by Lynda Goetz
For some while now there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not it is selfish to have children. Effectively, ever since ‘the pill’ made contraception much easier and very much more under the control of women, the question of whether or not to have children has been far more a matter of choice. The birth control pill first became available in 1960* and led to the so-called ‘sexual revolution’ of that decade. Having sex no longer carried with it the high probability of having an unwanted baby, whether within marriage or out of wedlock. Along with the world wars which took place in the 20thC, leading to a need for women’s input in the labour market, the pill has revolutionised the position and role of women in society.
No longer is it necessary for women to look to men for financial support for themselves and their children. We have, for many decades now been in a position to support ourselves and often to support our children. Where this is not possible, the state, particularly in the developed countries, has played an increasing role in offering support, as Yuval Noah Harari points out in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Whereas, historically, women were left literally ‘carrying the baby’, society over the last seventy years or more has been transformed. As religion, particularly in the West, has loosened its grip and the role of the Church has decreased significantly, married women have no longer been expected to have as many children as their natural fertility dictated, particularly in Roman Catholic countries where only certain forms of contraception were deemed acceptable. As women have taken their place in the world of work, having large families has become difficult and undesirable for many, if not most.
According to a BBC article in July 2020, reporting on a survey published in The Lancet, the average number of children per woman was 4.7 in 1950. By 2017 the global fertility rate had dropped to 2.4. The projection is that it will fall below 1.7 by 2100. Since that is lower than the 2.1 needed to replace the existing population, then this suggests that the worldwide human population will start falling. Because we are living longer, this means there will not be the population of working age to support the old who are not working. It was presumably these sorts of statistics which prompted the Pope to make his controversial comments in a general address a few weeks ago to the effect that couples who chose pets over children were selfish. His speech generated a flurry of responses in all media and there was a certain amount of shock that someone as aware of contemporary problems as Pope Francis should make such comments; but they are hardly out of line with the Church’s teachings. Is he right though? Should couples see it as ‘a duty’ to have children so that civilisation does not become “aged and without humanity”, to use the Pope’s words?
At a time when there is massive concern over climate change and environmental issues, the more general consensus is that one should keep family size smaller, so as to lessen the impact on the planet of increased human population growth. Some have gone further and consider that it is less selfish simply to remain childless. In reality, of course, neither of these approaches is right.
Eight years ago, Jill Filopovic wrote an article for the Guardian entitled The choice to be child-free is admirable, not selfish. It is written largely from the viewpoint that “stepping outside the status quo is often brave”, but emphatically from the point of view that freedom of choice is essential. This is surely the key? No-one should feel that having children is an essential step in being an adult nor indeed to provide a future workforce for an aged population. (AI will probably take care of that role). Nor should any couple feel that they must give up the prospect of having children to save the planet. The planet will probably ultimately be saved – with or without humans on it. If on the other hand we want the human race to continue, then some of us at least are going to need to have children.
For some it is clearly felt not as an obligation, but a deep-seated natural drive, a biological imperative. For those who do not feel that way and who have the sort of character to set aside the cultural imperatives, then why on earth have an unwanted child or children? Indeed, in only eight years, since Ms Filopovic’s article was written, it would appear that those cultural imperatives are already loosening and have changed and that the choice to remain childless, at least in the educated West, is seen as a natural and reasonable decision: hence the Pope’s intervention.
The myriad choices available to those entering the adult world at this point in history are daunting. “Fear of the future” was cited by one young student as a very general anxiety amongst her peers. The competition for jobs is no longer local or national; it is international. The power of the multi-nationals and the individual’s place in the world feels increasingly insignificant. The opportunities for control over so many aspects of life; latterly even our own health, appear to be fewer by the year. More choices; less control: one of the many uncomfortable paradoxes of modern life. The choice as to whether or not to have children should not be decided by societal or cultural pressure and it certainly should not be a state decision, as it was in China. It is a life choice which should be personal.
To have large numbers of children, if you know you cannot afford to look after them, is selfish. Why should the state, i.e. the rest of society, be responsible for shouldering the financial and other burdens of raising children brought into the world because of the ignorance or selfishness of the parents? To have numerous children because of your religious convictions is equally selfish, if rearing children is not how you really wish to spend the majority of your life and if, as a result, you impose on the older children the responsibility for the younger ones. That was not their choice, but yours. To have no children may appear to be a choice for endless self-gratification and indulgence, so could be viewed as selfish, but it could also be a choice for self-fulfilment, achievement and a mentally well-adjusted individual. There are many ways of contributing to society.