Sunday, November 27, 2011

Number 20 on the Way!

In November 2011, Jim Bob and Nancy Duggar announced that she is pregnant with their 20th child, due in April of 2012. The Duggars are known for leading their brood through a TLC cable channel reality program, “19 and Counting.” For all their kids, they haven’t provoked the national criticism that followed Nadya Suleman’s decision to proceed with a pregnancy involving 8 fetuses.

“OctoMom,” as Suleman was widely known, provoked a strong backlash in 2009, in part because she had no apparent means – beyond the kindness of family and strangers – by which to support the 6 children she already had, not to mention 8 premature newborns. Not to mention either that there was no dad in sight. Not to mention that fertility clinicians had been involved, who presumably got paid somehow for transferring how many embryos into Suleman exactly? In short, Suleman seemed utterly unprepared for caring for 14 children.

The Duggars haven’t gotten this kind of backlash because they’re not in Suleman’s shoes. There’s a Dad front and center.  There’s a Mom who’s pretty much indistinguishable from other middle class women who prep meals, clean clothes, and trot their children to the dentist.  From every appearance, they are not only making their own way, they help others when they can.  No clinicians are involved in making the pregnancies possible either.  For all that, a woman having her 20th child is something right out of our cultural nightmares about remote, tribal Africa.  Even hillbillies Ma and Pa Kettle only 15 children in their 1950s and 1960s comedy films.

According to their family webpage (, early in her life Michelle took an oral contraceptive, got pregnant nevertheless, and miscarried.  At that point they talked with a Christian medical doctor and read the fine print in the contraceptives package. They found that while taking the pill you can get pregnant and then miscarry. They were grieved!  They were Christians!  They were pro-life! They realized that their selfish actions had taken the life of their child.” Actually, spontaneous abortions can happen for lots of reasons so it’s hard to draw that conclusion absolutely.  Even so, Jim Bob and Nancy Duggard evidently believe they put their second child in harm’s way, and in some sense all the later children are a way of making amends for that mistake.

Why would anyone want 20 children?  Should anybody have 20 children?  The Duggars are a hard target because they seem to be a functional family, attentive to one another, and paying their own way.  Their inflated number is more a curiosity than a screen onto which American can project its worst fears about bad mothers, overpopulation, and fertility medicine gone wild.  In any case, what’s the alternative here:  some kind of state intervention?  Legislatures putting limits on how many kids parents can have?  I honestly doubt there’s much demand on the part of women or men to have that many children, at least if they have to be responsible for them.  Most people judge, correctly and prudently, that a few children are the way to balance the things that make life worthwhile.

Mississippi wisely defeated the referendum to make conception the threshold of personhood

Mississippi was in the news this past week for its referendum on amending the state constitution to use conception as the threshold of legal personhood.  That referendum elicited considerable amounts of commentary, but most commentators got a couple things wrong, especially the idea that the referendum would put an end to abortion in that state.

Using conception as the threshold of personhood would not override women’s right to abortions, because Constitutional Law overrides that legislative decision.  

In fact, Illinois currently has on its statutes exactly the standard that Mississippi was debating. 
Illinois law uses conception as the threshold of personhood and it specifically says that if Roe V. Wade is overturned, the State will forbid abortions except for the “preservation of the mother’s life.” 

For those interested in the statute, here it is:  “Without in any way restricting the right of privacy of a woman or the right of a woman to an abortion under those decisions, the General Assembly of the State of Illinois do solemnly declare and find in reaffirmation of the longstanding policy of this State, that the unborn child is a human being from the time of conception and is, therefore, a legal person for purposes of the unborn child's right to life and is entitled to the right to life from conception under the laws and Constitution of this State. Further, the General Assembly finds and declares that longstanding policy of this State to protect the right to life of the unborn child from conception by prohibiting abortion unless necessary to preserve the life of the mother is impermissible only because of the decisions of the United States Supreme Court and that, therefore, if those decisions of the United States Supreme Court are ever reversed or modified or the United States Constitution is amended to allow protection of the unborn then the former policy of this State to prohibit abortions unless necessary for the preservation of the mother's life shall be reinstated. (720 ILCS 510 [1975]).

So, Illinois is making a symbolic gesture here, to override most abortions, but the threshold it uses does not override decisions by the constitutional court, and the same would have been true of the Mississippi’s change to its Constitution (had it passed).  

Illinois does not itself take its own statute seriously in regard to all matters that pertain to personhood outside abortion. It does not, for example, count frozen embryos as persons entitled to legal representation. It does not forbid human embryonic research. It does not treat the destruction of human embryos as a kind of murder.

