The need to breed: reproductive licensing

Paul Raven @ 15-10-2010

Kyle Munkittrick’s at it again over at Discover‘s Science Not Fiction blog, this time raising an ethical question that has intrigued me ever since I encountered it in an assortment of science fiction stories and novels as a teenager: should the right to reproduce be subject to licensing*?

Cue knee-jerk horror and accusations of fascism-by-the-back-door… but Munkittrick makes some points worth considering. First of all, we already have a limited form of licensing with respect to child-rearing: adoption.

If you can have children naturally, you’re free to have as many as you want and basically do what you want with them. The only exceptions are parents so horrible that the state steps in and takes them away. If you can’t or don’t want to have children naturally, then not only do you have to go through the difficult and complex processes of adoption and/or ARTs, you have to be approved to do so. It’s double-damage on the equality front. Our society, it would seem, unconsciously believes “If you’re naturally able to have kids, then it’s OK for you to have kids. But if you aren’t able to naturally have kids, there might be something else wrong with you, and you should be investigated.” That kind of mindset is wrong – your ability to have kids is not an indicator your ability to take care of them.

He goes on to point out that all that’s realistically needed is a test of basic competence, just like you take to get a driving license:

Just as it is reasonable to have a person in charge of a car take a class and a few tests to make sure they’re capable, it is reasonable to have a person who will be in charge of a new life take a few tests to make sure they’re capable. You didn’t have to be Dale Earnhart, Jr. to get your drivers license; you won’t have to be Ward Cleaver to get your parenting license. You had to be able to merge into traffic, parallel park, and negotiate a four way stop; by the same logic, every child deserves a minimally competent parent.

The main problem that I can see is that by setting up a framework intended to screen only for basic competence, you’re leaving a legacy system to the politicians of the future which could be tweaked and adjusted for more fascistic ideological purposes. Not to mention the fact that any bureaucratic system of the complexity required to license parenting in a country the size of the UK would inevitably be highly susceptible to gaming, fraud and bribery…

Ultimately I’m somewhat hesitant to pick sides on this particular issue, despite what seems to me the very logical appeal of the idea; this is because I have no intention of ever having children, and as such I can’t fully understand the incredibly powerful emotional responses that parenthood – and, in some sad cases, the inability to achieve parenthood – engenders in people. How can I deny someone else the right to do something that I’ve never wanted to do?

That said, the logic seems fairly clear to me: surely the worst thing that we could do to any child is allow it to be raised by parents either unwilling or incapable of caring for it properly? As Munkittrick points out, almost anyone can conceive a child, but evidence suggests that not everyone can raise one. So whose rights must take primacy – the right of every human being to reproduce if they’re able and willing, or the right of every child to be raised responsibly? Given that the child doesn’t get a choice about whether it gets born or not, I see it as being the underdog in the equation, and hence more deserving of protection.

Where do you folk stand on this one? Particularly interested in input from parents, would-be or actual.

[ * I feel Julian May’s Galactic Milieu books dealt rather well with this issue, in that she was careful to simply portray such a system in action, warts and all, good and bad, without passing any authorial judgement on its ethical validity. Recommendations of other stories or novels that deal with similar subjects would be most welcome! ]

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14 Responses to “The need to breed: reproductive licensing”

  1. Matt Warren says:

    I think there’s still a slippy slope here and – on the surface, anyway – seems dangerous. You are right that there are indicators of basic competence that you can test for, but you can *game* that, as well. How would such an evaluation take place and over what time? Those are the sorts of questions that make me begin to feel uncomfortable.

    Determining what rights a potential-being has is not something that has been met with calm resolve in the past. This seems even more divisive.

    Great stuff; thanks for getting my rusted gearwork moving, today.

  2. Wintermute says:

    Just at a glance I see several conundrums (and I have spent many a car-drive’s worth of omphaloskepsis on this particular social-Darwinism vs essential child-abuse issue).

    One is with the pragmatic enforcement of any child-rearing competency law. Excluding miscarriages, 49% of pregnancies concluding in 1994 were unintended pregnancies. So if Jayla-Ann winds up getting knocked up by BeiberBoy88 on a big kegger weekend, it’s too late for the procreation politzei to step in… Lest we fine BeiberBoy for “driveby zygote shooting”, then toss a whole new grenade full of worms into the equation and mandate that Jayla get a (state funded!) abortion due to “unlawful insemination”. Sounds like just the nodal Ferdinand Assassination event to start off the powder keg of Culture World War 3.

