Saturday, January 31, 2009

Too Many Babies?

I find the media controversy over the recent octuplets interesting. At first, the news articles seemed to celebrate the multiple births of massive proportions. Then, when it was revealed that the mother had six existing kids aged 2 to 7, bringing her total to 14, media attention seemed to take a negative turn. Now the headlines focus on "the ethics" of having that many children. It probably does not help that the mother is unmarried and living at home with her parents. Her pregnancies were also all the result of fertility drugs and implanted embryos. According to her mother, "she was obsessed with having children since she was a teenager." Fifty years ago, having 14 kids probably was not that unusual, as big Catholic and Mormon families thrived. In today's world, we've downsized enough that 14 seems a nealry insane number of offspring.

I wonder if the same impulse that can cause someone to become a cat or dog hoarder can cause someone to have too many children. We haven't determined why or the cause yet, but there is some evidence that there is a genetic predisposition in certain people to become "crazy cat ladies." It could also be a form of mental disorder. While the cause is not yet known, the pattern is recognizable - someone acquires too many animals to care for them properly, convinced that they are doing a good thing and that only they can care properly for the animals. In reality, the facilities become filthy while the owner seems oblivious, and the animals end up breeding to excess, or simply not getting proper medical attention, food water and exercise. There are some really repulsive cases.

It would seem that the same impulses or genetic drivers could cause someone to take in or to have too many children. Hopefully they would be well cared for. It is certainly possible to have 17 kids all healthy and well cared for, as it is to have 17 animals healthy and well cared for, but it is perhaps more likely that when numbers get to a certain level, individual care and attention slack off and there are not enough resources to go around. I'm not saying that this mother of 14 has this particular problem, just pondering whether or not it is possible and related to similar "hoarding" of animals.

I'm also interested in the fact that there is some public outcry about one person having so many kids. I would love to see more public opinion swing towards fewer children. The world really does not need any more people. While it's a personal choice to have kids, for the past several generations having kids has been "the norm," and very "expected." Everyone asks when you're having kids if you're married, and it is generally thought of as "sad" if you don't. I think we would be better off if we valued adoption over procreation and focused on assisting those already on the planet and in need vs. breeding more humans. It's similar to adopting a pet from a shelter vs. buying from a breeder. While the biological impulse to reproduce may be palpable, as a species we can overcome our biological urges with reason and logic and choose not to have kids. In the developed world, with access to birth control, it is easy to choose not to reproduce. In the developing world, the choice is still not always present.

While there are literally thousands of children without relatives to care for them, without food or medical care or access to education, people spend thousands of dollars on fertility treatments to "have a kid of their own." Some say this is cheaper than adoption, which is very backwards indeed. I think it has more to do with wanting to have a piece of yourself in your child instead of taking in someone else's, but I'd like to think that we could overcome that mentality in time. Of course, it's a long way off - people still want to breed pets instead of spay and neuter, and that's less controversial than human reproduction. What is better for the planet and the existing population, as well as future generations, does not seem to be a primary concern when people want a puppy or a baby.

I hope I live long enough to see a societal shift, perhaps to the perception that adopting or not reproducing are favored. I was recently talking to a woman in her seventies about this issue and she said that when she was having kids in the 1960's there was a big push to have only two - to replace yourself and spouse - but that it was basically disregarded. She said that she loved babies and had them without particular thought to whether she could care for them well or whether it was responsible. She loves her 4 kids and would never regret having them but can also look back and admit it was a fully selfish choice with no real thought beyond what she wanted at the time. I thought it was very interesting she saw it that way.

In another conversation I had on the same subject in recent months, someone argued to me that it was selfish NOT to have kids because "one of them might cure cancer." I thought that missed the boat by a mile. As medical care increases, people live longer. We not only have far more people than ever before, but they stay on the planet longer - we don't have enough resources to support an ever increasing population. So bringing more people into the world on the chance that they can help everyone live even longer is sort of a negative on two levels. While we'd all like to eradicate disease, diseases have a valid purpose in population control of all species, including human beings. Now, the third world continues to have population limitations though disease and drought while the developed world does not.

I don't advocate the government taking control like in China and limiting the number of children born, but I do advocate more thought, debate and discussion on the subject of having kids. Bringing more people into the world is not necessarily a good thing, yet we continue as a society to expect it and celebrate it. Many people don't even contemplate the issue whatsoever, or belong to religions which still advocate "populate the earth" approaches and decry the use of birth control. Europe is actually starting to see population declines and has moved more towards favoring restraint over reproduction. It will be interesting to see how the debate in America evolves over the next 50 years.

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