Who has the right to have a child?

Photo of baby holding person's fingers

When I was in my early 20s, an older friend of mine got pregnant with her ex-boyfriend who had no intention of being involved in raising a kid. When my friend decided to keep the pregnancy, I was terrified and puzzled. How would she go about life? Why would a young woman want to raise a kid by herself, I remember thinking? She had recently graduated from university and had just begun studying to become a teacher. What would happen to her life? I knew that living in Brighton, UK, she was in a much more liberal and supportive environment than in southern Italy, where both of us had been raised, yet still all I could envision were obstacles and difficulties. Of course, my friend proved me wrong quite quickly by getting a teaching job and a mortgage rather quickly and raising a daughter who herself is now about to leave home for university.

I often find myself thinking back about my judgment at the time. It seems like I was completely sold on the overall idea that a single woman should not have a child, an idea that is constantly reinforced through stereotypical moviesunsupportive public policies and overall stigma.

It’s easy to be sitting on the outside creating a sort of check list of all the ideal elements in a child’s life: two supportive and loving parents, access to free healthcare, childcare and education, a roof over their head. It’s easy to judge from the outside: that person, that woman, is not up to being a mother, she will ruin her life and possibly also her child’s. This is exactly what was going through my mind some twenty years ago.

If only Breasts and Eggs, the novel by Japan’s Mieko Kawakami, had been around when I was that age! It’s my latest favourite read, and some of you members have already heard me talk about it in our monthly meetings. Natsuko, the novel’s main character, is a struggling novelist from Osaka living in Tokyo by herself. At some point she starts to desire a child in a visceral and concrete way: “It’s not that I want a child. I don’t want them, I don’t want to have them. I want to meet them. My child. I want to meet my child and live with them.”

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14 thoughts on “Who has the right to have a child?

  1. Irene, you always provide so much to think about! To consider your question “What are [my] deeply held beliefs about who can become a parent?”…I wish I could say I had a more enlightened answer, but until comparatively recently, I bought into the judgmental perspective that generally “people who can afford to” was my answer. Then I saw something — on either Twitter or Facebook, of all things — expressing the idea that having children should not be thought of as a luxury. This really struck a chastening nerve with me, as I acknowledged my own position of privilege and this dysfunctional belief that parenthood is something to be earned. I hope I am going to be able to disentangle my own prejudices and work toward better public policies and more supportive cultural norms, but I realize now (thanks in part to this newsletter) that it’s going to take a LOT of effort and introspection.

    1. Hey Bonnie, Thanks for being so honest and for sharing your own judgment, I think what you write will resonate with a lot of people.
      A couple of years ago I had a long argument with a young economist who was convinced that children (and parents) should not receive any support from the state because it was the parents who wanted them and they should take care of them. When I said that this would lead to societies in which only the rich can afford to conscientiously have a child, while those with little or no choice re their reproductive rights will just be stuck in poverty, the economist stopped to reflect.
      I am now investigating policies worldwide that offer support for children from the start, so I will come back to this topic a lot.

      1. Your response to the young economist is precisely what came to mind for me when I was confronted with the idea of child-bearing as being a luxury. One aspect of your writing that has consistently resonated with me is how your thinking is rooted in the very personal and visceral, yet is reflective of broader issues in global policy. All children need to be supported from their beginning, by mere fact of their personhood. The reflective process for creating and maintaining that support can start from either the personal or the public perspective.

  2. As written, the question “who has the right to have a child” is really about “who has the right to birth a child.” Professionally, I regularly encounter the question of “who has the right to have the child that they have birthed.” A different question, and one that I will expand upon, but one related to the original piece, and to the first reply.
    I once cared for a child who had been returned to their family following physical abuse twice, and returned to my care a third time nearly dead from repeat abuse. The judge then had to make rulings on where this child will go after my care, and who should have the right to visit the child in the hospital. So, should the mother who conceived, carried, birthed, and cared for this child “HAVE” the child on that basis, when the child has been badly beaten on multiple occasions and hospitalized three times for the injuries. What about the parent who brings a child into a chaotic home, with inconsistent and punitive parenting and angry violent arguments between family members. That child might not be physically injured, but there will be mental scars. I would agree that anyone has the right to conceive and birth a child. I don’t think we are in a position to police reproduction, and it has taken us a long time to get into the imperfect state we are currently in on that issue. BUT, a child has the right not to be HAD. Blood relation is a poor basis to give a person the rights to have a child, once they are born. I won’t pretend that getting communities and courts into the middle of a parenting relationship is not a fraught, last-resort option, but when they find themselves there, the right of the adult to have a child should not carry more weight than the right of a child to have an optimal childhood. Societies have a lot of responsibility for facilitating optimal care of a child by a well intentioned “good enough” parent. But some parents are not “good enough”, and societies should not grant them the RIGHT to HAVE a child, regardless of the biological relationship.

    1. Your perspective is quite thought-provoking. As you rightly point out, there’s potentially some ambiguity involved in using the word “have”. [Certainly conceiving and birthing a child is conceptually distinct from maintaining custody of a child, and of course it is dysfunctional to have a child remain under the guardianship of ANYONE, biologically related or not, who would undermine a child’s personhood. Perhaps, I hope, we would both agree that in NO case should a child be objectified as chattel to be passed off to someone with presumed ownership-like rights.

