By Fr Joseph Tham, LC
As the month May rolls by, the smell of spring is in the air, and it is a month that motherhood is celebrated all over the word. For Catholics, it is also the month we celebrate the maternal closeness of Mary. It is therefore a strange contrast with some recent comments that surfaced about the irrationality of having children.
Several bioethicists and writers have recently written about how bringing children into the world is not only irrational, but immoral. The reason being, human existence is often painful and full of suffering, and we should avoid bringing more suffering into this world. They wrote:
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… it is morally wrong to cause avoidable suffering to other people…
Most of these writers arrive at this conclusion from a utilitarian perspective. That is, by calculating the possible outcomes of existence, it seems that there is more net negativity than positivity in bringing humans into this world. This might sound cold and nasty, but that is the “logical” and “rational” conclusions of Christine Overall, David Benatar, and none other than Peter Singer. Singer wrote a famous blog on New York Times a couple of years ago wondering “Should This Be the Last Generation.”
According to him, since humanity is causing so much damage to the environment, to the animals and to one another, it might be a good idea to just end this misery:
So why don’t we make ourselves the last generation on earth? If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction! … we could still defend it, because it makes us better off — for one thing, we can get rid of all that guilt about what we are doing to future generations — and it doesn’t make anyone worse off, because there won’t be anyone else to be worse off.
In a similar vein, Overall wrote:
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. 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.
Why should be bring more children into the world? The question is a constant sting for the modern world. Overall believes that the reasons people give are mostly selfish—to perpetuate their family line, to be taken care of when they get old, to be less lonely—but in doing so, they regard a child as a means to bring them happiness, which is immoral.
Perhaps, there is some truth to this. With the advance of medical technology, children are easily seen as commodities—to be avoided by contraception and abortion when it is inconvenient, to be manufactured with artificial reproductive techniques when there is infertility, and to be perfected by sex-selection or preimplantational genetic diagnosis (PGD) when so desired.
The inability of society to come up with a satisfactory answer to why it’s good to have children, and the rising phenomenon of DINK (Dual Income, No Kids) couples, only show that there is a deep pessimism and malaise about our condition.
How should Christians respond to the question “Why have kids?” Unfortunately, the response of modern day Christians may not be very different from the rest, as evidenced by their practices and attitudes toward procreation?
One of my favorite writers, Protestant theologian Stanley Hauerwas, gave the best answer in Resident Aliens. He said that Christians have children in order to be able to tell them stories. Children love stories. This affirms that life is a gift from God. Life is a story-like adventure, without certainties that all will go well as parents hope. Not everything will go as planned. There will be trials, setbacks, illnesses, but there will also be moments of joy and satisfaction. Life is a story, an adventure story where the ending is always good, because of our personal stories become a part of God’s story of salvation. That is the meaning of Christian hope.
Recently, at the Pope’s Homily at Birthday Mass, Benedict XVI gave a similar answer to why he is thankful for his existence in spite of uncertainties:
[I]t is not taken for granted that man’s life is in itself a gift. Can it really be a beautiful gift? Do we know what is incumbent on man in the dark times he is facing – also in those more luminous ones that might come? Can we foresee to what anxieties, to what terrible events he might be exposed? Is it right to give life thus, simply? Is it responsible or is it too uncertain? It is a problematic gift if it remains independent. Biological life of itself is a gift, and yet it is surrounded by a great question. It becomes a real gift only if, together with it, one can make a promise that is stronger than any misfortune that can threaten one, if it is immersed in a force that guarantees that it is good to be man, that for this person it is a good no matter what the future might bring. Thus, associated to birth is rebirth, the certainty that, in truth, it is good for us to be, because the promise is stronger than the threats.
Let us, therefore, rejoice at the beauty of the gift of life that our mothers gave us, and the supernatural life of faith that promises “his light is stronger than any darkness; that God’s goodness is stronger than any evil.”
Editor’s note: After reading a related article shared by Susan Wills in her comment below, I had to add it to the end of this post. This is a must read. An answer to the question: Why We have Children, by Timothy Dalrymple
You might also be interested in reading:
- The ethics of infanticide: Why should the baby die? by Fr Joseph Tham, LC, MD, PhD
Wonderful post, Father Joseph. My favorite answer to that question–for its poetry and poignancy–is posted here: http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Why-We-Have-Children-Timothy-Dalrymple-01-26-2011.html.
That was amazingly cathartic, Susan. Everyone has to read it. Thanks for sharing it here.