(This is a continuation of the discussion begun in my last post. You might want to go and read that first.)
In my last post I argued that it’s misleading to criticize some people’s choices to become parents as selfish, because all people’s choices to become parents are equally selfish. However, I didn’t mean to suggest that no criticism of individual decision-making was possible. I suggested that the better question was whether the decision to become a parent was responsible.
Before I go further down that road, a bit of discussion is necessary. There’s at least an argument that the decision to become a parent is personal and hence, shielded from public examination of the sort I am suggesting.
To the extent this is true, it seems to me it ought to be equally true for all people. Thus, it is as true for a single woman as it is for a married couple. Either the decision to become a parent is private/personal or it isn’t (or it stands somewhere in the middle). I don’t really see any reason to say that for a married couple the decision is private and personal but for a single woman it is somehow open to public scrutiny.
Despite my conviction that the privacy argument, whatever it is, should be the same for all people considering parenthood, I’m afraid that in practice we do tend to create a stronger zone of privacy around the married couple.
While the privacy argument seems strong, there are at least a couple of reasons to suggest that it can be appropriate for the public to judge the wisdom of individual decisions to become parents. You could say we somehow represent the interests of the children as yet unborn/unconceived. That sort of stance has been invoked here on this blog where people talked in comments about the problem of creating children who will not have access to their genetic forebears.
You could also say that we have a general societal interest in the well-being of children who might be conceived/born because we are the fall-back in caring for those children and because those children constitute our next generation, who we will share the earth with and (eventually in all likelihood) cede authority to.
If the decision to become a parent is one that is personal and private, then I should just stop here. Since I’m planning to go on, however, I’ll just assume I have some right to comment on another person’s decision to become a parent.
Now, to get back to my main point, the question I think it might be reasonable to ask is whether a person’s decision to become a parent is responsible. I don’t imagine this reformulation of the question (from one about selfishness) is going to make the topic less contentious. I do hope it might make it easier to focus the conversation and see what we agree and disagree about.
So when is it responsible to decide to become a parent? Or on the flip-side, when it is irresponsible? For starters, I’d suggest that it is responsible to become a parent when there is a reasonable likelihood that the child will thrive. And similarly, it is not responsible to become a parent when it is likely the child will not thrive. (There are many ways to argue with either or both of these formulations, of course.)
To me, what this means is that it can be perfectly responsible for a person to become a single parent, so long as they are able to create conditions under which a child might thrive. That means giving some thought to the difficulties of being a single parent and having some strategies for working around them. Similarly, it can be responsible for a same-sex couple to become parents, though there are issues the couple should consider before doing so.
Heterosexual married couples don’t get any special presumption of responsibility in my view. It may be responsible for them to become parents, but it may not be. If, for example, their relationship is violent and abusive, it’s probably not responsible for them to become parents.
Finally, to touch on an issue that’s been discussed here a lot recently, using donor sperm can be an avenue towards responsible parenthood. It requires some consideration of the consequences of that choice. It might even require taking some steps to ensure that the planned child has access to information about the donor/provider of gametes. But since I’m well convinced that it is possible for donor-conceived children to thrive, it seems to me the decision to embark on that course is potentially a responsible one.