There is a difference when it comes to Illinois law and what Mississippi was proposing.  Mississippi wanted to have its Constitution make the declaration that human beings come into existence for legal purposes at conception, as against Illinois making that declaration by statute. What surely would have followed in Mississippi would be years of litigation to figure out exactly what that declaration of personhood meant. I don’t assume in advance that it would stop all abortions or human embryo research, but it surely would have triggered litigation galore to figure out how it applied the entire domain in which ‘personhood’ is legally relevant.

Is Same-Sex Marriage Harmful to Children? Hardly.

Some commentators, such as McGill University law professor, Margaret Somerville, argue that same-sex marriage threatens the very nature of marriage and that it poses threats to children.

In particular, Somerville argues that same-sex marriage is alien to the deeply symbolic meaning of marriage as open to having children. When the Court of Appeal for Ontario opened the way to same-sex marriage in Halpern v. Canada, it noted that – in fact – some same-sex couples do have children, but the fact that gay men and lesbians do have children does not mean that their relationships are fertile in the sense that is meant by critics of same-sex marriage. Their view of marriage is, however, only one among possible meanings of marriage, and there’s no good secular reason to accept the view that straights only need apply when it comes to state-recognized marriages. 

Now, lots of critics have argued that gay and lesbian parents are ‘bad’ for children, and critics of same-sex marriage make this case in different ways.  Some think these kinds of parents inflict real harm on children; others thing the harm is minimal but should be avoided anyway.  In fact, however, the courts have typically not taken sexual orientation into account when deciding matters of custody, and – from an ethical point of view – it is hard to make the case that gay and lesbian parents are harmful to children in any routine or any rare-but-catastrophic way.  Leading professional organizations have also rejected the view that this kind of parenting leads to harm to children.

I make these arguments in detail in the article “Same-Sex Marriage:  Not a Threat to Marriage or Children,” Journal of Social Philosophy 2011 (42):  288-304.

Against the Vatican, a Defense of Assisted Reproductive Treatments, Same-Sex Marriage, and Embryo Adoption

I've written an article which is in the cue to be published at Reproductive Biomedicine Online.  Here's the abstract for "Dignity, Marriage, and Embryo Adoption." The article will be out, well, I'm not sure exactly when.  

The Catholic Church’s 2008 Dignitas Personae discusses the moral implications of respecting the dignity of all human beings, regardless of the stage of development. In that text, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith argues that respect for this dignity is incompatible with the conception of embryos outside marriage as well as assisted reproduction treatments and certain kinds of human embryonic research. Not only that, but the Congregation also rejects efforts at embryo adoption. As a matter of secular moral philosophy, this view of dignity is disputable and this article shows how an alternate view of dignity – one that depends on interests as against status – serves as a better foundation for decisions about ways in which to help people have children. This view of dignity is entirely compatible with a wide array of assisted reproduction treatments and research and is compatible with the conception of embryos for single parents or opposite-sex couples looking to have children. Using its notion of human dignity, the Congregation makes a case against embryo adoption, but that case is unconvincing given the permissible exercise of individual conscience and the presumptive importance of rescuing human lives where they can be rescued.

The Catholic Church has issued several texts that describe the conditions under which it is moral for human beings to have children. Those conditions do not ordinarily include the use of assisted reproductive treatments. The 2008 document Dignitas Personae maintains that conceiving embryos outside of marriage and with assisted reproductive treatment violates the dignity of the children involved. That document also restates objections to research uses of human embryos because this church interprets embryos as persons from the moment of conception. I show that these interpretions are open to question. In particular the view of human dignity involved in this position is not well founded. I offer an alternate view of dignity, one that depends on interests as against status. This view of dignity is entirely compatible with a wide array of assisted reproductive treatments and research and is compatible with helping single parents or opposite-sex couples have children by means other than marital intercourse. Using its notion of human dignity, the Congregation makes a case against embryo adoption, but that case is unconvincing given the permissible exercise of individual conscience and the presumptive importance of rescuing human lives where they can be rescued.

Want a Baby Girl? You Can Eat Your Way to that Outcome

Some Dutch researchers have found that pregnant women who rely on low-sodium, high-calcium diets and who have intercourse in a particular window of time following ovulation can increase their odds  of having a girl.

The method is not fool-proof, but it seems better than a lot of other kinds of 'folk wisdom' about there, about the timing and circumstances of conception intended to produce a boy or girl.

The abstract for the article in Reproductive Biomedicine Online is here: