McAdams on Parenting and Morality

John McAdams is a Marquette University professor who has commented here from time to time. We probably don't agree on a whole lot, but I've always found him to be a reasonable guy. But I came across this post on his blog and I must object. He's responding to an ad he saw for a clinic that provides egg donors and surrogates for gays who want to have children. He writes:

We understand the desire of people, gay or straight, to have children, and even to have children who are their biological offspring.

But should children really be thought of as just another consumer purchase?

But I don't see the problem here. Medical clinics are a business like any other, and advertising their services is part of runnin the business. Would he object to a married couple with fertility problems answering an ad for fertility services and having a child that way? I doubt it, especially in light of his next question:

Is it really moral to bring a child into the world who will not have a mother and a father?

He doesn't spell out why he thinks it might be immoral to bring a child into the world in those circumstances, so I must assume that his reasoning is based upon the many studies that show that, statistically, a child is much more likely to have a healthy and productive life if they are raised by their married parents. I don't think anyone questions the validity of such studies, or could deny that children of single parents or divorced parents face hurdles that other children don't have to face, hurdles that could derail their development in unhealthy ways.

But we must bear in mind that such studies only show statistical trends, not set-in-stone realities. They may show that children from single parents families are 15% more likely to commit a crime, or 20% more likely to drop out of school, or what have you, but those are broad trends that say nothing about any particular child in either situation. There are still millions of children from traditional two-parent homes that turn out lousy and millions of children from single parent or divorced situations that turn out great.

So is it really a moral issue at all? Do we decide the morality of this action merely by reference to statistical trends and likelihoods? If so, we have to do that across the board. There are plenty of studies that show, for example, that children of the wealthy are more likely to be educated and productive than children from lower income households, or that children from poor backgrounds are more likely to commit crimes than children from upper middle class families. Does that mean that it's immoral for a low income family to have children? I doubt anyone would take that position.

I'm sure it also holds true that children whose parents are college-educated are statistically less likely to commit crimes, drop out of school, become alcoholics, or whatever measure of social stability and health you want to pick, than children of those with only a high school education. But no one would seriously suggest that it is immoral for someone without a college education to have children.

Indeed, I doubt anyone would argue about the morality of bringing up a child based on almost any factor solely because of such statistical tendencies, other than in this one area where some people seem to have in their head that not only is a two parent household the ideal, but it's the only way one can raise children well. But reality simply does not conform to that notion, statistical trend be damned. My father came from a terrible broken home full of abuse and dysfunction and became an exceptionally well adjusted human being.

My best friend had a father abandon him before he was born, a mother die when he was a toddler, and was raised by his alcoholic grandfather and bounced from place to place, finally coming to live with my family in high school; you would be hard pressed to find a better father or a better man. Is anyone seriously going to suggest that it was immoral for his mother to bring him into the world after his father flew the coop when he found out she was pregnant? I would certainly hope not.

Which brings me to another objection to his position. Many children are brought into the world without a mother and a father because the father, upon hearing he got someone pregnant, disappears. If one is really going to take the position that it is immoral to bring a child into the world without both a mother and a father, does this mean that the moral thing to do is for every woman to have an abortion if the father decides that all he really wanted to be was a sperm donor? I'm sure McAdams would not take that position.

To be fair, McAdams did not really declare it immoral to do so, he merely asked the question. But the implication is pretty obvious. The answer should be as well.

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I agree. While I'm open to the notion that a mother/father home is a "first best world" or superior to two fathers or two mothers raising a child. But that's a long way away from stating that bringing a child into the world with two fathers or two mothers is a terrible evil or immoral thing that will horribly damage the child.

Just because one scenario is somewhat better than another doesn't mean the second best world cannot likewise produce positive results. And as you alluded, this is just one factor; there are many others. What if the two gay men are affluent, well educated, and can give the children life-opportunies that a blue collar family couldn't?

But should children really be thought of as just another consumer purchase?

Why should a couple who decides to have a child and thus goes to a fertility clinic be seen as so much more frivolous, materialistic, and selfish than a couple who decides to have a child and thus gets out the satin sheets, whipped cream, handcuffs, and Barry White records?