      I’m not so sure that society has much business in granting rights of parenthood but could (should?) be responsible for terminating any presumed rights of custodianship when a child is endangered. I certainly believe that it would be better if preserving the well-being of children was not entangled in the idea of possession or ownership, which it seems to me happens far too often where I’m from (the US).

      1. Hey Steve and Bonnie, thanks so much for pushing these thoughts a little further.

        Steve, what you point out is very important indeed, and very good to discuss when we discuss rights. I guess I make a distinction between prejudice and society’s preconceived assumptions on who would make for a good parent, while you write about the cases of parenting gone horribly wrong, and a child’s life being endangered or at least made to face unnecessary trauma.
        I really love what you say about “a child has the right not to be HAD”. In Breasts and Eggs, the novel I refer to, there are many references to this idea in a more philosophical manner, but the way you put it is very visual and real. A child has the right not to be in a blood family that is harming them.
        I think the question I would like to explore further is how we handle those parents that are not good enough and what happens to the children. It’s been on my list for a long time and sooner rather than later I would like to explore custody, foster homes, adoption and more, so thanks for putting that back on my radar.
        I guess a controversial question to ask is whether what you see on paper can tell you whether a person will be a good or bad parent. What do you think about that, Steve?

        Bonnie, as for the idea of ownership, Catherine also touches upon it in her message below, here: https://www.thefirst1000days.news/who-has-the-right-to-have-a-child/#comment-38
        What do you have in mind when you say that the well-being of children is entangled in the idea of possession or ownership? I would love to hear more.

        1. Here is an example of something that comes to mind for me. Without going into it in detail I will note that I have seen this in Texas and certainly elsewhere in the US. One entanglement I have experienced is the way children are weaponized in divorce court. Children are frequently treated by the parents and their attorneys as a bargaining chip to negotiate for advantages in how property is to be divided. That’s bad enough as it is. But also, parents –again in consultation with their attorneys — are sometimes encouraged to make accusations of abuse and neglect to purposely make the proceedings contentious and harrowing. This is reprehensible behavior. It objectifies children in the former case, and in the latter case, it further endangers children who are truly being abused by taking resources away that could be applied to rescuing them from harm. These are among the most serious examples I can offer. But the idea of children as possessions reflecting on parents’ wealth or status, success, reputation, etc. is in my mind damaging to the well-being of children in the short- and long-term. Abuse and neglect are not just “poor people problems.”

        2. I’ve been absent for a few months Irene, and you have published several other pieces since I last posted. If you still get this, I will say that there are pen and paper instruments that have been shown to predict how a parent will function vis-a-vis abuse. That said, this is always a statistical likelihood answer, not a crystal ball, and thus someone will always have to apply a value based decision of what level of risk is unacceptable, what is the threshold for action. These things are intended for use in deciding whether, or when, a parent should be given another chance with their child AFTER they have already done something that has drawn bad attention. The idea of a parenting test BEFORE deciding who should have the right to bear and raise a child is quite a bit too Big Brother for me, even with all that I have seen. Your lead in to that question mentions adoption. That may be a special case, but whether it is some human drafted “test”, or a machine learning derived AI based on huge data sets, we have to be really clear that we are not inserting values and biases that are not shared very very broadly.

  3. Very thought-provoking! When an athlete’s body is policed as a commodity, and we engage in ownership thinking about possessing (birthing/ having/ keeping/ acquiring through adoption, etc.) children, it seems we are separating our bodies from our very humanity – and our shared humanity – which is a dangerous space to enter. This false separation denies the much richer reality that all of our children collectively (those we raised and those raised by our neighbors, globally) embody our future, and our future is best served with generous, loving care in our present. This care must extend to the bodies and whole wellbeing of everybody’s children, and also to their caregivers! Many communities have long understood this, or are finding creative ways to return to this thinking. Whether the right to have a child is extended or denied, the children are with us, and they are nobody’s possessions.

    1. Hey Catherine,
      Thanks so much for pushing my thoughts further with your comment.
      I hadn’t thought about the idea of “possessing” children vs collectively raising children, but the way you phrase it has made me think about lots of topics to get into in the future.
      I am curious: you say many communities have long understood the importance of care that extends to children and caregivers. Do you have specific communities in mind when you write this? Real-life examples are always a great inspiration to me in further exploring topics.
      Thank you!

  4. Thanks Irene, so much food for thought! Are you going to investigate further this topic? For example, I would love to know how many countries discriminate against people with disabilities, indeed, I would like to hear their voice. I have to confess that I didn’t know anything about it, what a naive person.

    1. Hey Vava!
      Yes, I would love to investigate the topic further, and knowing that you are interested is a good reason to put it even higher on my list.
      It may take me some time, but in the meantime I will look for interesting resources (like articles and such) to share while I start investigating. And hopefully I can invite a person living with a disability to share their own experience of parenthood.
      Is that the focus you’re mainly interested in: the intersection of reproductive rights with living with a disability, and the lived experience?
      Thanks for your support and glad my piece offered a little opening into a new topic.

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