If I were in charge of your childbearing (A reply to Justin Martyr)

If I were in charge of your childbearing (A reply to Justin Martyr) September 10, 2010

Quick Recap: Justin and RustBelt debated gay marriage, I butted in, Justin responded (twice).

Justin’s most recent salvo is to ask me to weigh in yes or no on four hypothetical and then explain the consistent framework that led to my decision.  Given some of the ambiguities that crept into his discourse with RustBelt when they were discussing legality versus morality, I’m going to give two answers for each scenario:

  1. Do I think the government should ban it?
  2. Do I think it is wrong for people to do it?

And away we go.


Scenario 1: The Free Market in Babies Judge Richard Posner has famously argued that there should be a free market in babies. Women get to make money, and pent-up demand for children by older couples can easily be met.

Illegal? Yes
Immoral? Yes

There’s some pretty good reasons and some pretty terrible history that teaches us that poverty has a terrible coercive force.  The institution of Human Subjects Committees to oversee research came in response to gross abuses that preyed on the most vulnerable.  There’s simply too much risk of exploitation to make this a reasonable option.  Additionally, it’s hardly necessary when there are so many orphan children who need homes.  There’s no reason to up the supply of needing-to-be-adopted babies.

If we took a jaunt to the world where demand for adoption exceeded supply and gay men and infertile women were left in the lurch, that would be unfortunate for them, but I wouldn’t set up a system with such potential for abuse to salve their hurt.

I do think it falls down on the side of immoral, since it treats women as less like people and more like fungible wombs.  This is problematic to begin with, and should be treated with caution, but, unlike the sperm bank example, the problem is not just that the woman is treated as a commodity, but that she is viewed as replaceable enough to expose to substantial risk in a way a sperm donor is not.  The combination of these two facts pushes it into immoral.


Scenario 2: The Gottlieb Case A feminist feels her biological clock ticking and thinks marrying her boyfriend would be settling. So she goes to a sperm bank and procreates that way.

Illegal? No
Immoral? No

I’ve got no problems here legally.  This route to conception is considerably more likely to be the result of careful consideration, so there’s a lovely selection bias that ensures that only wanted children are born.

Now I’ll return to the purchasing sperm/renting wombs problem. In both cases, I see a person primarily as a provider of a good or service I want.  This can be problematic, especially in large doses, but is to a certain extent unavoidable.  When I’m in line at the grocery story, I see the cashier as primarily instrumental, rather than engaging with him as an end-in-himself.

The distinction here is about how much I can still realize that this person exists outside of our instrumental relationship.  The sperm donor incurs minimal harm and is not present to be objectified.  The surrogate womb is exposed to dangerous risks.  Therefore, to buy a woman’s pregnancy, I treat her pain and her possible death as a commodity that I may purchase or not.  A sperm donor is simply providing genetic material, without my choosing to expose him to risk.


Scenario 3: The Rock Star a woman wants to have a baby with her boyfriend (not husband). He does not really want to have a baby because his rock band is on the cusp of stardom, but is willing to do it to keep her happy.

Illegal? No
Immoral? A bit

Quite aside from thinking our government’s resources are probably not well used when they’re allocated to policing contraception use, I think that the government has no reasonable basis to screen all prospective parents for fitness, rather than police them for abuses.  There’s no framework in which this could reasonably be addressed through law.

This got ranked at least slightly immoral since, in my mind, this is a sin of negligence.  The woman is clearly being short-sighted and foolish.  Moral mistakes made out of ignorance are more forgivable, but I would say that this verges on negligence.  There’s no ignorance exemption if you fail to do due diligence.


Scenario 4: Polygamy A fundamentalist Mormon sect practices polygamy. A man would like to take a second wife and have children with her too.

Illegal? No
Immoral? No

In large part, the legality question comes down to the distinction I wish existed between state marriage and sacramental marriage.  Regardless of whether polyamory is legal, I don’t see any reason the Mormons can’t perform multiple marriages as part of their faith tradition.  With regard to legal marriage, I still think that, regardless of whether some relationships are recognized as marriage, we should be able to contract most of the benefits of marriage (hospital visitation, shared custody, etc) with whomever we wish.

I don’t think there’s anything intrinsically morally wrong about polygamy.  There have been many abusive traditions of polygamy, but there have also been many abusive traditions of monogamy (widow-burning is the first example that comes to mind, but there are many more).  The main difference is that there does not currently exist a common healthy model for a polygamous family.  I don’t believe one couldn’t exist, but the current lack makes it reasonable to treat these arrangements  with a little suspicion.  Nevertheless, I don’t have any objection to polygamy in the abstract.