I think if you have a pre-existing condition which will prevent you from being able to take proper care of your children yet choose to have them anyway, an argument can be made for immorality. But of course all of the ambiguity is in the word "proper."

I think if you have a pre-existing condition which will prevent you from being able to take proper care of your children yet choose to have them anyway, an argument can be made for immorality. But of course all of the ambiguity is in the word "proper."

Pre-existing condition?

Financial, educational, cultural or medical? To whose standards -- US, western European or third world?

Hi, Ed,

I'm glad you are reading my blog, and appreciate that you have made a very temperate response.

You don't seem to have quoted my last sentence, which I will quote here in context:

Is it really moral to bring a child into the world who will not have a mother and a father? Of course, when a gay couple adopts a child who would otherwise be in the foster care system, that's an entirely different matter.

As for a woman who had a guy knock her up and flee, since I think the baby is a person, I don't think it should be aborted. (As you might have guessed, I'm anti-abortion.)

But it's immoral for the guy to do that, and it's reckless and immoral for a woman to have sex with a guy who would do that (at least so far as it can be foreseen, and it usually can) without proper attention to birth control.

In other words, don't conceive a kid whose life chances are poor.

As for low income parents: I think they have an obligation to provide decently for their children, and should avoid bringing kids into the world they cannot provide for. (Yea, I know, "fat chance.")

But I would point out that income differences in the welfare of children are not (mostly) the result of income per se, but rather of things that correlate with income. For example, not having a father present, physical and emotional abuse, a culture that doesn't value learning and achievement, etc.

As for statistical trends: there are few certainties in the world, and responsible behavior has to be based on probabilities. Thus the concept "reckless endangerment," which is not behavior that absolutely will cause harm, but behavior that is likely to.

Thanks again for your temperate response.

They may show that children from single parents families are 15% more likely to commit a crime, or 20% more likely to drop out of school, or what have you, but those are broad trends that say nothing about any particular child in either situation

I will just add that studies show a leveling off among individuals as they reach adulthood the primary factor in their success appears to be finances rather than how many parents are present in the home.

and it's reckless and immoral for a woman to have sex with a guy who would do that (at least so far as it can be foreseen, and it usually can)

How can you possibly state this with certainty? It may be reckless I agree but a woman has to be a mind reader as well?

But I would point out that income differences in the welfare of children are not (mostly) the result of income per se, but rather of things that correlate with income

I think you have this exactly backwards.

Does McAdams have any evidence that the causes of differences in child welfare between the wealthy and the poor have little to do with income, but rather with correlaries of low income? Does he have any evidence that it is a lack of a mother and father that causes poor outcomes for single-parent children, rather than correlaries (insufficient parent/child relations, lower income, etc.) that would not apply for homosexual couples?

Did the studies he cling to compare stable couple homosexual child-rearing arrangements with heterosexual ones, or merely single parents versus hetero couples?

Does he have any evidence for his assertion that women can usually forsee which guys will be dead-beat dads, and which will not?

Can McAdams show us his work on plotting the statistics that will determine if he gets to reproduce or not?

Ted--

Pre-existing condition? Financial, educational, cultural or medical? To whose standards -- US, western European or third world?

Ah yes, the ambiguity! Well, I don't know exactly what pre-existing conditions with regard to education or culture you could have which would make it immoral for you to have children. When I said "proper care," I was talking about the things required for physical health-- food on the table, roof over the head, medical care, etc. So that would be financial and medical. As far as standards, who knows? Whatever the standards are that would have your child removed from your care by the authorities, I suppose. I don't think it's right to bring a child into the world when you can reasonably foresee not being able to care for them (unless, of course, you have made arrangements for somebody else to....somebody qualified who does so willingly).

"But I would point out that income differences in the welfare of children are not (mostly) the result of income per se, but rather of things that correlate with income. For example, not having a father present, physical and emotional abuse, a culture that doesn't value learning and achievement, etc."

