reproductive rights (not what you think)

So, I’ve had a lot of conversations/debates with people about the ethics of reproduction, centering around who should be having babies and who shouldn’t – particularly as a factor of economics. These debates always frustrate me, because they invariably descend into straw-men tactics citing eugenics (“you’re suggesting that poor people shouldn’t have babies?!?”) and so forth. I thought I’d expound on my opinions a little, since that’s what blogs are for.

I’ve noticed in these debates the word “right” gets thrown around a lot, so to start, I think I should clarify what I mean by “right”.. I’m going to avoid digressing into the myriad different sociological/philosophical conceptions of rights (you can put away your copy of Rousseau, the danger has passed), and just offer a very crude definition of a “right” as “something everyone is allowed to do”. This is pretty basic, but it’s interesting to me how often people load all sorts of other assumptions into their use of the word. For example, a lot of people (primarily the more liberal among us), consider a right to be not just something that everyone is allowed to do, but something that is to be subsidized if they don’t have the means to do it. If that sounds fuzzy or rare, realize that we do it all the time. Consider food, for example. For better or worse (I’d say better, call me crazy!), we consider eating a fundamental right that we not only allow, but attempt to subsidize as a society (the how and why is where chasms start to form between the liberal and the libertarian). So, for the purposes of this discussion, I am discussing “right” in the context of something we not only allow but subsidize, more or less. I’m not at any point advocating “banning” something.

So, consider making a baby. A friend of mine was in on the conversation that spurred my line of thought, here, so I may as well quote her directly as a starting point:

“some people think that it’s ok to have babies they can’t afford to feed, because that’s what WIC is for”

Obviously this statement was posed with disapproval – the implication being that poor people shouldn’t have babies they can’t afford. I agree, incidentally, though in a slightly skewed way, but I’ll get to that. Consider the opposite, more “progressive” stance: poor people have a “right” to make babies, and any statement to the contrary is class warfare – an attempt to “breed out” poor people. Obviously statements like this are nonsense, because poor people aren’t a species or a race – they’re a class, and (for the rich, and the status quo) a very structurally functional one. You can’t “breed” them out, and you can’t eliminate the lower class without the others toppling in on themselves. But even considering this hyperbole on its face, there’s a dangerous implication that is contrary to the seemingly progressive stance. Claiming that “poor people have a right to make babies” seems to take it for granted that we’re always going to have poor people. This, to me, is an incredibly unambitious and myopic way of thinking. The real question we should be focusing on is not “should poor people be having babies”, it should be “why do we still have poor people?” Or, to put it in a more melodramatic way: how is it that for all our forward progress as a society, there still exists a class of people for whom reproducing and raising a baby – something the human race has been doing effortlessly for eons – is no longer “affordable”. How messed up is that?

So, do poor people have a “right” to make babies? Well, no more or less than anyone else – that is to say: uh. I’m not sure. To refer back to my earlier example, an interesting thought exercise is to replace “make babies” with “eat”. Do poor people have a right to eat? We as a society have decided (arbitrarily, for various reasons) that yes, everyone should be able to eat – it’s generally a bad thing for society as a whole to have any constituent part starving to death. So, the question of reproduction as a subsidized right in that regard is essentially a question of “how many (babies) and how often”. I won’t get into the messy business of the rate at which we make babies as a whole and the questions therein: too few or too many, who that’s good for, the ways in which various societies control that, and so forth. I do think that birth control should be made about 1,434,465 times more readily available to poor people (well, to everyone, really), so that having a baby is a choice and not an (un)happy accident. A lot of people really don’t need to be having babies. But I also think we need to get rid of this sneering condescension I keep seeing directed at poor people that dare to reproduce. You find this attitude directed at the lower class about other things, too, not just reproduction. “How dare these poor people have a nice TV!! How dare these poor people have cable TV while they’re on food stamps!” and so on.. Until we break down the structural forces that keep poor people poor, it’s hard to get too holier-than-thou. God forbid the lower class try to find some comfort in this world.

There’s also good quote/section of a book I’ve read – probably The Truly Disadvantaged, by William Julius Wilson – where he explores the phenomenon of lower class teenage mothers. He points out (crude paraphrasing ahoy) that a lot of young women have a baby merely because their class situation doesn’t really afford a lot of other options. College is not really an option; there’s no career ladder begging them to hop on, and even high school is a seemingly pointless exercise in forced quarantine, so you may as well skip all that and start makin’ babies. I’m not sure where I was going with that, but it’s an interesting perspective, and more fair than the hysterical culture of poverty “single mothers having babies just to get more food stamps!!” angle on teenage/lower-class/out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

I’m not sure I had an overarching point, but instead I just wanted to think out loud. I’ll conclude by tossing out a tangentially related thought from a friend of mine sure to offend at least half my readership. I’ll just quote him:

health insurance should cover abortions but not childbirth
reason: abortions are legitimate preventive medicine. pregnancy is elective; insurance shouldn’t cover it any more than it covers plastic surgery or college tuition.

This is interesting in a lot of ways – in particular, it highlights the ways in which we subsidize childbirth. It’s basically a mechanism by which we choose to control our population via economic means: the invisible hand of the market rather than the iron fist of state mandate (i.e. China’s reproductive policy). Food for thought.