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  • Anonymous

    I am surprised you put "Immoral? No," under polygamy. While some quick googling turned up instances of polyandry, it seems mostly historical and is certainly dwarfed by polygyny. Polygyny, especially taken to the extreme that some Mormons do, is extremely sexist. It relegates the primary reason for existence of a number of women to reproduction, not just in general, but of specific men. In turn, a number of men are cast out in order to free up the required women. So its really just unfair to everyone. While monogamous marriage has abuses, it *can* be equitable. Even if one allowed a group marriage system regardless of the number/gender/sex combination of those involved, I don't see how more than the tiniest fraction of marriages involving more than 2 people would be equitable.

  • Anonymous

    Polygamy is illegal. You should correct that.

  • With regard to the legality of #1, I would fork that to "Selling pregnancy should not be criminalized; buying pregnancy should be criminalized."

  • Anonymous

    Polygamy is illegal, but I don't think that means you can't be married (legally) to one person and also having sex with a bunch more. Thats why law enforcement goes for statutory rape charges.

  • Hi Rebecca and Anonymouses 1-3,I think I should clarify the legal/not legal question. I wasn't giving the current legal status of these practices but simply stating my own opinion about whether the government ought to make the practice illegal. I split it off from the immorality question because Justin's debate with RustBelt kept sliding between the questions of legality and morality

  • @Anonymous # 1I probably should have stuck with the more neutral phrase polyamory in my discussion, rather than leaving most of my discussion in the gendered terms of Justin's original example. I think the sexism exhibited in the polygyny of Mormon splinter groups is already present and is simply manifesting itself in the relationships they have chosen. I doubt that if they were limited to only one wife, they would behave better.As I said, I don't think polyamory is particularly common and I think stable healthy polyamory is even less common. Nevertheless, I don't see it as that uniquely sexist. Women can and have had their the primary reason for existence relegated to reproduction in monogamous heterosexual marriage as well.

  • From what I've seen on the Internet, many of the people asking for polygamy to be legal are women who wish to marry more than one man. This is not a clear indication of what would happen if it were legal, but I wanted to mention this to suggest that perhaps we would not see the clear polygyny-more-than-polyandry trend commenters above mentioned. Those trends seem to exist in traditions which are already practicing polygamy; we can have no idea of what would happen if our society could legally practice polygamy.Further, I would point out that there are a few de facto polygamous families (legally they are monogamous, but these groups behave polygamously) which report that it is a healthy environment for their children. Perhaps this could be an area of research. That there aren't many to study is more likely due to the fact that the practice is illegal, not that it's unhealthy.This is not to say that I agree that polygamy is ethical, but those are for personal, spiritual reasons; on a sociological level, I can't think of anything wrong with polygamy.

  • The woman in the Gottleib case is immoral to create a child on her own. If she wants a kid so badly, she can adopt. But to deliberately create a child who will never know his father is very wrong and incredibly selfish.

  • @Christian,Yeah, I think we're on the same page. I wonder how much sociological research is out there.@Class factotumI certainly think it is less ideal for the woman to adopt than to use a sperm donor, but I don't think it crosses over to immoral. First of all, I'm under the impression that it's actually fairly difficult for a single woman to adopt, since most agencies prefer to place children in two parent families. Additionally, I think there's a similar weak moral call for married potential parents to adopt rather than procreate, since there are children that already need a home.In both cases, I view the less generous option as an acceptable compromise and the adoption as going above the call of duty.

  • Madelaine

    @ Class factotum, LeahKeep in mind that adoption is, at least as practiced, often not a selfless, generous, or unproblematic act. If your objection is knowledge of birth parents… adoption hardly solves that (except very well-practiced fully-open adoption). And it's not as if that group of children given up for adoption (who are causing those moral obligations) would remain nearly as large if we focused more on social generosity than individual acts and worked for better support for their birth parents, many of whom would raise those kids if they had the means (thus avoiding the myriad issues that can arise in both birth mothers and adopted kids). Given that, and given that many adoptive parents want a baby (which strikes me as fairly reasonable, although the fact that they often want white, "healthy" babies is rather more problematic), while many orphans aren't babies (or white or healthy), why should a fertile woman who's able and willing or even eager to be pregnant adopt a baby who could go to an infertile couple without that option? The demand (at least for babies) is greater than the number of babies available to adopt, after all. Especially domestically, and international adoption can and does get even more problematic.