You are right. Mike Tyson might have scads of $$ (well, maybe not anymore) but isn't likely to be a very good parent. What if we find out that gay families raising children are likely to have not just an abundance of income, but also those things (like valuing education, an interest in high culture and the arts), which also lead to higher incomes?

Sure there are irresponsible and poor gay folks (lots of younger gays who live on the streets and do drugs). But they aren't the ones having the children (unless they do it the old fashion way).

That's one of the positive things about gay sex: Unlike straight sex, irresponsible gay sex doesn't result in bringing children into this world which shouldn't be so brought.

"Does McAdams have any evidence that the causes of differences in child welfare between the wealthy and the poor have little to do with income, but rather with correlaries of low income."

I think there is some evidence that shows all things being equal, it's better to have a father in the home (as opposed to a single mother). The studies don't show, however, that income doesn't matter.

This brings to mind Murphy Brown, or in real life someone like Jodie Foster.

Young poor, uneducated mothers bringing children into this world is a social disaster. But if you have a woman who makes six figures, is well-educated, has an IQ well above 100, etc. and has a child, especially if she, like Jodie Foster, passes on her genes, which produced a brilliant Yale educated mind, to her offspring. Sorry, the chances of that child ending up poor and in the ghetto are almost nil., regardless of whether things would be better had there been a father married to Ms. Brown or Ms. Foster.

Why must a child have both a mother and father? Sperm Magic!

and it's reckless and immoral for a woman to have sex with a guy who would do that (at least so far as it can be foreseen, and it usually can)

How can you possibly state this with certainty? It may be reckless I agree but a woman has to be a mind reader as well?

If a reckless (indifference to consequences) act is committed is it immoral? Reckless behavior is not rational. Sexual behavior is not necessarily rational although we could probably help it along with education.

Young poor, uneducated mothers bringing children into this world is a social disaster. But if you have a woman who makes six figures, is well-educated, has an IQ well above 100, etc. and has a child, especially if she, like Jodie Foster, passes on her genes, which produced a brilliant Yale educated mind, to her offspring. Sorry, the chances of that child ending up poor and in the ghetto are almost nil., regardless of whether things would be better had there been a father married to Ms. Brown or Ms. Foster.

OK, left to chance solely this is probably true. BUT, how many of us leave our future solely to chance? We try to mitigate the uncertainty of future by educating for eventuality.

Likewise, we can create a system that allows the impoverished to depend on chance or we can elevate the trendline by working systemically toward reducing chance and extending the benefits not only to our offspring but to other as well.

Some of these concepts stink of depriving the underclass of basic decisions because of their circumstances and I distinctly think that there are many people in our culture that look at the underclass as a resource that needs to be cultivated for labor (mainly) and feeding the system with just enough progressivism so that a necessary resource is produced but not more. Equality for us, freedom to be labor for others.

John McAdams wrote:

I'm glad you are reading my blog, and appreciate that you have made a very temperate response.

I stop in a couple times a week. I liked the coverage of the ridiculous situation at Marquette with the quote on the door. I just shook my head at the absurd responses from the administration over why that quote had to be taken down.

You don't seem to have quoted my last sentence, which I will quote here in context:

Is it really moral to bring a child into the world who will not have a mother and a father? Of course, when a gay couple adopts a child who would otherwise be in the foster care system, that's an entirely different matter.

No, I didn't quote the last sentence because there was nothing there to disagree with. I was glad to see, however, that you don't have a problem with gay adoption. This indicates that you are not motivated by simple animus toward gays, as so many are, and it is why I think your views should be taken seriously.

As for a woman who had a guy knock her up and flee, since I think the baby is a person, I don't think it should be aborted. (As you might have guessed, I'm anti-abortion.)

But it's immoral for the guy to do that, and it's reckless and immoral for a woman to have sex with a guy who would do that (at least so far as it can be foreseen, and it usually can) without proper attention to birth control.

I certainly agree that it's immoral for the guy to do that. I also certainly agree that both parties should take responsibility for birth control unless they are ready to be parents, and that they should have talked about that prior to jumping in the sack.

