I just listened to a fine interview with Anna Quindlen conducted by Terry Gross (that’s Fresh Air). There were a couple of points in the interview that seemed to me to tie in here.
First, Gross asked Quindlen about a time when Quindlen was in her early twenties and wanted to have her tubes tied. She’d been through a very tough time (her mother had died of ovarian cancer and she had become parent to her four younger siblings) and she was sure she didn’t want kids. Her doctor wouldn’t do the surgery unless/until she talked to a counselor. She never did and within a dozen years or so she was happily married with three kids. The point, of course, was that her early impulse was wrong. She may very well have not wanted children at that time, but in the end she did want children.
Now this ties in to a very recent discussion in the comments somewhere and to a topic that has come up in the past as well: The role of regret and what it means for our ability to make important decisions when we are young-adults. It seems clear in hindsight that had Quindlen been sterilized should would have come to regret it. In the same way people may give up kids for adoption and come to regret that. They may have abortions and come to regret that. Or they may have kids with another person and come to regret that (because the relationship turns out not to be what they’d hoped) or they may come to regret having kids at all.
It’s all true. There are a thousand decisions we make when we’re twenty that leave us open to regret. (I personally think a lot about tatoos these days as I walk around Seattle. What will they look like in forty years?) I’m just not sure what to do about it. We change (most of us) over time. I like to think that with age comes wisdom, but maybe I should just say with age comes change. The things I think are most important now may not be the ones that seemed most important twenty or thirty years ago.
This does not lead me to conclude that we cannot let people in their twenties, say, make critical decisions. I think (and I guess this is what that earlier post said) that risking regret is what making life choices is all about. If you are very worried about regret in your future then that might shape the choices you make. But I don’t want to forbid people from making choices on the off chance that we are protecting them from some possibility that they’ll someday regret the choice they make.
Which brings me to the second point about the Quindlen interview. Towards the very end she talks about how what has changed (for women, I believe she says) in her lifetime is that we have choices. We can choose jobs where women used to be unable to find employment. (Think law professor, perhaps.) We can choose when to have children and when not to, who to have children with, who to marry and when to marry. And so on.
I do understand we cannot and should not give people unlimited choices. I cannot choose to kill the person standing in front of me on the supermarket line even if they are very irritating. I cannot choose to sell my kidney, even if I need to money. But in general I think that giving people freedom to make their own choices is a good thing. It is in some ways the essence of freedom and autonomy.
That, I think, is an underlying bias of mine. I’d like to see the law structured so that single women can choose to be sole parents if they want to do that. I think the law should give lesbian and gay male couples the right to choose to be parents and raise children within their relationship. I think the law should allow people to provide gametes for ART (or for research, I suppose, though I haven’t thought about this so hard) and to be reasonably compensated for it.
I guess all I really mean to do here is to acknowledge that my first instinct in most situations is generally to let people make their own choices, with all the incumbent risks choice brings. Consistent with that, I think I’m generally concerned with how choices are structured–what information is made available, how it is presented, who has power and who does not, how much time for reflection is allowed and so on.
Maybe there’s nothing new here. Maybe this is just taking a step back and making an effort to generalize across a lot of situations. But for whatever it might be worth, there you are.