life is not worth living.
It is to Christine Overall’s credit that, amidst a plethora of new books on childbearing and childrearing, she asks the fundamental question of why one would choose to have children in the first place. Her analysis operates within today’s reigning ethical framework of autonomy, individual rights, duties and obligations, benefits and harms. She applies that orientation to the current debates on why or why not to have children and how many to have. (Disclosure: My wife and I had five children...way too many by Overall’s standards!) Her positions fall squarely in the secular, liberal tradition—prochoice, pro-IVF (cautiously), feminist, and environmentally conscious—yet she retains an even-handed and commonsensical approach throughout, presenting complex arguments in clear and readable prose.