As for low income parents: I think they have an obligation to provide decently for their children, and should avoid bringing kids into the world they cannot provide for. (Yea, I know, "fat chance.")

Except that there are lots of good low income parents out there whose children do just fine, even if statistically the odds were against them. That's why I don't think we can make simple statements about the morality of their decision to have children based on statistical likelihoods, especially when the outcome is largely controllable. Most of us have known families that didn't have a lot of money, that struggled financially, but raised terrific children because they instilled in them a solid work ethic, discipline and other virtues. In that situation, it might even help that the child couldn't take material wealth for granted as a birthright, it might well help to motivate them. In situations like that, I don't think we can say that the parents were immoral for bringing a child into the world when they were statistically worse off than another child.

But I would point out that income differences in the welfare of children are not (mostly) the result of income per se, but rather of things that correlate with income. For example, not having a father present, physical and emotional abuse, a culture that doesn't value learning and achievement, etc.

I would agree with that, but I think it points up the importance of not focusing on a single factor and basing such judgements on the lack of a single factor, such as being a single-parent home. Is a two parent home ideal? Probably, yes. But as Jon Rowe points out, there are lots of situations where that can be overcome by a combination of other factors. So, if you've got a gay couple going to that clinic to produce a child, and they're financially well off, they're in a stable, long term relationship, they're educated and likely to instill the value of education in their child, they're cultured, decent people, and so forth, can we really say that because of that one factor they're being immoral because of the statistical probabilities? I don't think so, especially if we only base that judgement on that single factor. If you were to look at all of those factors in combination, you might well have to conclude that the child has a better chance of turning out okay.

Remember that when we're talking about statistical trends like this, we aren't defining the reality of every child. And when you look at the factors that largely determine the future of the child in aggregate, the child mentioned above is certainly likely to be far ahead of the untold millions of children who are brought into the world by people in bloodless, loveless marriages of convenience or desperation that may never break up but will also never be a happy, nurturing relationship either. There are plenty of marriages out there where neither person is happy, where there is constant tension, where one or both partners is having flings on the side, where one or both of the parents has checked out emotionally if not physically. Yet if we look at that one factor - whether a child has both a mother and a father in the home - you would not question the morality of their decision to bring a child into the world. Yet their child is a whole lot worse off, almost certainly, than the child of a cultured, educated, committed gay couple who had to go through a great deal to have a child and thus are much more likely to have thought it through and shown a real commitment to being good parents for that child. And that's really my point. We can't make simple judgements by looking at a single factor based on statistical probabilities. We have to look at the actual people involved and all that they bring to the table. And thank you for your temperate response as well.

Ted:

I want the underclass to be middleclass and otherwise flourish in life. And being a productive member of society is, I believe, essential for human flourishing.

For ordinary people, avoiding poverty is not especially complex: Simply 1) Finish high school, 2) Don't have children until you are married, and 3) Don't have children until you are over 20. The vast majority -- 90 some % -- of people who make these choices avoid poverty.

Whether people, however much they may love each other, have the moral right to create such a problem for a child is, of course, debatable. It is my belief that interracially intermarried parents are committing a grave offense against their children that is far more serious and even dangerous to their welfare than they realize.

From Intermarriage: Interfaith, Interracial, Interethnic, by Albert Gordon. Fun fact! This book was heavily cited by Virginia in Loving v. Virginia.

But really, Mr. McAdams, why would it be immoral for two people of the same sex to conceive a child? Why is it immoral for a child to have two fathers or two mothers instead of a mother and a father?

He's responding to an ad he saw for a clinic that provides egg donors and surrogates for gays who want to have children.

I have no issue with gays being parents. I object to the whole notion of surrogate birthing. The "business model" around this is as nasty as it gets -- no different than buying a person's eye if they are crazy enough, or poor enough, to sell it. No different than the buying and selling naturally conceived children.

I want the underclass to be middleclass and otherwise flourish in life. And being a productive member of society is, I believe, essential for human flourishing.

