Whose womb is it, anyway?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Over at Spiked Online, editor Brendan O'Neill comments on the fact that the recent birth of only the second set of octuplets to be born alive in the United States seems to have devolved into a "finger-wagging morality tale," with busybodies of all descriptions getting in their two cents' worth:

When Nadya Suleman gave birth to six boys and two girls in five minutes on 26 January, it was greeted as a "midwinter miracle", a story that "cheered recession-hit America", a "welcome relief from bailouts and bankruptcies". Now, with the eight babes barely one week old, it has become a shrill parable about overpopulation, resource depletion, the dangers of fertility treatment and the problem of "poor mothers". The story has shapeshifted from a "ray of sunshine for a nation in the grip of economic meltdown" to a "tale of seedy self-indulgence". [minor format edits]
Indeed, what initially grabbed my attention about the story was its title, "An act of extreme, wilful fecundity?" which was based on a rather snippy comment by one of the finger-waggers, and the fact that the front-line finger-waggers were, predictably, environmentalists, who saw, not eight babies, but eight un-natural defilers of (the rest of) nature.

But as I read the story, I realized, starting even with the following statement of support by O'Neill, that the problem is far more widespread than, perhaps, even he realizes.
To be sure, not many women would make the decisions that Ms Suleman made. Going ahead with a high multiple pregnancy can be dangerous, both for mother and babies, who tend to be born very small and very premature and thus are susceptible to heart, respiratory and brain-development problems. And the news that Ms Suleman, who is reportedly unemployed and not very well off, already had six children -- meaning that she now has a brood of 14! -- will have made the everyday, always-busy parents of two, three or four kids groan with exhaustive empathy. Yet if we are serious about reproductive choice, then someone like Ms Suleman must be free to opt for a Brady Bunch-style family, just as other women opt to have no children at all.[minor format edits, bold added]
I have no problem with O'Neill's broader point (or, at least, what it sounds like it might be) -- that how many children someone has is that person's business -- except for one thing. There is one thing that can and ought to constrain how many children someone has: the facts of reality, as expressed by the following old-fashioned question: Who will support these children?

Before I go on, I will note that due to time constraints and problems with my Internet connection at home (I am writing this in a word processor so I can mail it in from work.), I do not know whether the mother is living off the public dole, or is living off of private charity. But that question is immaterial to the argument I am about to make.

Suppose the worst fears from some quarters are right -- that Suleman will be on the dole, along with her fourteen children. In other words, money is being forcibly taken from some (who might, as a result, decide they can't afford more children of their own), in violation of their property rights, and being handed over to someone too irresponsible to consider whether she can adequately feed or care for eight more children.

Aside from the fact that there would be people being robbed to pay for this, there is the additional matter of whether someone this irresponsible is capable of even adequately caring for her children. In other words, the rights of her children also bear consideration.

Only if Suleman is capable of raising these children without relying on loot, and without harming them through negligence or abuse should she be free to have so many children. All other considerations are moot because beyond any case in which her actions violate the rights of others, what she does is, properly, her own business.

O'Neill is correct to note that there is a moral problem here, and we will return to that in a moment, but there is clearly also a political one. Governments throughout the West are failing to act in accordance to their only proper purpose: the protection of individual rights. Were the welfare state -- the apparatus by which the government loots the most responsible citizens in order to shower the unearned on others -- nonexistent, there would be no outcry over whether Suleman is wasting "society's economic resources" (or, really, spending money stolen from private citizens), because she would not have this money at her disposal. Instead, she would have to find another way -- i.e., adequate employment, family help, or private charity -- to feed her children.

And if she failed or refused? Her inadequacy as a parent would not be masked by the band-aid of government payments, and her children would, mercifully, be remanded by the government, protecting their rights, to more responsible caregivers until they were adopted or became adults.

Note that as we considered how the government has removed an important check on irresponsible reporduction, we also uncovered the one thing none of O'Neill's finger-wagging moralizers cared to become indignant about (except incidentally): How Suleman's actions might harm individual human beings by violating their rights. This is because every last "moralizer" subscribes to exactly the same type of morality: altruism, the notion that man does not exist for his own sake, but for the sake of others, be those "others" human beings, a social collective, or a "nature" that somehow does not include man himself as natural.

All of these rabid altruists are unanimous in condemning Suleman as "selfish" for taking whatever her children might need from some fictitious communal pot of resources". O'Neill rightly sees meanness of their attitudes here, although it is not clear to me whether he ultimately makes the same error himself, or understandably, due to the welfare state being so long-established, simply does not see the state is enabling the sacrifice of the responsible to the whims of others.

