We need to change how we think about childbearing.
Having a child is probably the single most expensive decision someone in the developed world can make. Once a child is born, one becomes responsible for that child’s food, shelter, emotional support, education, and a thousand and one other needs harder to anticipate and describe, sometimes through socialized systems that ease access to various goods. The guardians of children become their first and fastest path toward accumulating the possessions that they will then use to gain their first taste of independence. Parents and other caretakers and among the most important fonts of culture, moral growth, and personal development that any person will ever have. The enormity of the caretaker’s role is so well understood that it routinely features in sexist writings that insist that women should be content with that specific influence on the future and desire no additional option or greater agency than that.
But there is one situation in which that understanding is ignored: the decision to have a child.
When people find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, the conversation they are expected to have in their heads or with their friends is not “Where is the nearest clinic?” but “Do I keep it?” If xe does not have the resources to bring a child to fruition to hir satisfaction, if xe lacks a support network that can spread the massive, massive load of a new person to make it less overwhelming, even if xe has not prepared for having a child at all, xe is still expected to agonize over this “choice” as though it were a massive sacrifice to not give birth. Xe is expected to present the decision not to as a necessary evil that they undertook because they did could not do otherwise. Going through with the pregnancy and having a child afterward is the default that requires no justification, and doing otherwise is the alternative that requires extenuating circumstances.
We should not be more casual about becoming responsible for an entire new life in a way that radically restructures one’s own than we are about what houses we buy or what jobs we take. Of all the heavy decisions that people make, from religious (de)conversion to whether to get a dog to what school to attend to what expertise to spend years and thousands acquiring, whether or not to become the most important person in someone else’s life, on whom they will be almost totally dependent for years and variably less so thereafter and to whom they will probably dedicate their books and give credit for becoming the person they will eventually be is probably the only one our society expects people to fall into by accident when we have the option not to.
Not only do we have that option, but it is unconscionable that we do not instead encourage people to exercise it.
There are already too many humans. Zygotes are usually trivial to make and have no ethical agency. But even if that weren’t true, children deserve better than to be thoughtless happenstance. Children deserve better than whatever their parents could cobble together on a few months’ notice because they could not be bothered to plan their families with more enthusiasm or had that option taken from them by religious zealots with evil priorities.
We need a new norm, one not based on the magical notion that zygotes matter and mothers don’t.
Abortion, not birth, needs to be the default response to pregnancy. We need to remember that bringing a child into this world is a massive, massive decision that should not be undertaken lightly, and we should expect people to refuse to complete any pregnancy that takes them unawares. We should expect people who decide to go through with a pregnancy to have already amassed or have plans to quickly amass the resources they will need for the child to come. We should regard anyone who decides to bring a child into this world without those resources in place as fundamentally irresponsible and encourage them to wait until they are actually ready and/or help make them so before they undertake something as prohibitively huge as childrearing.
We long ago reached the technological pinnacle at which pregnancy and childbirth are optional. It’s been with us longer than the Kiriwinans have had their yams and their beautifully consensual view of marriage. It has only gotten safer since the days of phytoestrogens and pennyroyal tea. We owe it to ourselves and to our descendants to utilize those options, and to make every child one they are eager to receive and one they are prepared to give the life it deserves.
We should be aghast at someone who gives birth casually, not at someone who aborts “casually.” It is the former, not the latter, who is derelict in their duties to their fellow persons.
Austen, L. 1934. Procreation among the Trobriand Islanders. Oceania 5(1).