I wasn't being critical of you -- I agree with what you're saying. I think the only exception may be that ordinary people is not what I'm talking about. I consider ordinary people to be relatively adjusted where that leap isn't so great and their ordinariness puts them in the middle class or the edges of it.

I'm more talking about the rights of the underclass to be more than the underclass. Statistical studies are great, but I really, really look forward to the day that our tax money is spent on some of these findings in a directed manner. Like the one that says IQ can be raised (Original PDF here) by a good family environment and wealth.

So we may have an idea that this works. But the question is, do we care enough to think that raising the underclass has sufficient payback to ordinary (taxpayers maybe) people?

The morality of statistical outcomes has, like abortion, no good bright lines. To illustrate, imagine a person carrying mutant genes which give his potential kid a 1% chance of painful bone cancer and juvenile death. You'd probably not say it's immoral for him to reproduce. Now imagine his genes carry a 99% chance of giving the kid painful bone cancer and early death. If you're like me, you'd say it would be a pretty foul thing for him to reproduce. Where do you draw the line between these two? 10%? 50%? There's no bright line answer.

Anyway, if you say that a 10% increased chance of bad outcome makes something immoral, and you wanted to be intellectually consistent, you'd have to demand blacks stop having kids. Will any of our gay-hating christians say such a thing?

I object to the whole notion of surrogate birthing. The "business model" around this is as nasty as it gets -- no different than buying a person's eye if they are crazy enough, or poor enough, to sell it. No different than the buying and selling naturally conceived children.

If two prospective parents want someone to bear a child for them, and the woman agrees to do it, I don't see any reason to step in the way of the transaction. Considering how much physical hardship comes with pregnancy, it would seem a crime not to pay the woman to go through it. I made a similar argument regarding egg donation in England (it is illegal to receive payment for it there, unlike in the states, even though it is apparently a quite arduous process involving many doctor's visits and hormone treatments) and was told that women should want to do such things out of the goodness of their own hearts. But we don't expect people to just give away cars and other things they've toiled for; why should we expect it of eggs or babies?

Interesting post, Ed. Very interesting. I really have to say you did a fine job here.

You raise a point that troubles me, though, in regards to clinics being run like businesses. Yes, that is in some ways correct. Treating medical care like a business can be correct in terms like cost-benefit analysis, but fails in other areas. Drug companies can pressure clinics and doctors if they are forced to use their skills in a business environment, for example.

In addition, fertility advertisements do trouble me. The entire field troubles me a little bit, to tell you the truth. There are hundreds of thousands of kids waiting to be adopted, and the fertility industry seems to be at odds with their welfare. And a collection of companies does make an industry, so I do feel justified in saying their is a fertility industry.

Perhaps what I'm saying is this: Brining a child into the world is a sacred thing, as are some aspects of medical care. I object to any advertisements that peddle that sense of, for lack of a better term, sacredness. I object to advertisements for churches as well. Commodifying the act of having a child and providing medical care aren't necessarily good things.

In addition, the fertility industry seems to have ideological undercurrents of choosing the aspects of your child by choosing the surrogate. That reminds me of a genetic heirarchy as in Brave New World.

And I may grow to understand this as I age. As is, I'm just a biology student and only 22 years old. But as is, I think that a little more caution is required from the fertility clinics. They should not cave to pressure from individuals who want to have the surrogate for their child be a 5'6" brunette of jewish ancestry with an IQ of 130, and SAT score of 1500 (on the old SAT scale, the one I took, without the additional 800 essay points), with big breasts and who didn't need braces. There's an old NYTimes magazine article on this very subject, I believe. A chronicle of a Yale students experience in donating her eggs.

Obviously, some people want to see their genes in their children. I can understand that. And obviously gay couples should be allowed full access to this process if they don't want to adopt. After all, you can't force couples of any sex to adopt if they really want their own kids. I can understand but can't condone the commodification of the process inherent in advertisements for the fertility industry, though. If people want children, they'll come to your clinic. Opening the process to advertising executives is to make children a commodity and to exhort people into decisions they may later regret.

If that means that fertility clinics need to stop being run with profits in mind, then that's what that means.

