December 2, 2023

Having Children Is Not Just Okay, but Good

“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.”

By Joshua Arnold

“Is it okay to have a child?” That question lay at the center of a book review titled, “The Morality of Having Kids in a Burning, Drowning World,” which ran in Monday’s print edition of The New Yorker magazine. By the title’s framing, you might well guess that the question received remarkably serious treatment from the author, New Yorker editor Jessica Winter. The 3,000-word article pitted climate alarmism against the “private and primal” desire to bear offspring, with self-conscious philosophical ignorance framing the contest. Conspicuously absent was the Source of all truth and Standard of all morality, who has plenty to say on the ethics of childbearing.

Winter reviewed two recent books, “The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth” by Elizabeth Rush and “The Parenthood Dilemma: Procreation in the Age of Uncertainty” by Gina Rushton. Rush decided “to try to grow a human being inside of my body” the same year she visited Antarctica, which she used as a metaphor of motherhood. Rushton “had resolved to remain child-free” because of climate change until a medical emergency nearly compromised her reproductive system and threw her into a philosophical crisis.

In both books, not having children was portrayed as the only rational response to climate change, while having children was portrayed as an irrational choice but an overwhelmingly instinctual one. “Should I have a child, their greenhouse gas emissions will cause roughly fifty square meters of sea ice to melt every year that they are alive. Just by existing, they will make the world a little less livable for everyone, themselves included,” wrote Rush, who wanted a child anyway.

On the other hand, Rushton had made up her mind not to have children because of “climate anxiety” and various reasons related to feminist theory and intersectionality, but when she nearly lost an ovary in a medical emergency, “she was saddened and panicked by the prospect of her fertility being compromised. … She felt free in her choice until, all at once, it no longer seemed hers to make.” Her ensuing confusion felt “like an identity crisis: if you don’t know what you want or what you think, can you say with any confidence who you are?” After exploring various philosophical reasons for the indecision, she concluded the solution to the problem “rest[ed] in the author’s relationship with her own mother,” which had grown icy after her parents divorced.

Winter defined the genre as “commentary on parental ambivalence.” Strictly speaking, this term would mean not caring one way or the other about having children. But she and the writers she discussed care intensely about the question. The way she actually uses the term, “parental ambivalence” is a euphemism for when anti-motherhood ideology — either feminist or environmental — clashes with the God-given desire to produce offspring.

These two authors are not the first to consider parental ambivalence a logical reaction to climate change. Winter noted “the short-lived BirthStrike movement” of the past decade, in which women “renounced having children on account of the ecological emergency, although their message was often misconstrued as a Malthusian appeal for population control.” This is likely because Thomas Malthus endorsed not having children to avoid an ecological emergency. In 2010, Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer — known for endorsing “post-birth” abortion, also known as infanticide — asked in The New York Times, “Should This Be the Last Generation?” Winter herself once “declared, ‘I am never having children,’” due to climate change. But, like the women who abandoned the BirthStrike movement, Winter later had two children of her own.

In a sense, Winter voices the confusion of a whole culture adrift with no compass. “Among people who already have kids, more than half say that climate anxiety does influence how many children they plan to have,” she wrote, citing a 2023 Morning Consult poll of multiple Western countries. But, among those without children who were unlikely to do so, only 5% listed climate change as the determining factor in a 2021 Pew survey. In any event, “the freedom to hem and haw over having kids is a recent development in human history,” only made possible by the 20th century innovations in birth control and abortion, she mused, “and not a dilemma faced by those who currently lack reproductive rights” — again, code for abortion.

Indeed, while she emphasized the human-interest elements, Winter could not avoid politics. She mentioned the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and a “lodestar” essay, “Is It OK to Have a Child?” In that essay, Columbia University writer Meehan Crist claimed, “Having a child is at once the most intimate, irrational thing a person can do, prompted by desires so deep we hardly know where to look for their wellsprings, and an unavoidably political act.” Many women throughout history would likely be surprised.

The overall tone of Winter’s essay was that of a people perishing for lack of knowledge. She lamented “the perils” of resolving parental ambivalence based upon anecdotes and feelings alone but confessed it was “probably inevitable.” According to Yale professor of philosophy and cognitive science Laurie Ann Paul, cited by Rushton, someone who has never had a child before is in “an impoverished epistemic position” (epistemology is the study of knowing). “In other words, you cannot know ahead of time what it is that you are choosing,” summarized Winter. “You haven’t even met the people you are choosing for — not your future child, not your transformed future parent-self, and definitely not the parent-self whom your partner, if you have one, will become.”

This framing seemingly reduces decisions about childbearing to a utilitarian thought experiment, where the right answer depends on unknowable future circumstances. “Your happy childhood is no guarantee of the same for your kid, especially if they will grow up on a planet that will be warmer by nearly three degrees Fahrenheit,” wrote Winter. For people with unhappy childhoods, Winter endorsed writer Sigrid Nunez’s reasoning, which assumed she would perpetuate the cycle of abuse, making the question “Is it OK for a child to have me?”

“Perhaps having a child under any circumstances, given the unimaginably high emotional, financial, ecological, and existential stakes, is an act of outrageous presumption,” concluded Winter. She articulated a “fear of doing harm not to the planet but to the person on it whom you love most, who likely has to live on it much farther into the future than you do. It was you, after all, no one else, who asked her to be born, who never wanted anything so badly, and she obliged you, and now look what you’ve done.”

On that sour note, Winter’s article ended.

Setting aside any question of climate change or politics, a worldview that results in “parental ambivalence” represents a sadly diminished view of every human being’s inherent worth. It also represents a tragic rejection of family, gender, and God himself.

