The Ethics Of… Being Allowed to Breed

We’ve all thought about it, haven’t we? Come on, be honest – you can’t seriously tell me that, when confronted with some truly bratty kids and/or utterly heinous parents, you have never once entertained the idea;

“You should really need a license to have kids.”

Whether it’s a case of mortifying under-discipline (resulting in brats that now believe the key to success is to shriek louder), or brutal over-discipline (turning out kids who respect violence, and not much else), parents who seem dead-set on turning them into tiny blimps before they turn five, or (my particular favourite) parent who saw a dead hooker once and decided they’d found their kid’s look, there is no shortage of examples of people who really, really, REALLY shouldn’t be parents.


And then of course, you have the ones who go that extra mile and just make you want to shoot them on sight. Case in point; the recent Baby Gammy case – the horrifying trainwreck Australia has been unable to look away from for the last couple of weeks.

For the uninitiated, the first reports were about twins who had been delivered for an Australian couple via a surrogate mother in Thailand (yeah red flags everywhere already, right?). Apparently one of the twins was born with Downs Syndrome – at which point the parents took the normal one and ditched the disabled kid in Thailand. Needless to say, the media had a field-day. You could have cooked eggs with the ambient outrage.

And then, to borrow a phrase from Russian history, it got worse. See, turns out the male half of the adopting couple is a convicted paedophile, 22 times over. You just can’t make this crap up.

Naturally the poop hit the fan and was spread far and wide. If ever there was a person who shouldn’t be allowed to have kids, this was the guy, and plenty of people have plenty of ideas about what should be done with him (it’s about as restrained as you’d imagine it would be).

Now there’s plenty to debate about this particular case – the guy has, after all, been declared rehabilitated, and it sounds like the Thai situation might be a bit more complicated that initially thought (shocker) – but it raises a very interesting point about the right to have kids in general.

As a convicted paedophile, David Farnell will never pass a police check, be allowed to work with children, or adopt (inside a developed country at least). BUT he can have all the kids he wants. Indeed, he already had two before this adoption and would have had more since had fertility permitted.

Seems remarkably perverse, doesn’t it? We don’t trust the guy even to be around other people’s children, but he can make his own? And be their legal guardian until they are 18? Heavily controlling their lives and guiding their development? How does that make any sense whatsoever?

Should David Farnell be banned from having kids? And if he won’t stop breeding, should extra steps be taken to make him stop?

Needless to say, this is an idea absolutely loaded with trouble. The freedom to have children and raise a family is a massively important human right, to the point where describing it as a ‘freedom’ sounds bizarre – it’s so fundamental to our psyche, society and biology that ‘freedom’ sounds too soft a word, because it even hints at the potential that we might not be allowed.

But as I’ve gone on about at length before, just because something is persuasive doesn’t make it true. Sure, having kids might well be seen as an inalienable right but can you think of situations where it would be better if someone couldn’t have kids? Of course you can – literally any situation where the kid might be exposed to abuse, poverty or psychological trauma are all pretty good examples of situations where children don’t belong.

Now obviously this is not to say that kids who are in these situations are lost causes, but if we have the option of the kid never being introduced in the first place, avoiding a hell of a lot of suffering (and a potentially very messed up adult) in the first place, then surely that is a better option? That’s the tricky thing about Rights – there will always be exceptions to the rule, because the rule can never be comprehensive enough to account for all situations.

But even if we accept that some people should not have children in principle, the second you start to look at the practicalities of the situation you run into another massive set of problems. How are you possibly going to make that work? For better or worse, sex remains an extremely private thing in human cultures; as a result, regulating people conceiving children is virtually impossible because we have absolutely no way of telling when it’s happening.

You can try asking people not to have kids if they can’t provide a good upbringing, but the thing about that is that only conscientious, thoughtful, selfless people (ie. the sort of people who probably would be good parents) would be likely to agree; those who simply do not give a shit on the other hand, will keep popping out broods regardless, thereby achieving an even worse result.

Faced with these complications the list of options gets both a lot shorter and a lot more ugly, really, really fast. I think we can all agree that concepts such as the automatic removal of children from their families and forced sterilisation of unworthy parents are powers that no government should have – even if you think the likes of David Farnell deserve it, it’s an extremely dangerous precedent to set, and one that even the most casual student of history should recoil from in horror.

As with our discussion about Privacy last week, what this all boils down to is how much of our freedom we should be prepared to sacrifice for security. Sure the freedom to have a child is a pretty serious one, but if preserving that freedom virtually guarantees that thousands of children will live in poverty, be abused and suffer all their lives as a result, is it really something we can justify?

But just as with Privacy, this ignores that all-important second question we must always ask: is there a better alternative here?

Is there a way that we can keep our freedoms but also ensure the security of these children? Improve their safety, security and quality of life without interfering in who can and cannot breed? Of course there is – we can fix the things that make people bad parents in the first place.

Education is the major factor in this, as is a strong social security system that gives us all the freedom to pursue that education (rather than working in a coal mine for 10 hours so we can afford such luxuries as food and shelter). Initiatives such as a paid maternity AND paternity scheme greatly assist the ability for parents to raise their children, and the multitude of free parenting classes available also help those who are unsure (or court-ordered) to get their shit together.

But are these sort of measures going to help prevent scumbags like the Farnell’s from getting their hands on a child? Unfortunately not. But that is the ugly truth when it comes to big social issues like this – even with solid preventative programs and child protection programs when abuse does occur, you’re never going to catch everyone, every time.

But given the massive practical problems facing any attempt to control who does and does not have kids, not to mention the terrifying potential for abuse of those powers by governments (or anyone who held them really), sometimes even something as awful as the Baby Gammy case is a price worth paying.



9 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Being Allowed to Breed

  1. I think given the very biological nature of reproduction and parenting, this is something that is likely to only get better on longer timescales. There is no reform that will ever change things completely for the better within a single generation. Morality has progressed slowly over human history and I think it’s safe to say that children have it better than they did in the past (as a whole). Education is the answer but the results will only show marginal improvements over shorter lengths of time.

    • Hey Swarn, good point. Unfortunately, while education and social policy are highly effective they tae a while for results to show – with lots of short term fluctuation. Have you ever heard of the Fabian Society? They’re a group that aims to advance (pretty moderate) socialist policy over a long term period, and has been rather successful as a result (and their logo is a turtle, which I find fairly hilarious).

      • I have not heard of the Fabian Society, but they sound quite interesting I will have to read about them. Sometimes I think that getting humans to move in any particular direction is like herding cats. We might get there, but it will take a long long time and we will experience much frustration along the way!

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