Explain: How is Remaining Childless “Selfish”?

Posted on April 20, 2015


Back in February, Pope Francis reiterated the Catholic Church’s position on child-bearing: “Not to have children is a selfish choice.”

Ummmm, really?

Adjective self·ish \ˈsel-fish\ :  concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself :  seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others (Merriam-Webster).

Amazingly enough, childless people are not always excessively concerned with themselves, while parents are not always selfless. Contrary to the Pope’s simplistic statement of dogma, people are complete human beings whether or not they have children, and their selfish or selfless natures are independent of their reproductive status. I am sure you can think of plenty of parents who are self-centered, even to the detriment of their own children’s well-being. I know I can.

So why is it so hard to understand that while the childless may choose not to concern themselves with actual childbirth and child-rearing, they can and often do choose to concern themselves with other beneficial pursuits: nursing, medicine, disaster relief, volunteering, charity, maybe even caring for a disabled sibling, or… golly, the childless even work with children in day care or teaching, counseling or therapy, charities like Big Brother/Big Sister.

Having children can be a selfish choice, too. Very selfish. Ever since adolescence, I have from time to time been accosted by buttinskys trying to convince me that I just had to have children. Here are the top three reasons that I heard repeatedly: 1) To take care of you in your old age. 2) To inherit your stuff. 3) To carry on the family name, or business. Aren’t those selfish reasons? I’d rather be an accidentally conceived child than one conceived intentionally for these ulterior motives.

And then we have the extreme reasons for intentionally creating a child: one of the most controversial cases was back in 1990, when Marissa Ayala was born for the express purpose of serving as a bone marrow donor for her cancer-stricken older sister. As Jack Marshall writes on his excellent Ethics Alarms blog, “A child was conceived not out of love, or because she was wanted for whom she would become, but for what benefits her cells would confer on another daughter.

Or, take the infamous case of the Octomom, who intentionally and expensively created fourteen children through IVF to give herself a safe, secure connection to another human being… because she had been a lonely only child. She admitted in 2010 that her choices were “selfish.”

As for the Pope’s comment that life, multiplied, is “enriched,” he should take another hint from Octomom, who said in 2010:  “I cannot grow additional eyes or hands…. I can barely give them — nobody could, not two people, not four people even could give them — all the emotional, psychological and physical needs. You can’t possibly. I live every single day every hour of the day with a tremendous amount of guilt, and I feel guilty when I hold the one or two and then that I can’t be there for the others. And they’re crying. And then I feel guilty. Look at the older ones. They all have different unique needs.”

Enriched? Sure doesn’t seem that way to me. Don’t even get me started on the fact that Octomom’s huge family has partly depended on the taxpayers of California, and various celebrities, friends, and relatives, to pay for their needs. That goes to the “without regard for others” part of the definition of “selfish.”

Here’s a question for you: if childlessness is selfish, then what is infertility? How is the childless-by-choice couple different from the infertile one? They are only different in their desires. One couple is getting what they want; the other couple is not. But aren’t both couples “selfish” by definition, each concerned with their own wishes in regards to procreation?

Maybe the only people who really aren’t “selfish” in matters of procreation are the ones who don’t even think about it, whose children are “accidents,” and who then adapt their lives to the new reality of parenthood which was neither sought nor avoided. But that’s not always for the best, either. A relative comes to mind, who often lamented his increasingly miserable childhood as more and more siblings arrived, the house became more crowded, and his mother became increasingly bitter and resentful.

Nope. The best approach to parenthood is to know what you want, plan well for it, and don’t let anyone else dictate your life’s biggest and most important decision.