When God created the heavens and the earth, he created a man and a woman — male and female — in his own image and blessed them with the mandate, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it …” (Genesis 1:28). Children are a blessing. Not just one or two or whatever number is currently fashionable, but enough to “multiply and fill the earth.”

Some people who spend most of their time in densely crowded urban areas may think the world is filled enough already. I’d encourage them to sometime visit America’s many wide-open spaces. Did you know there is a county in Texas, three-fifths the size of Rhode Island, which had a population of 64 people in the 2020 census? That’s slightly less than 0.1 people per square mile. Humans haven’t filled the earth so much as clustered together in certain places.

Utilitarians will counter that some children are doomed to lead lives of poverty, sickness, or suffering. But that doesn’t change the fact that children are still a blessing. After mankind sinned, and God placed the world under a curse that brought pain to the woman’s childbearing and the man’s toil, Scripture reaffirmed that children are a blessing, heritage, and reward:

“Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.

"Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.

"Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them!

"He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5).

This is the only expert testimony that matters. God is utterly truthful, utterly good, and utterly in control. He created mankind, creates every new human being, and ordained the institution of marriage to provide children a safe, protective, loving context for their early years.

Winter and those she quotes are correct that non-parents cannot know quite what it will be like to become a parent, how they will change, or who the child they bring into the world will grow up to be. They can observe parents, read about them, or ask them for advice, but they still don’t know what it is like to become a parent until they become one. One might similarly say that a high schooler does not really know how college will change him, what career path he will settle on, what friendships he will form, or whether he will meet a spouse. Learning and growing is the whole point. Is that a reason not to go? Parenthood is better than college because it is founded, organized, and overseen by a kind and loving heavenly Father, not imperfect human administrators.

Recall Winter’s conclusion: “Perhaps having a child under any circumstances, given the unimaginably high emotional, financial, ecological, and existential stakes, is an act of outrageous presumption.” Let’s first clarify that she means choosing to have a child or, more accurately, not choosing to abort or artificially prevent the conception of a child that would otherwise be born naturally. As she acknowledges, this choice is a luxury of recent origin.

In other words, having a child was not ethically presumptuous or controversial — an entirely natural and normal phenomenon — at some point in the past. Then came technological innovations that allowed people to prevent childbirth, but that it in itself didn’t make childbearing evil. Other technological innovations allowed us to monitor and track global climate patterns, leading some scientists to infer a warming trend caused by mankind. But technological innovations that increase our knowledge of the natural world should not, in and of themselves, transform a good act into an evil one. How exactly did childbearing come to be controversial or presumptuous? I suggest the answer lies more in the author’s feminist assumptions than in climate science.

Another word in Winter’s claim that requires clarification is “presumption;” toward whom (or what?) is it presumptuous to have a child? The author makes no mention of accountability to God. Is nature the offended party? Oneself? One’s spouse? Society at large? From reading further, Winter seems to suggest that bearing a child is presumptuous toward that child. You wanted a child, so you brought it into a world full of suffering (and with climate change!) without asking its permission first, she argues. Of course, a child that has not yet been conceived in the womb cannot possibly grant consent to its own conception and birth. To insist that such consent is ethically required to bring such a child into the world is to commit a logical fallacy known as “begging the question.”

I think Winter’s logic goes astray here because she misunderstands the nature of the family and family relationships. Nowhere in her lengthy discussion of childbirth does she mention “marriage” or “husband.” The word “partner(s)” appears only three times in as many thousands of words. And there were only a couple other oblique references to males in any context. Winter seems to think of members of a family as autonomous individuals, where parent, child, husband, wife, father, and mother are just so many interchangeable labels. That’s not how families work at all. There is a God-ordained structure of authority in the family, which provides an order, security, and beauty greater than the sum of its parts.

Most relevant here is that parents have a God-given authority over their children. Children are commanded to obey their parents, while parents are to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:1-4). Why do parents have authority over their children? Because they created them in their own likeness and image, as God created them (see Genesis 5:1-3). To say that it is presumptuous to have a child is logically quite similar to saying that God was presumptuous to make mankind.

The real act of presumption is for a person created by God, in his image, to transgress his commands, or to disregard the user’s manual for life, his own Word. God created human beings as men and women, male and female. One man and one woman are joined together in marriage to form a new family unit. Within the exclusive, protective, covenant bond of marriage, man and wife “hold fast” to one another and “become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24) — language both metaphorical and literal. Children are the natural fruit of that union, as husband and wife enjoy another of God’s good gifts — a uniquely pleasurable one — which he designed only to be enjoyed within the covenant of marriage. Any attempt to distort, alter, or disregard the natural order God designed for marriage, family, and childbearing is a rebellion against his law.

Sadly, too many in our world don’t know about God’s good design for marriage and family. Either they have never seen it modeled, or they have never even heard about it. In Rushton’s book, she evidently recorded the lack of love and warmth in her own broken childhood home, events that shaped her later resolution not to have children of her own. Family brokenness has even marred and scarred many families and people in churches.

Christians have an opportunity to show a better way. Churches should preach on God’s good design for family. Christian families should model it. Perhaps some people will be attracted by Christians’ happy alternative to the lonely brokenness of the world, and thereby be drawn to Christ.

This charge begins with the men. The biblical model of a Christian family is not complete without us displaying godly authority as husbands and fathers, leading our families spiritually and in other ways. Godly authority begins in the fear of the Lord and ends in the good of those under authority. It requires “lov[ing] your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). It requires loving the Lord and knowing his commands so that you can “teach them diligently to your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7).

The call may be challenging, but it reaps abundant rewards. It consists largely of sowing self-sacrifice and reaping the flourishing of not only you, but everyone under your authority. “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:3-4).

Joshua Arnold is a senior writer at The Washington Stand.

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