Author Archives: SJ Chapman

About SJ Chapman

I graduated from Northwestern University School of Law in 2012. My interests lie in corporate law, nonprofit law, tax law, law & economics, and ethics.

Why we have children

I have always wondered why we have children. Being curious about this topic is not easy. For one thing, I have been trying to answer this question for ten years, and have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. More often than not, I feel that asking why people have children is as fruitless as asking why the sky is blue. Most people aren’t able to answer why the sky is blue with technical specificity; the usual answer is either a fib, or a perfunctory “because it is.” The truth is that even when we are able to give the scientific explanation of the sky’s color, we don’t fully grasp it ourselves. This is how I feel in trying to answer the question, “why do people have children?” If there is an explanation, I have not found anyone who truly understands it.

For another thing, it’s not an easy question to pose. “Why did you have children?” is not just a complicated question to answer, it’s also rude. Now, that doesn’t stop me from asking, but my goal of being able to poll the world is stunted by the fact that I am limited in asking this question to people who respect and trust me. The message that I am exploring the enigmatic intersection of reproduction, evolution and morality must be clear.

The explanations I have gotten from those who support my exploration have been beautiful and varied. The family I lived with in Kenya told me that it was a matter of literal blood line. Passing blood from one member to another. Others have echoed the sentiment of George Dent that “we all must die, but through their children [people] can achieve a sort of immortality.”[1]

But I would be remiss if I did not report the most common answer, the one that intrigues me most of all: “I don’t know.” Consequently I have endeavored to formulate the answer myself.

The best explanation I have has three layers, and you can think of it like a clay figurine. The clay is biology, the paint is

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society, and the artist is our personal subjectivity. The clay represents earth, nature, something whose creation we have no better explanation for than why the sky is blue. The paint, an artificial construct, composed of multiple manmade ingredients combined to make a substance that adds beauty to the clay it covers.

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The artist is the subjectivity in each of us. It is the process of experiencing and interpreting the intersection of nature and society, then using analysis, vision, and creativity to develop unique end results.

When I started pondering the mystery of having children ten years ago, I began with biology – instinct. The obvious explanation, it seemed, was that having children is innate, primal, even inescapable. At the time, I honestly didn’t think there was even much more to it. But instinct proved to be a morass in itself.

My hypothesis that instinct is the driving force in having children was not substantiated by asking my peers why they chose to do so. Could I have hoped for anything different? How crude it would seem to answer the question “why did you have children?” with an academic, “instinct.”

Instead, I found the support I was looking for in literature. Authors have called the urge to have children a basic instinct,[2] a powerful need,[3] one of “the strongest drives known to mankind.”[4] The desire has been described as “so deep, so intense, that many people will do literally anything to fulfill it.”[5] The inability to fulfill that need may very well be the most disheartening experience someone will have in their lifetime.[6]

But it quickly became clear that instinct was not a satisfactory explanation for two reasons. First is instinct’s role. This is a means/ends problem. If instinct is the means driving us to have children, what are the ends? Sex? Birth? Child-rearing? Second is instinct’s scope. Why do some families have two children while others have twenty?

“Of all the human instincts

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we possess, sex shouts the loudest.”[7] Is the role of instinct to cause us to have sex? And having children just the by-product of what instinct causes us to do? Since many people who have sex never have children, and many gay couples adopt, to say that our instinct to have children is rooted in our instinct for sex can no longer be the case, even if was at one time. Instinct’s role must be more than just causing us to want to have sex.

The desire to have children can’t be explained as the desire to give birth; first of

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all, men want children too, and the number of caesarian sections are too high to support this theory. This leads me to conclude that the role instinct plays is simply to cause us to want to raise children. Refocusing the talk about desires and urges from procreation to parenting, I think Mary Ann McMillan put it exactly right when she said that “the desire to parent is one of the strongest drives known to mankind.”

But if instinct causes us to want children, why do some people have no children at all, while some have 20? Even if “it’s evolutionary desirable to impregnate as many females as possible,”[8] every male I know would counsel against this strategy. Contrary to assertions that “we are all designed to secure mates and produce children,” divorce rates and birth control speak for themselves.[9]

It is at this point that I want to cleave instinct from the “powerful desire” to have children.[10] As we evolve, certain instincts remain with us, but we learn that the social contract and thus survival in general requires their suppression. Attacking those who make us angry is not a viable option, nor is crying when a board room decision does not weigh in your favor. So we teach children not to hit, and discourage crying as a reaction to being upset. It is also clear that to the extent that having children is instinctual, it is not out of our control. Otherwise I would not be the youngest of three, but the middle of, perhaps, fifteen.

It stands to reason that without the “clay,” the universality of having children would not exist. Which brings us to the “paint.” Society, I would argue, is the biggest player in the desire to have children. As Elizabeth Bartholet observes, “we are all conditioned to equate personhood with procreation and procreation with parenting.”[11] There are more single mothers in the United States than in Korea because here, we have governmental programs to assist single mothers, and give them

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their own TV shows like Teen Mom or put them on magazine covers like Nadia Suleman. In Korea, while the government pays nominal support to single mothers, society rejects them entirely.[12] When society celebrates having children, people have children.

So instinct drives us to want children, society pushes us to have them, but it’s ultimately our inner compass that leads us to have one, twenty, or none at all. What is the thought process that leads someone to decide to have children? This is the ultimate mystery that causes people to answer, “I don’t know.”

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I suspect it’s because we think children will make us happy. Recently, there has been a lot of journalistic attention around this hypothesis.