And here's the ultimate irony in this orgy of altruistic preening: If Suleman is on the dole, she is being anything but selfish here. She is sacrificing those who pay her way (and, perhaps, her own children) to her whims. And more, the welfare, which is justified on altruistic grounds, is what is making all this possible. Ms. Suleman should be free to bear a hundred children if she wants -- so long as she does not accept public loot to pay for their needs or harm them through negligence or abuse.

The welfare state and altruism are the problems, not whether someone makes the decision to bear eight children at once.

-- CAV

16 comments:

Realist Theorist said...

When I heard a TV commentator say this woman had been selfish, my stomach turned.

I know the world uses "selfish" differently. If some kid shoots another to get his sneakers, and the world calls him selfish, ... well, I'm used to that. This was different.

Given all the facts, this woman's action borders on insanity. Let's imagine she had all the millions in the world. It would still border on the insane to have 8 kids at one time, and more so when one knows there is a high probability that some will be severely disabled.

If she is sane, she did something extremely self-destructive and extremely immoral.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed.

And I would call the decision to bear this many at once immoral under any remotely normal circumstance.

Anonymous said...

Well, from an economic point of view it can be argued that she has provided 8 future taxpayers for a system that needs them -- a system that faces huge problems as the birthrate declines.

Gus Van Horn said...

There is so much wrong with your comment that I scarcely know where to begin....

Your "system" is a welfare state that violates the rights of the individual human beings who live under -- not belong to -- it.

The "needs" of such a glorified thugocracy deserve no consideration.

Realist Theorist said...

Ha ha! Sounds like Anonymous has been inspired by Putin's "get pregnant for mother Russia" campaign.

Eight disabled people are unlikely to be tax-payers, or even storm-troopers!

Anonymous said...

It's not "my" system -- I despise it as much as you do. But, it's the system we unfortunately are living under. And, like it or not, there aren't enough productive workers to pay for the retirement and health needs of an aging population. It's a demographic problem, simply put. In a Randian Utopia, this wouldn't be an issue. But that's not where you and I live. Dismiss that as "pragmatism" if you wish, but that doesn't change reality. The reality is that having more children than replacement level (2.1, or some such number)puts more future taxpayers into the system.

Gus Van Horn said...

The solution to the problem is to work towards the abolishment of the welfare state.

One common objection to my proposal is that the welfare state is "too big" and "too entrenched". So was slavery at one time, and within decades, a tiny minority of abolitionists changed that.

The timetables for that, and for your "taxpayers" to grow up and become productive (a very big assumption) are comparable.

Give me liberty over government handouts any day. Free, I can care fir myself. Enslaved to a paternalistic government, I am prevented from doing so, no matter how much inflated money the state tosses my way, if it does.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, RT, and sorry I missed your comment the first time through.

madmax said...

"It's a demographic problem, simply put."

This reminds me of a debate in the NoodleFood comments section sometime in 2008 with someone who made the same arguments as "anonymous." This person - who was secular - argued that abortion and contraception were harmful to society because they encourage non-procreative sex which lowers the birth rate and thus makes us vulnerable to the spread of Islam - as Muslims have a high birthrate - and makes us vulnerable to the collapse of the welfare state - which is all that we can hope to maintain in our time. Of course, this person argued that both abortion and contraception should therefore be banned for national self-preservation.

The interesting thing is that this person was secular but still making all the Conservative "demographic" arguments. And it is the Conservatives who are obsessed with demographics and birth rates. I think there is a deep strain of determinism in the demographic obsession. As well as a vicious collectivism; so the rights of individuals must be sacrificed to preserve the demographic, which I presume is the European peoples.

"In a Randian Utopia, this wouldn't be an issue. But that's not where you and I live. Dismiss that as "pragmatism" if you wish, but that doesn't change reality. The reality is that having more children than replacement level (2.1, or some such number)puts more future taxpayers into the system."

So, since we don't live in a "Randian utopia" - which I take as an insult to all of us deluded and unrealistic idealists - anonymous would have us be sacrificed for the sake of the welfare state which he/she says they "despise" (right...). My somewhat cynical answer to this is that if all that is possible is the welfare state than I would rather it fail. The American welfare-state be damned. Let catastrophe happen, the dust settle and maybe the next great civilization will get things right by embracing the exact opposite philosophy as anonymous. With so called "friends" like anonymous, who the hell needs enemies.

Anonymous said...

"The solution to the problem is to work towards the abolishment of the welfare state."

That is true, certainly. But I don't think it's going to happen: the indications are that we will follow Europe's lead to socialism.

"One common objection to my proposal is that the welfare state is "too big" and "too entrenched". So was slavery at one time, and within decades, a tiny minority of abolitionists changed that."

Yes, but the "tiny minority" wasn't so tiny as you suggest: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" had done much to inspire anti-slavery convictions in the general population. This was also a very religious period, and appeals to "the common good" and "brotherhood of all men" resounded with people. This particular struggle is not very comparable.

