(It grieves me to no end that this is a question that many in this country take seriously. Actually, strike that. First, it angers me. Then it grieves me.)
Writing in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert reviews a number of books about this question.
Taken seriously, Benatar’s logic leads to what might be called the Conclusive Conclusion. If we all saw the harm we were doing by having children and put a stop to it, within a century or so the world’s population would drop to zero. For Benatar, this is an outcome devoutly to be wished. “Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth,” he writes. “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more” of us.
Thankfully, Douthat is able to take the discussion a bit more seriously and offers a response:
Life itself is an extraordinary gift, the act of bringing a life into the world (and nurturing it and protecting it and rearing it and so on) involves enormous sacrifice on the part of parents, and so the best way to express an appropriate gratitude for what Burke calls “the unbought grace of life” is to make the same sacrifice yourself, and extend that grace to another generation (and thus to generations beyond that). This logic doesn’t require everyone to have children: You might never meet an appropriate partner, you might have psychological or (as in the case of the hypothetical couple B) medical issues that would militate against becoming a parent, you might find an alternative way of expressing gratitude and giving as you received. But it demands some reason from Couple A for their permanent childlessness, rather than simply assuming that they have nothing to justify or defend.
But the most important response comes from Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry:
Why should the genetically diseased not reproduce?
Not because they would sully the gene pool. Surely, we don’t think that. (Do we?)
Ah, it’s because their child would “suffer terribly.” But this is a non-sequitur.
I actually agree with Benatar: all life involves suffering. But this is precisely why it cannot be a criterion for whether a life should be lived (or else you reach Benatar’s conclusion that all human life should be extinguished). All life involves measures of terrible suffering and measures of bliss. And, most importantly, we cannot know ahead of time what the mix will be, for anyone. Including those with a “genetic disease”.
It is the height of arrogance to believe otherwise. It is, in a fundamental sense, inhumane because it entails a lack of real empathy: yes, even the sick, even the handicapped, even the poor, even the downtrodden, have life experiences that are worth living.
If you truly put yourself in others’ shoes—truly, not as “How would I feel if I were…” but truly take others’ perspective, it is impossible not to see this.
It is, of course, an impulse of good intentions that lead us to believe some lives are not worth living. But it is a logically and humanely intenable position.
(And, obviously, the slippery slope is real: once we decide that some lives are more worth living than others—literally, worth more than others—the circle of the blessed keeps ever narrowing. Those who use Rawls’ veil of ignorance to justify redistributive taxation ought to apply it to more areas of life.)
There are, of course, countless examples. Many with genetic diseases lead very happy, productive lives. No one who has met children with Down syndrome would seriously claim that they do not by and large enjoy life immensely. (I can think of, in fact, a couple exactly like the B’s: both of them wheelchair-bound with degenerative diseases, who had a daughter who is lovely and precious, and take care of her very well thank you very much. Since you ask, the girl does not share their disease, though there was a big chance she would have.)
But once we’ve decided that we can determine a priori which lives will be worth living, that some people have a duty not to bring into the world people who are different, then truly we are missing something fundamental.
Do I think the B’s have a duty to reproduce? I don’t think they have more or less of a duty than the A’s, because I think all people are equal in dignity. I do think society has a duty to make it easier for the B’s to lead normal lives, which includes bringing up children should they want to.
It’s kind of amazing that this has to be said.
And… I can’t help myself. I work in a special ed classroom with a number of precious, beautiful kids who would probably have been aborted if some of the perverted beings who wrote the books reviewed by The New Yorker had their way. So here’s my response to them.