Interestingly, the numbers show that people with children are less happy than those without.[13] “Otherwise identical people with one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less happy.”[14] After that, every additional child makes parents 1.3 percentage points less likely to be “very happy.”[15]

So what is the ultimate reason someone decides to have a child? There is no simple answer. I happen to think it’s the way society celebrates children and portrays having them as making you happy, even if the evidence speaks to the contrary. 75% of childless adults over 40 say they would have a child if they could do it over again.[16]

What’s your reason?

[1] “Families We Choose? Visions of a World

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Without Blood Ties,” Working Paper, by George Dent, p. 43 (2011)

[2] “Human Instinct,” by Robert Winston, p. 117 (2003)

[3] “Family Bonds: Adoption, Infertility and the New World of Child Production,” by Elizabeth Bartholet, p. 227 (1999)

[4] “International Adoption: A Step Towards a Uniform Process,” by Mary Ann McMillan, 5 Pace Int’l L. Rev. 137, p. 137 (2005)

[5] “The Baby Business,” by Debora Spar, p. xi (2006)

[6] “International Adoption: A Step Towards a Uniform Process,” by Mary Ann McMillan, 5 Pace Int’l L. Rev. 137, p. 137 (2005)

[7] “Human Instinct,” by Robert Winston, p. 115 (2003)

[8] “Human Instinct,” by Robert Winston, p. 134 (2003)

[9] “Human Instinct,” by Robert Winston, p. 116 (2003)

[10] “Transracial and International Adoption: Mothers, Hierarchy, Race and Feminist Legal Theory,” by Twila Perry, 10 Yale J.L. & Feminism 101, p. 107

[11] “Family Bonds: Adoption, Infertility and the New World of Child Production,” by Elizabeth Bartholet, p. 24 (1999)

[12] “South Korea and Its Children,” by Hollee McGinnis, New York Times (Nov. 27 2007)

[13] “The Breeders’ Cup,” by Bryan Caplan, The Wall Street Journal (Jun. 19 2010)

[14] “The Breeders’ Cup,” by Bryan Caplan, The Wall Street Journal (Jun. 19 2010)

[15] “The Breeders’ Cup,” by Bryan Caplan, The Wall Street Journal (Jun. 19 2010)

[16] “The Breeders’ Cup,” by Bryan Caplan, The Wall Street Journal (Jun. 19 2010)

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The need for international adoption oversight

Yesterday’s New York Times front page article, “Eager to Adopt, Evangelical Families Face Familiar Pitfalls Abroad,” was heartening because it shows that people are beginning to accept the ethical duty to adopt. Christians have been the first identifiable group to articulate this duty. Don Browning once said, “all Christians should be willing to adopt when the need arises.”[1] As the NYTimes article shows, the need is here. “The orphan crisis is the greatest humanitarian issue in modern times,” it points out.

The article also demonstrates the need for international adoption auditing. Without a good system of international adoption auditing, adoption can succumb to corruption and can seem more like trafficking than fulfilling a moral duty. “Eager to Adopt” points out that families are more likely to adopt following a crisis – the article profiles a family who started adoption proceedings for four children after reading “about the dismal orphanages in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.”

But adopting following a crisis that has torn a country apart can be risky. Look at what happened when families were motivated to adopt following the Haiti earthquake: “Some Haitian orphanages were nearly emptied, even though they had not been affected by the quake or licensed to handle adoptions. Children were released without legal documents showing they were orphans and without regard for evidence suggesting fraud.”[2]

The article mentions that adoptions are less corrupt in countries that have signed the Hague Convention. The Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, signed in 1993, “establishes standards and procedures for the intercountry adoption process.”[3] It has rigorous compliance standards, such as requiring each member country to establish a Central Authority “to discharge the duties which are imposed by the Convention” and to cooperate with the Central Authorities of other contracting states to “protect children and to achieve the other objects of the Convention.”[4] It requires signing countries to accredit adoption agencies, and has criteria for accreditation to ensure that adoptions are not for financial gain, and that the children are in fact, adoptable by virtue of being orphans or of having the parents’ consent.

However, many countries are simply unable to ratify the Convention – “for governments struggling to overcome war, poverty, and disease, complying with the Hague Convention is impossible.”[5] Moreover, the Hague Convention is something of a band-aid, failing to address underlying social and policy issues that cause the vast number of orphans and vulnerable children across the globe.[6]

Plus, as the New York Times Article points out, parents may give consent not always understanding what they are consenting to. “There have been instances where parents placed their children in orphanages believing it would be a type of temporary foster care and, as a result of the child’s placement, lost the child through intercountry adoption.”[7]

The overall message here is that people are starting to come around to the idea that ignoring the orphan crisis is immoral; but to address it, we need greater involvement by nonprofit organizations to audit the process. As we move into the future of family formation, adoption auditing must be at the forefront of the practice.

[1] “Adoption and the Moral Significance of Kin Altruism,” by Down Browning, page 72, in The Morality of Adoption: Social-Psychological, Theological, and Legal Perspectives , William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005

[2] “After Haiti Quake, the Chaos of U.S. Adoptions,” by Ginger Thompson, New York Times, August 3, 2010

[3] ” Intercountry Adoptions: Are the Biological Parents’ Rights Protected?”, by Cynthia Ellen Szejner, in Washington University Global Studies Law Review, Jan 2006, p.213.

[4] “The Intercountry Adoption Act of 2000: The United States’ Ratification of the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children, and its Meager Effect on International Adoption,” by Kate O’Keeffe, in Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law, July 2012, p. 1628

[5] Id.

[6] “The

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Politics of Adoptions Across Borders: Whose Interests Are Served? (A Look at the Emerging Market of Infants from China),” by Michelle Van Leeuwen

[7] “Angelina and Madonna: Why All the Fuss? An Exploration of the Rights of the Child and Intercountry Adoption Within African Nations,” by Veronica S. Root, in The University of Chicago Chicago Journal of International Law, 2007, p. 343

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