    Or, of course, since places like the UK are doing so well with the whole Big Brother thing, we could implant RFID-tags in eggs, install Panop-Co ™ cameras in the foreskin and cervix of every citizen to monitor “suspicious foreigners” in the genital vicinity, which set off WiFied alarms and call down a ‘Sperm Swat Team’ to cock-block before the perpetrators can get off- I mean away. Or even dystopier! “New internet site ‘The Peeping Samaritan’ pays anonymous net surfers to monitor CCTV (Criminal Coitus TV) cameras for suspicious ‘at risk’ foreplay / flirting for a thousand pounds per incident, making the #1 internet activity (porn) also the most profitable.”

    Then you have the Gordian problem of hashing out *any* objective criteria rubric that constitutes “acceptable parenting”. Sure, drug addiction, violence, general inability to take care of basic child needs ( monetary or otherwise) is an easy place to go. But how about pairs of long-hour working “career couples” who give their child every last pony and XBox game they want, but spend only scant few hours or minutes with their children a week? Is that really the sign of a good parent? How about people who can’t pull their faces out of their iPhones and give full attention to anything for more than 5 seconds, a zeitgeist that is beautifully skewered in Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 “Really?” ads? How about affluent middle-upper-middle class parents who hover and spoil their kids rotten, creating the jobless, leeching, “entitlement generation”, where 2/3rds of the population in the US don’t have the skills to get into the *army*? Once you get beyond the basics of “too abominable to be a parent”, it becomes extremely murky and difficult to sort out what makes a good parent because “good” is subjective, prescriptive term. And the further you get from the bottom end, the slipperier the slope gets.

    I don’t at all disagree with the premise, that things could be better if all parents really were prepared and up to snuff. I have worked with at-risk youth and dropouts, pregnant teens, the tragedy and self-perpetuation of abuse, I see all around me first hand the effects of incompetent parenting, and there have been times I wished I could just take a sterilizer ray to many a parent. But in practice, it is very, very, very difficult to create an effective functioning system of reproductive licensing, and any system I have thought of or yet heard of is littered with social, political, pragmatic, and ethical downfalls.

    That’s not to say we might one day figure it out, but I’m not holding my *cough* breath.

  3. Silviamg says:

    I’m guessing that was the train of thought when they started forcibly sterilizing indigenous people in Peru and Mexico.

  4. Robert Koslover says:

    Reproductive licensing by the state is fundamentally contrary to human freedom. Needless to say, I am against it. And Paul, as a normally highly-literate and generally-contemplative individual, you really should know better than to find *anything* remotely attractive about the idea of casually handing over such enormous powers to government bureaucrats. Really.

  5. SMD says:

    I’m under the persuasion that if you raise your kids in a way that leads them to a poor fate, that you should be held responsible to the maximum penalty possible under the law. So, for people who refuse to give their kids vaccines for serious diseases: if your child gets said disease and dies, you should be charged with murder, and you should be charged with murder or attempted murder for any other child who catches said disease (I’m talking serious stuff). I also think anyone who refuses to take their child to the hospital should be charged when their child dies of a treatable disease.

    Why? Because of what you said in your post: children don’t get a choice in the matter when it comes to their parents. They’re stuck with you, and if you’re willing to play jeopardy with their lives, then you should also be willing to face the legal consequences for said gambling.

    That’s how I see it, and I might be on the extreme end. I simply don’t have patience for people who screw up their children on purpose.

  6. Sean says:

    “Cue knee-jerk horror and accusations of fascism-by-the-back-door… but Munkittrick makes some points worth considering.”

    This would require forced sterilization, forced abortion, or outlawing sex. But accusations of fascism are entirely knee-jerk.

  7. Paul Raven says:

    Thanks for the responses, folks; they’re as varied as I expected, and no one went postal, a prospect which nearly stopped me from posting it at all.

    Sean:

    This would require forced sterilization, forced abortion, or outlawing sex.

    That’s one way of doing it, but almost certainly the most extreme methodology possible, and one that I doubt would even get tabled outside of the freakiest fringes of politics anywhere in the world. Definitely fascist, too, but I don’t think you can say the same of the underlying principle… unless you hold that, say, taking children into care to get them away from abusive parents is fascist (which I suppose you could make a logical case for, but I think I’d argue quite hard against it).

