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Why Have Children?: The Ethical Debate (Basic Bioethics) Hardcover – February 3, 2012
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Christine Overall offers a careful investigation into the moral issues surrounding the choice to have a child, demonstrating in the process how wide-ranging those issues really are. She never forgets that it is women who gestate and deliver babies -- not machines, not society, and not gender-unspecified reproducers. This book is a useful read not only for people considering parenthood, but for parents who want to think harder about their choices.(Hilde Lindemann, Professor of Philosophy, Michigan State University)
Why Have Children? asks a question of central importance to most human lives. This topic has received little philosophical attention but clearly deserves it. Overall's book, with its clear-headed analysis, consideration of a wide range of factors, and thought-provoking proposals will shape the debate for years to come.(Amy Mullin, Professor, Department of Philosophy, University of Toronto)
Christine Overall has taken a topic that had been under-analyzed and produced a book of such exceptional thoroughness and breadth that it is hard to imagine anyone surpassing her for some time to come.(Dena S. Davis, Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Cleveland State University)
Christine Overall's latest book includes everything we've come to expect from her: relentless pursuit of the argument, crystalline prose, and a persistent drive to engage with the toughest and most important questions. At the heart of this conceptually sophisticated and factually rigorous book is a seemingly simple point: babies are borne by women. If you think that, by now, any philosopher writing about reproduction or population ethics would be keenly aware of this fact and its implications, you really need to read Why Have Children?(James L. Nelson, Professor of Philosophy, Michigan State University)
Cogently argued and exhaustively researched, Overall's newest will be of particular interest to thoughtful adults engaged in this debate, as well as students and professionals in philosophy and sociology.(Publishers Weekly)
…Overall is clearly invested in making her work accessible to a range of readers. Given the current national conversation about reproductive rights, I wish work like Overall's was not only accessible, but required reading.(Tammy Oler Bitch)
About the Author
Christine Overall is Professor of Philosophy and University Research Chair in the Department of Philosophy at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. She is the author of Aging, Death, and Human Longevity: A Philosophical Inquiry and other books.
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That said, it appears as though Overall selectively ignores or willfully misinterprets counter arguments to her claims, namely those of Benatar's "better to never have been" philosophy. What's more, the author then attempts to knock down these now incomplete arguments or misinterpretations ad nauseum. This 'dance' grows tiresome and frustrating. Added to this, she has a troubling habit of making claims and assumptions about other theories and thinkers that are flat-out unsubstantiated.
It pains me to only be able to give a book about a topic so important and under-discussed 2 stars but I expected its handling to be done so with a little more objectivity and care.
The title sounds ominous, as though the book will be vastly critical of children or of people who have children. It isn't, though. Instead, Overall looks at what it means, morally, to have a child in present-day North America in clear, easy to read, and even warm language that shows a great deal of respect for children and for parents and that comes to no damning conclusions (except against deliberately-created extremely large families).
Mostly, Overall examines philosophical arguments that have been put forward both for and against having children and takes them down from the high-flown theoretical, in which no realistic human beings seem to be involved, to reality, where women must have or not have the children philosophers debate over. She looks at what these arguments, both pro- and anti-procreation, mean for women, their status, and their control over their own bodies. Many of the models fall apart when moved into the real world, where it's shown they imagine realities that could only exist if women were used as breeding machines or people were forced to be sterilized or use lifelong birth control. She also shows that many of the models seem to assume that people have a "prelife" existence that existing humans are either obligated to save them from (by procreating) or let them remain in (by not procreating)--and how strange and flimsy this assumption is, that children preexist their own existence.
She focuses on trying to find ways to judge the ethics involved in choosing to have children that abandon trying to value the (not comparable) states of existing and not existing, but instead look at what the choice to have children means for those who do exist and will exist--i.e., for everyone already alive and for the child who will exist if parents choose to procreate. I like that. It's easy, as a human being, to get caught up in "alternative universes"--what could be, what might be, what isn't but maybe should be, etc.--and hard to look at what is, right now, and what is right to do right now (even if what is right is hard).
In the end, she comes to no sweeping conclusions. The decision to have children can be either good or bad, depending on the individual circumstances. She concludes that it is much easier to ethically justify not having children than to justify having them, and that, given modern population, North American parents have a moral (though not legal or social) responsibility to have not more than one child per person. She also concludes that the decision to go ahead and have children is essentially *non*rational, not irrational--that is, considerations go into it that cannot be explained by reason but that are still sound.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who's driving themselves up a tree wondering about the big abstract questions about having children--will I fail my personhood by not having children? Will I fail my genetic lineage? Will I be helping overpopulate the planet if I have kids? Or will I be helping contribute to an aging population with no workers if I don't? Is it okay if I have children even if my genes are less than perfect? Am I too old to parent? Etc., etc., etc. It may help ground your thoughts a little.
I agree with Dr. Overall's overall point that the decision to have kids requires more justification than the decision not to. In fact, I think she doesn't go far enough in cautioning people about the choice to reproduce. She brings up David Benatar's work (Better Never to Have Been), but completely misunderstands (and misconstrues) most of his well thought-out arguments. For example, she claims that even bad lives are better than no lives all, which Benatar (and most lay persons) refute almost instantly.
Dr. Overall claims that having children is a serious ethical issue, but then she throws it all out the door at the end: When someone asks her if they should have kids, she responds with "Don't miss it!" What the heck? You write a whole book discussing the ethical implications of reproduction and then say "oh well, go for it."