Choices, Choices, Choices

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.

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6 responses to “Choices, Choices, Choices

  1. I certainly agree with you that young adults should not be legally prevented from making choices that might well negatively impact them in the future and that they could come to regret.

    However, using donor gametes in the way this is currently legally done in much of the world does NOT impact the intended parents alone nor will THEY be the ones most likely to feel grief and regret about these decisions.

    I don’t know if my parents regretted having me in the way they did. But I do know that I live every day regretting it – regretting a decision that wasn’t mine.

    • It’s certainly important to think not only about the impact of a decision on the decision-maker, but also on others. In this case that would include a child who would be conceived. I’m not sure where this leads me, however. Suppose I know there’s a 1/4 chance that a child with my genes will inherit some particular undesireable trait–could be something seriously incapacitating or maybe something less than that. Before I use my genes to procreate I should surely think about that risk, whether I could take care of the child, what it would mean for the quality of the child’s life and so on. BUt it doesn’t (for me, at least) determine the outcome of my decision. It’s a factor I should consider. I don’t know whether you mean to suggest it is more than that.

      There’s are a couple of things your comment raises that I think I need to consider a bit more. First, it seems to me that it might be fairly common for a decision to affect people other than the decision maker. I’m trying to think of situations where that is true, but drawing a blank just now. Second, assuming there are a range of decisions that affect people apart from the decision-maker, do those involving conception stand in a category of their own. It semms like there might be something special about this category of decision but I’m not sure. And of course, I’m wary of that “you’re always better off being conceived” sort of reasoning that we’ve talked about in the past.

      • Generally, there are few situations in which we are actually allowed to negatively impact other people’s lives – except our children, I guess.

        I’m not sure the analogy you used is how I feel about the risks of being conceived by an anonymous donor – the risk of not knowing your biological parent is 100% and the child may or may not feel horrible about that. My analogy would be intentionally creating, via genetic engineering, a blind child. You know the child will lack something you and most other people don’t and just take for granted (eyesight) but you don’t know how they will feel about it – after all, many blind people live very full and productive lives and don’t wish they’d never been conceived, right?

        (I just re-read the passage and feel the need to add: my tone is not sarcastic at all.)

        • I see your point. Perhaps the decision to conceive a child stands in its own category and isn’t like other decisions that affect others.

          Your analogy is interesting because (this is a little off on the side) it makes me think about PGID and all the testing we can do. Let’s suppose you could examine the embryos preimplantation and eliminate the one that was going to result in a blind child. (I was actually thinking this about a deaf child, but I’ll go with what you started with.) Is it legitimate to say you won’t choose–you’ll leave it to random chance? Or is it legitimate to choose the embryo that results in the blind child–is that the sam as intentionally creating a blind child? (We could make up back-stories for these choices, I bet.)

          You can think about the same problem with all sorts of “imperfections.” And I bet people will give different answers to some of the variations.

          None of this is responsive to your point, though, except really tangentially.

          I’m actually not going to defend the right to create a child using sperm from a permanantly anonymous provider right at the moment. But I think there is room for discussion about what follows from you point. One might look, for example, at what motivates people to select anonymous donors and think about how to modify that choice. Increasing numbers of people are choosing providers who can be identified. What’s making that change happen? How do we encourage that trend? For me the answer that you just make anonymous donors illegal isn’t really very satisfying–because apart from anything else it means people turn to the global market–remember the article about the US as sperm exporter. I’m back to that place where I prefer thinking about what and how people choose and how to change that rather than trying to impose blanket rules.

  2. Pronoia
    When I read people in favor of this practice write things to donor offspring like “Then you would rather not exist?” I get frustrated.
    I think they are fine with existing but find it disturbing that the law protects other minors who are abandoned by one or both parents. Its a crime when other minors are are abandoned by one of their biological parents and its a crime for their biological parents not to provide them with physical and financial support and its a crime to adopt other minors on the black market and put the names of non-biological parents on their birth records without any benefit of a court approved transfer of custody to protect them. Its rather offensive to suggest that a person’s existence depended upon making it legal for one or both parents to simply abandon them.

    Why must we allow some men and women to abandon their offspring this way? Why not simply allow all people to abandon their biological offspring? If its good enough for you surely its good enough for all of us, huh? Black market step-parent adoption was perfectly acceptable for you so why not everyone? I wonder if there is a reason why black market step parent adoption is not allowed for the offspring of people who are not donors? I wonder if Julie would speak to that….

    Julie, why is black market adoption and black market step parent adoption not allowed for the offspring of people who are not classified as donors? Black market adoption does not mean that money or goods were exchanged it means that the process occurred in secret off the public record so that the adopting step parent or other adopting party will have their name placed on the person’s original birth record as if they were the child’s parent – as if they were the child’s biological parent. I am hoping that you will acknowledge the effort made by the courts to locate the parents of an abandoned child prior to allowing that child to be placed for adoption and that if the courts are satisfied that that a sufficient attempt was made to locate the estranged parents.

    • I think you are considering current law regarding parentage of ART children as black market adoption and/or black market step parent adoption? (If that’s not what you mean then I don’t know what you mean by these terms.) Surely you know I’m not going to agree to that terminology? I think you call it that because you start by thinking the parent is the gamete provider and so that is the original parent and the ART parent is taking over parental rights from them–which makes it adoption–and is doing so without going through the proper adoption procedures, which makes it black market? But I don’t start with the gamete person as parent, so there’s no adoption at all.

      But this is all on the off-chance I’m right about your terminology. If you mean something else, let me know and I’ll try again.

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