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What are ethical and unethical intentions to conceive a child?

In today’s blog, I want to ask you for your opinions on a question that has been bothering me for some days now. The question relates to the potential motivations of couples who try to have a baby. My question is: What are ethical – and what are unethical – intentions to conceive a child, and how do we asses whether these intentions are ethical or not? The reason why this question came to my mind is that I read reports on a legal case in German media that gave rise to very strong emotional reactions both in the court and in the media – and in me, to be honest. So, I want to warn everybody who is about to read on, because the case I am about to depict is truly shocking.

Last Monday, the District Court in Essen (Germany) convicted a couple for sexual abuse of their own baby (case number: AZ.: 23 KLs 148/11). What makes this case so particular is that they conceived their child out of the clear intention to sexually abuse it later.
The couple first got to know each other on a web forum, on which both were looking for casual sex. They acted out their mutual sexual fantasies over web chat and later met for sexual encounters. At some point, the man told the woman to be sexually interested in children. They agreed on the plan to have a mutual child on the purpose to involve it in their sexual encounters. To put their plan into action, they systematically met for sexual intercourse whenever the woman had her most fertile days; she got pregnant and carried out a boy. When he was five weeks old, the women took the boy to introduce him to the man. Then, as the woman’s lawyer describes it, when she changed the child’s diapers, the man held his erect penis besides the naked baby and took a picture. Later, the man sent this picture to one of his other sexual partners, via which it was passed on to the police, and the couple was arrested before any more harm could be done to the child. Both parents confessed. Also, their fantasies on what to do with the child once it was born were well documented in web chat histories. Hence, the court convicted the couple to 5 years (the woman) and 8 years (the man) in prison. Fortunately, the actual sexual abuse that took place was – as the court stated – comparably harmless, and the baby was neither physically nor mentally harmed.

When I read about this case, it deeply horrified me. It still does. Of course, the actual sexual abuse that took place is not to be played down. However, what makes this case so extremely disturbing is less the actual abuse but rather the intention out of which the couple wanted to have a child. However, from a legal point of view, the motivation out of which somebody conceives a child is not accusable. “Everybody can have a child for whatever reason they want” was explicitly stated by the court. Hence, the parents were convicted for the actual abuse (and related crimes). This huge discrepancy between our psychological reactions on the intention to conceive a child to abuse it (deepest disgust) and the juridical implications of this intention (none) made me wonder about the ethical implications of this case. I want to ask the question: It is unethical to conceive a child with the intention to abuse it? Or, on a more general and less provocative level, what are ethical and what are unethical motivations to have a baby and how do we distinguish them?

As a psychologist, so I am not familiar with the philosophical “toolkit” of how to approach such a case from an ethical perspective. My gut feeling is conceiving a child with the intention to abuse it is morally wrong – even if this intention is never put into practice later and no actual harm is done. However, I am not able to clearly pinpoint why this mere intention is unethical. Hence, I wonder about how we should ethically assess people’s intentions to give birth to children.
One idea that comes to my mind is that it might be the incredible degree of selfishness that makes the doing of the convicted couple’s morally wrong. Having a child to abuse it for one’s own sexual desires is one of the most selfish reasons thinkable So is it selfishness we should argue about to asses whether intentions to conceive a child are morally right or wrong? However, I think that the minority of children are conceived for entirely unselfish reasons. Some people might have children to serve their religion or their community, but having a child often is motivated by wishes related to self-fulfilment. So, is it unethical to have a baby to simply fulfil your personal dream of life? Or to conform to your society’s role expectations? Or in the hope that the child will feel morally obligated to support you financially when you are old? Although these motives do not reach the massive degree of selfishness described in the case above, would this mean that selfish reasons for conceiving a child are unethical (to a degree)?
Or, related to selfishness, is the attribute critical for ethical assessment that the intention was to do something harmful to the child? Does this make this intention particularly unethical? However, again, I think that also other intentions out of which babies are conceived in everyday life might be potentially harmful for the child – of course in far more subtle (and often unconscious) ways. For example, from my psychologist’s point of view it may well be (mental) harm doing if you use the child as a lever to keep your partner from leaving your violent relationship.

