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.