    Silvia: you’re quite right to raise the spectre of eugenics and the subjugation of indigenous peoples in connection to this idea, but as I said in reply to Sean there, I think there’s a scale of wrongness that ties to motives – if getting an inconvenient section of society out of the way is the intent, then it’s a definite wrong, but if the intent is to avoid children coming to harm through poor or irresponsible parenting, there’s an underlying good motive in operation. Whether that motive would stay so pure is, of course, another question entirely.

    Robert: while the state is the most obvious apparatus to hand such a task to, it’s not the only one possible. An anarchist I may be, but that doesn’t mean I’m opposed to governance itself; it’s the entrenched hierarchy and coercive power system that is used to govern us to which I object! If we ever get rid of nation-states, we’ll still need to govern ourselves… and ethical quandaries like this one are sure to make it a challenge. 😉

    It’s an interesting question precisely because it presents a very logical case for an action, but it’s an action for which there is no simple and fool-proof implementation. You’ve all given me a great deal of food for thought, for which I’m very grateful!

    And Wintermute: I don’t know what you do for a living, but someone should be paying you to think. Or write science fiction. Maybe both. 😉

  8. Dave Frost says:

    Over the last few years this, and related questions, have become more than academic for me. My partner and I adopted both our son and daughter through the California “fost-adopt” system. We’ve also fostered two other kids under short-term ’emergency’ conditions. Three days after coming to us, when our son was 3 ½, we were wrestling around, and I took off my belt so he wouldn’t be hurt by the heavy buckle. As soon as he saw that belt he went into full-on panic. You can guess why: his father was an alcoholic and a mean drunk and made a habit of taking his anger out on the family. Eight years later our son still freezes in tense situations. Our daughter is brain damaged and mildly retarded: she’d been unconscious twice by the time she came to us when she was four. The first time she “fell down some stairs” and then was shaken to wake her up. The second time she was so hungry she managed to get out of wherever she was locked, found her mother’s drugs where they had been left on the coffee table, and ate them, sending her into a coma. The extreme malnutrition — she was tiny and had almost no hair when she first came to live with us — well, that didn’t help any either. Both kids are going to be living with what their parents have done, for the rest of their lives.

    Right now, we’re fostering our son’s little brother, who was conceived about the time our son and his bigger sister were finally being taken away from their mother for good (a two year process). Note that that means she conceived after the state had already decided she was incapable of raising children. The boy is tiny, skinny, and — despite being a sweet, wonderful kid — has few social skills, poor impulse control, and no study habits. All of which we’ve started to work on. It’s easy enough to see he was well on his way to joining one of the gangs in the area where his mother has to live because she drinks too much to hold down a job, even at McDonald’s.

    I’ve always thought I was pretty liberal. I’m for legalizing marijuana. I’m against many incarcerations given the many better alternatives. And I certainly don’t believe in licensing parenthood. But I’ve found myself wondering why our society permits adults to do these sorts of things to kids. I can’t help but think that some “three strikes” rule is needed. Something like: the first time an adult it arrested for certain offenses, like hard drug possession, or domestic drunk and disorderly with children present, they get a warning; the second time they get a birth control implant for the duration of some kind of multi-year probationary period; the third time it’s surgical and permanent — for both men and women. Yes, I too feel the idea is draconian, but life is full of permanent results for bad decisions, and most of them don’t give second, much less third, chances. I can’t help but think our society would be better if it imposed some real consequences on its supposed adults.

    As I’ve said, I don’t believe in licensing parenthood. But my reaction is no longer as quick and instinctive as it seems to be for some of the other posters. I’ve heard too many stories, and experienced some first-hand situations, that show me how fallible such a system would be. For example: Late this week we were told by our son’s little brother’s social worker that he’s leaving us so that he can “go home to his mother” three days from now. She’s terminated his attendance at our local school to move him closer to where he’ll be living. Because I’m on good terms with the sister I knew that the social worker had some kind of personal agenda that was leading her to tell different versions of events to different concerned parties (one story for the sister, another for the mother, another for us, and presumably yet another for the court — all kept separate by the assumption none of them talks to the other). Besides, I couldn’t understand why the worker was pushing hard to return the boy to his mother after only a few weeks in rehab, followed by a few more weeks “taking classes” and living in an apartment with another woman fresh out of rehab. This, despite the fact that the social worker and the mother don’t speak each other’s languages, the worker has never been inside the mother’s present quarters, and has never bothered to ask us how the boy is fitting in here or at his new school.