"The timetables for that, and for your "taxpayers" to grow up and become productive (a very big assumption) are comparable."

Hardly. It takes 18-25 years for a child to join the rolls of taxpayers. On the other hand, Rand's ideas have been floating around for quite some time now, and her ideas are no more popular than they ever were: her ideas are largely the concerns of college-aged young adults, and most don't maintain the passion for her ideas once they start having (and sacrificing for) children.

"Give me liberty over government handouts any day. Free, I can care fir myself. Enslaved to a paternalistic government, I am prevented from doing so, no matter how much inflated money the state tosses my way, if it does."

Nice sentiments, nicely expressed. But you are a slave to a paternalistic government whether you like it or not -- just try not paying your taxes -- federal, state, municipal, and on sales. See how far you get.
I knew an Objectivist in New York who maintained her ideas even though she spent half of her time on unemployment -- so much for principle! But it's easy to be hard on someone else when it's not you having to face needing to eat and pay the rent.
Talk is cheap.

Gus Van Horn said...

"anonymous would have us be sacrificed for the sake of the welfare state which he/she says they 'despise' (right...)"

Thank you. I realized about ten minutes after I replied that anyone who wants to perpetuate the welfare state cannot possibly "despise" it as much as I do.

And actually, despise is too weak a word. I HATE the welfare state because it lowers my quality of life and poses a threat to my life.

You other comments were spot-on, as always.

Gus Van Horn said...

Ah. Once again, the comment queue hides a comment. It was by "Anonymous", who is obviously a gloating fan of the welfare state or a troll.

All I have to say regards his smear of the person who went on unemployment.

Ayn Rand pretty much addressed that issue in her essay, "The Question of Scholarships".

Anyway, that's the last comment of his that I'm posting. As he, whose words are worth less than the paper they're printed on, says, "Talk is cheap."

My time isn't.

madmax said...

Gus,

After reading the latest salvo from "anonymous", I am convinced it is the same person from the NoodleFood debate; she (and it is a she) uses the very same phraseology. She is a very persistent and vehement enemy of individualism and self-interest as her comments indicate, and its clear she loathes Objectivism and Objectivists.

But I would like to comment on just one thing as I see it often, namely this:

"Hardly. It takes 18-25 years for a child to join the rolls of taxpayers. On the other hand, Rand's ideas have been floating around for quite some time now, and her ideas are no more popular than they ever were: her ideas are largely the concerns of college-aged young adults, and most don't maintain the passion for her ideas once they start having (and sacrificing for) children."

This reveals complete ignorance of how - and how long - ideas spread through a culture. Ayn Rand is only dead 27 years. That is absolutely nothing in "philosophic time." Sadly, no philosophy - especially one as radical as Objectivism - has been accepted in full in one or two generations. People with old ideas have to be replace with new ones. This takes centuries, for every new philosophy. Certain philosophies that are already aligned with the current trend - like Kant's - will be accepted faster, but even then it took about a century from the publication of "The Critique of Pure Reason" to get to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act and The Progressive Era. So the fact that Rand hasn't been accepted yet in a fierce and powerful philosophical uprising is hardly surprising. I feel that such an uprising will eventually occur, but it may take centuries (sadly), and much bloodshed and misery to pave the way for it.

And lastly, as for raising children being an act of sacrifice, well, that is just a confession that anonymous can't conceive of a non-sacrificial relationship between human beings, which to me is a confession of the disgusting collectivst-oriented metaphysics which dominates our culture (left and right included).

Thanks for letting me commenting on the collectivist sentiments of this particular (and ugly) altruist.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks, Madmax. All good points again.

This person may have also appeared here before, too, based on his/her/its location and the one I remember for an "anonymous" who went on a long harangue about going on strike awhile back.

We went back and forth for awhile and then I ended up on his/her/its "enemy list".

Jim May said...

The use of the term "Randian Utopia" establishes that "anonymous" is the most common sort of Objectivist critic: those who have made no effort to read or understand her ideas. What they rail against is their bizarre imagination of what her ideas are -- usually as fed to them by other critics like themselves.

That Nyquist character who runs the "Ayn Rand Contra Human Nature" blog is the archetype of this sort; when I discovered his blog, I picked one of his posts at random (the "Does Ayn Rand understand Objectivism" post, IIRC) to see what he had -- and he was making shit up in the very first paragraph.

The honest critic who makes the effort to understand what her ideas actually are, *before* deciding whether they agree or disagree with them, is a rare bird. I'm beginning to think that we should compile a list of such critics, just for our own edification. I enjoy interacting with critics I can respect; they help keep me on my toes.

Gus Van Horn said...

Agreed.

I've held forth with critics at length before, but if there's one thing I haven't any patience for, it's one dishonest, clueless objection after another, made as if I owe a spoonfeeding to any random passer-by.