Think first before giving birth

We feel like we have an unquestionable right to have children in America, but we need to carefully consider the consequences.

Jason Ketola

In my most recent column, I suggested that as people seeking a better world we need to consider three different consequences of having children when deciding whether we will have them: the negative environmental impact an American child will have, the forgone opportunity to help a child waiting to be adopted and the forgone opportunity to help many children and adults if one’s resources were donated. Because our society generally is unquestioningly approving of having one’s own children, my column proved to be quite controversial despite that the consequences I discussed are real. I’m concerned that having children is taken for granted in our culture. Given that having kids has the effects on others that I mentioned, I decided to bolster the three points I made last week while addressing points in the two published letters to the editor that responded to my column.

I mentioned in last week’s column that compared with most of the rest of the world, Americans are disproportionately consuming resources and are disproportionately contributing to environmental degradation, which, in turn, has the potential to detrimentally affect humans’ lives as things turn for the worse (e.g. melting polar ice caps and other potential environmental disasters). Rema Rida, in her Oct. 26 letter, suggested that we consider changing our own lifestyles in light of these concerns rather than question whether having our own children will contribute to these problems. I wholeheartedly agree with Rida that we should reconsider the environmental impacts of our own lifestyles and adjust them, but Rida missed the point when she suggested we don’t need to think about the impact of having children. I suggest Rida and others use the simple quiz at to approximate their impact on the world and the impact that bringing a new life into the world will have.

In his Oct. 27 response to my column, John Strickland suggested that rather than have fewer children to reduce our environmental impact we instead should promote population growth with the idea in mind that greater competition will lead to more improvements. The problem with such wishful thinking is that a greater population does not guarantee an innovation will come along to save everyone. The more likely outcome of promoting continued population growth is that increasingly more people will face extreme poverty, scarcity of resources and little hope of much quality of life.

Strickland further suggests that if the number of American children born is reduced, the youths of today may not be able to support the senior citizens of tomorrow. Of course, such a concern is trivial if global warming or other environmental problems continue to be exacerbated. Environmental concerns aside, Social Security is such a mess anyway that it’s unlikely to work even at current growth rates.

My second major point in last week’s column was that when we choose to have a child we are forgoing the opportunity to adopt and help a child who already exists and has needs for love and support. To this point, Rema Rida questions why any of us should “give up our God-given right to bear children just because others were unable to care for their own.” Surely some people are having children without being able to care for them, but the children, whatever the circumstance they were born into, are not the ones who should be punished. We definitely should address the structural and societal issues that are leading to these births, but the existence of these problems does not negate the fact that in choosing to have our own children rather than adopt, we are choosing to not help a child in need.

My third major point was that when we choose to have a child, we should expect to spend at least $180,000 in raising the child to the age of 18, and by choosing to do so, we neglect the tremendous need that already exists in the world where more than a billion people are living on the purchasing power of less than $1 a day. That $180,000 could go a long way to alleviating the suffering of many people in other parts of the world. The money, for instance, could be donated to microlending organizations like FINCA International and the Grameen Bank, which give small loans to these extremely poor people and have an amazing track record of helping people out of poverty.

Both Rida and Strickland take issue with my characterization of parents’ decision to have children as selfish. I’ll admit that I was overly harsh in making this technical point. My fundamental point restated: Our decision of whether to have children should consider all the consequences I presented and not just our own desires.

Having our own children may bring us joy, but it may lead to the suffering of others. There are many children who would benefit greatly from adoption and many more who would benefit from the resources we would spend on a child of our own.

The chance of any of us giving birth to the next Mohandas Gandhi is slim, but the opportunity for all of us to make a difference in the world right now is great. Yet making a difference depends on the decisions we make today. Let’s be mindful of the consequences if we decide to have children and how many. A lot depends on it.

Jason Ketola welcomes comments at [email protected]