    So I called the boy’s attorney and asked her for the real story. It turns out that 1.) the plan is that he will only be visiting his mother on a two-week trial basis, and 2.) the plan hasn’t even been confirmed by the court yet. That’s not at all the story told to us by the social worker. Now, suddenly, we’re being asked by the attorney to be ready to take him back, and we’re not sure we have the emotional resources to go through all that again. The social worker’s version led us to say what we thought were our permanent goodbyes, and to begin the adjustment to no longer having him around (including all the joys and tensions his presence has brought). I’m still not sure what the social worker’s agenda is: maybe she’s homophobic, maybe she doesn’t approve of cross-racial families, maybe she really believes what she is doing best and is simply afraid we might try to interfere if we knew “too much.”

    Her agenda doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this argument. What does matter is that she has one that seems to be unrelated to the boy’s welfare, and she is perfectly ready to lie and misrepresent, risking his future in the process, in order to forward her own preferences — and there are no checks and balances to stop her. The attorney even told me: “She (the social worker) isn’t popular with the other families (she’s worked with).” That’s as close as the attorney could come to letting me know that the court, at least, is aware of this worker’s approach. And this worker is just one of many I’ve known of.

    So, given this kind evidence of the arbitrariness of a system that only processes a few tens of thousands of cases each year, how could we even consider trusting a similar system to fairly make decisions about lives of everyone in the U.S. — that’s 308 million – or anywhere else?

    As a final note: I’ve never objected to having to take classes and pass a background check to be a foster parent. It makes sense that our society should do what it can to avoid putting already emotionally battered kids into the hands of abusers. But, by way of yet more evidence on the fallibility of such systems: while I’ve known some saint-like foster parents, there are still plenty of others who regard the kids in their care as cash cows and semi-indentured servants.

  9. Dave Frost says:

    > That’s one way of doing it, but almost certainly the most extreme methodology possible, and one that I doubt would even get tabled outside of the freakiest fringes of politics anywhere in the world. <

    Actually, I think India experimented with population control through forced sterilization under Indira Gandhi in the seventies and the criteria there was nominally economic.

  10. Wintermute says:

    Paul: “And Wintermute: I don’t know what you do for a living, but someone should be paying you to think. Or write science fiction. Maybe both. ;)”

    Hehe… I do write science fiction, although I haven’t yet been paid for it. 🙂 Did get some in a web mag though.

  11. silviamg says:

    “But if the intent is to avoid children coming to harm through poor or irresponsible parenting, there’s an underlying good motive in operation.”

    But in Mexico and Peru there was an underlying “good” motive: indigenous people live in poverty, are often undereducated, and have too many kids. Thus, you could argue they are unfit to be parents.

    And, for example, my great-grandmother could barely read and write. She would have never passed any parenting license exam due to her extremely low education. But she was a strong and reliable woman who helped raise me. How do you measure that? Things such as love or tenacity that ensure you grow up ‘right’ even if you are in a rather squalid neighborhood.

    There’s easier solutions: high quality early child care, universal health care, programs and opportunities geared towards parents or would-be parents which can teach them life skills. There may even be economic incentives. In Canada, if you open an RESP (an education fund for your child), the government matches contributions. If parents take a certain number of parenting or life skill classes, they could be given some amount of money that would go into their RESP.

    Btw, Dave Frost is right. India implemented forced sterilization in poor neighborhoods.And stuff like the residential school system in Canada proves similar stuff hasn’t just happened in freaky, dystopian scenarios.

  12. Sean says:

    “That’s one way of doing it, but almost certainly the most extreme methodology possible, and one that I doubt would even get tabled outside of the freakiest fringes of politics anywhere in the world. Definitely fascist, too, but I don’t think you can say the same of the underlying principle… unless you hold that, say, taking children into care to get them away from abusive parents is fascist (which I suppose you could make a logical case for, but I think I’d argue quite hard against it).”

    How else are you going to do it? Take the children into state custody after they’re born? Completely infeasible — the current system is operating above capacity as is.

  13. StupendousMan says:

    Robert Koslover:
    “…you really should know better than to find *anything* remotely attractive about the idea of casually handing over such enormous powers to government bureaucrats. Really.”

    That brings up an issue I have, namely that the government forces other people to provide for children we didn’t conceive. In other words we have already handed our government(s) immense powers. I this case my(our) negative rights are superseded by some irresponsible parent’s positive rights.

    It’s not an easy issue.

  14. Robert Koslover says:

    Yes indeed, StupendousMan. “A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” — President Gerald Ford addressing a joint session of Congress (12 August 1974).
    The solution is small government, not expanded government.