Why Have Children?

Is it good to have children? Most people would think so, but there is a range of views amongst utilitarian bioethicists. Rebecca Bennett, from the University of Manchester, believes that having children is just another irrational experience like taking recreational drugs or dancing. “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,” she says.

Matti Häyry, a well-known Finnish bioethicist working in the UK, believes that it is both irrational and immoral because the child might encounter suffering in the course of its life, and “it is morally wrong to cause avoidable suffering to other people”.

The latest contribution to this debate comes from a Canadian feminist philosopher, Christine Overall. She published a book in February which is currently making a splash in bioethics circles, “Why Have Children?” Dr Overall is delighted to have two children of her own. But she believes that the reasons most people have them are mistaken.

First of all, most people believe that existence is good for a child. Not necessarily true. It is impossible to measure the merits of existence versus non-existence. Furthermore, if the existence of one child is good, two must be better, and three even better. Where would you know when to stop?

Another class of reasons are essentially selfish. Some people want to perpetuate their family name. Others want someone to care for them and comfort them in their old age. Many people feel that parenthood will bring them happiness. But all these reasons are wrong-headed, Overall says. A child cannot be regarded an instrument for someone else’s happiness. That is clearly immoral.

Overall’s point is not so much that we should stop having children as that we should reflect upon it very, very carefully. Having children should not be something that just happens in a moment of romantic exuberance. Now that men and women have control of their fertility it must be a conscious choice.

But what if everyone decided not to procreate?

Overall is consistent – she can’t see much wrong with that. “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,” she writes. “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.”

Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • James H, London

    The senile dementia of the West gathers speed…

  • AnnaMarie 53

    Dr. Overall and her ilk, however well intentioned they consider themselves, only starkly illustrate what happens to the human psyche when convinced, for whatever goofy reason, that they not only don’t believe God exists, but that they don’t need Him anyway.  Lord, have pity on the village idiots, especially when they have a PhD.

  • Parents should reflect on whether they are ready to have a child each time they consummate their marriage with one another.  Many parents aren’t prepared for the awesome and incredibly demanding task and calling of raising a child.  Forming a child spiritually, intellectually, and physically is one of life’s most overrated but most important callings their is.  

  • Victoria

    “What but mercy could have divined the misery of non-existence, and then have called in omnipotence and love to build a universe,” (Dr Frederick Faber) In my opinion this sums up the argument for existence: anyone in their right mind knows it’s a great good.Dr Overall’s comments about the unimportance of the extinction of the human race are bafflingly obtuse. But that’s what you get when you leave out God.

  • Hole

    Interesting and fresh ideas… Indeed, most reasons I hear for having children I really selfish – children are expected to makes us happy, make us look good in the society, look after us when we grow old, pay our pensions, continue our family name and the human race/nation, as if the human race and/or nation as if it was an absolute necessity and as if it always existed…  I have yet to hear a really altruistic serious reason. As a recent new father, I am generally happy with my child, but now I always tell myself to think very good before having a child and that it is not for everyone.

  • drea916

    I would guess that people with children are more inclinded to care about society and the world that their children will inherit. So, even it they have children for “selfish” reasons like carrying on the family name, those parents will care about the school system and who the mayor is, etc. As a single person with no kids, what do I care about our education system? I’ve got another 30-50 years and I’m dead. I won’t care as much about the environment and taking care of it, or our national debt, or the rest of society. (Now as a catholic I care about all those things because I owe it to God and my fellow humans. If I was a relativist like her, though, I would have a “I don’t give a ‘foot'” attitude.)