MikeQ wrote:

You raise a point that troubles me, though, in regards to clinics being run like businesses. Yes, that is in some ways correct. Treating medical care like a business can be correct in terms like cost-benefit analysis, but fails in other areas. Drug companies can pressure clinics and doctors if they are forced to use their skills in a business environment, for example.

I've never understood this very common notion that if anyone can make money from something that something is automatically rendered vulgar because it's been "turned into a commodity". In reality, of course, allowing people to profit from a given service encourages people to offer that service, to constantly improve that service, and to attend to the needs of their customers more intently. There's no reason to believe that reality is suspended in those areas we arbitrarily attach more significance to, like medical care.

Perhaps what I'm saying is this: Brining a child into the world is a sacred thing, as are some aspects of medical care. I object to any advertisements that peddle that sense of, for lack of a better term, sacredness. I object to advertisements for churches as well. Commodifying the act of having a child and providing medical care aren't necessarily good things.

What basis do you have for saying that this particular activity is "sacred"? And what does that even mean? It seems to be just an arbitrary elevation of this specific, perfectly natural activity above others without any good reason for doing so. Is it sacred for dogs too? Bees? Ants? As for "commodifying", all this really means is "allowing someone to make money from it. But what's the alternative? The doctor who delivers the child makes a living by delivering children. So do the nurses. Take away that "commodification" and guess what you'll get? A lot fewer doctors and nurses. People make a living by providing a service that others need, which means that every single service or product is "commodified"; why is that a problem only where you've arbitrarily decided to label something "sacred"?

But as is, I think that a little more caution is required from the fertility clinics. They should not cave to pressure from individuals who want to have the surrogate for their child be a 5'6" brunette of jewish ancestry with an IQ of 130, and SAT score of 1500 (on the old SAT scale, the one I took, without the additional 800 essay points), with big breasts and who didn't need braces.

Is this really any different from the standards people have when choosing a mate when the clinics aren't involved? If people can decide who to mate with based on such considerations - and they do, of course - then why is it a problem when choosing whose eggs or sperm you want when taking a different route to parenthood?

Obviously, some people want to see their genes in their children. I can understand that. And obviously gay couples should be allowed full access to this process if they don't want to adopt. After all, you can't force couples of any sex to adopt if they really want their own kids. I can understand but can't condone the commodification of the process inherent in advertisements for the fertility industry, though. If people want children, they'll come to your clinic. Opening the process to advertising executives is to make children a commodity and to exhort people into decisions they may later regret.

No, it isn't making children a commodity, it's making the service that clinic provides a commodity. And that's true of every single product and service produced by every single human being on this planet. The moment we developed division of labor in the human race, every product and service became a commodity to be traded for other commodities. I just see no reason why what you casually accept in every other area of life suddenly concerns you in this one area. In addition, of course, I would note that it's also pretty clearly unconstitutional to forbid people from advertising their services.

I too am uncomfortable with the degree to which reproduction is turning into something purchasable. Not so much because I think there is anything inherently wrong about reproductive services, as because I am concerned about the potential for harm to children that could result from treating human genetic materials as products.

When a consumer is dis-satisfied with a product they have purchased, they have the option of returning it or discarding it or etc etc. It's an inherent right of the consumer to not get stuck with a bad deal - hence Lemon laws governing car purchases.

But you can't treat a child that way. And given the already disturbing trend of adoptive parents trying to return adopted children when the children aren't 'right', I am deeply concerned about the potential effect of a commercial market for "child making cells" on the children of such commercial ventures. What happens when the child of that carefully selected blue-eyed blond donor is a dark eyed brunette?

To what degree these are realistic and plausible concerns, I do not know. But they are my concerns. I think they could probably be well addressed by the development of clear guidelines about who is eligible to receive such donations, who is eligible to make them, and how the donations are handled.

And perhaps (though I know this is unrealistic) by putting the transactions on a genuine donation basis, instead of paying men and women for their reproductive cells.

By PennyBright (not verified) on 06 Nov 2006 #permalink

Just stopping by to say:

A Fair Wisconsin Votes No