What are your suggestions on this issue? Are there any clear criteria of what makes motives to conceive a child unethical?

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15 Comment on this post

  1. According to some (David Benatar provides the best lengthy argument) there is no defensible intention for conceiving a child, because the lives of that hold will always be worse than the nonexistence of that same child.

    I would propose, far short of Benatar, that nonetheless, many intended conceptions are (as you note) extraordinarily selfish, and are directly related to vanity, personal wants, a desire to ‘live’, social pressures, and the like. If one were a consequentialism, the simple question is ‘how does the creation of this particular offspring contribute to the overall good’. I would argue (and this is where I do see the strength of Benatar’s argument) most people who intend to conceive fail to see how the addition of THIS child will do more harm than good, overall.

    1. Hmmm.

      From a consequentialist/non-person affecting account, surely the addition of *any* child that experiences/creates more overall good than harm will be justified, even if any particular child who fits this criteria does not necessarily create the maximum good? Or are you saying that *not* creating the maximum good is equivalent to doing more harm than good??

  2. Do you have any candidate child-oriented (genuinely serving the interests of the child) reasons to have a child? I’m on the side of “it’s never ethical to have a child” mostly because it necessarily involves huge, unconsented risk and the BATNA (non-existence) is pretty fine.

  3. Thanks for your post, Nadira. What a horrible case.
    Answering from the history of ideas and philosophy reasons for conceiving a child vary from gaining immortality through generation, to an impetus ingrained in the species and nature.
    A completely different stance would be to define a child as the highest expression of love between two people in which case the references points of the comments above me become void. However, philosophy of love hardly offers a hard-edge ethical working theory on this and I wonder if a true level based ethical consideration is even possible, taken that the most basic goal of ethics is to declare what is right and wrong and delimiting the moral from the amoral. That on the other hand references intentions and brings us back to the initial case. Intentions are not equal to acts on a moral level and this is what sets this case apart from say reproductive medicine where the primary intention is to just ‘have a child’ (whatever the cost etc.). There might be pointers in that sector of philosophical research I say pointers as the above case is clearly in a different moral problem zone.

  4. What a shocking case! I just learned about it in your blog, which shows how much I have been (not) following the news lately… But it confirms my theory that, no matter which trait you look at, mankind shows a probability distribution never reaching zero. And with billions of people living on the globe, it is fairly likely you find someone with any seemingly impossible (mental) defect.

    This attempt of a contribution is the product of an afternoon of procrastination form writing an assignment in patent law. So everything is based on a purely speculative basis. Don’t sue me if it turns out to be all wrong after making a decision to have a child (or not) based on my babbling 😉

    To approach an answer to your question, I think we have to step back from the baby and first look at an easier question. Here is one: When is it ethical to lure a grown adult into your (/ my / anyone’s) bedroom?

    The safest answer would be: “If nothing conflicts with it.” That is, noone is possibly harmed in any way in the widest possible meaning of the term “harm”. This is clearly not the case if your intention is to abuse the other party. However, if you intend to perform consensual and mutually pleasuring bedroom activities and there is no third party (husband / wife / boy / girlfriend / resulting child) who may end up suffering, I would say there is no possible conflict. So this behaviour would be perfectly ethical, even though it is probably driven by a fairly egoistic motivation. (I am deliberately ignoring intrinsic conflicts within a religious person. No regrets possible in this model setting.)

    Reality is, of course, usually somewhere between the extremes of “evident harm” and “no conflict whatsoever”. So the verdict becomes less safe. Utilitarism gives a possible aproach to resolve this: If your action increases global happiness, do it. In the conception case, this would mean: Go for it if it makes the world (including yourself and the child) happier than without. (I am inclined to set the happiness of a non-existing child to zero and consider the happiness averaged over the whole lifetime of each affected individual.)

    The basic problem of utilitarism is that the happiness resulting from an action is neither measurable nor easily predictable. You probably know best what makes yourself happy. But how about others? And who has to take the risk of something going wrong, that is an actual decrease of happiness, despite good intentions? Here the liberal approach kicks in: To some extent, everyone is responsible for himself. Laws are there to make sure noone can damage other peoples’ happiness beyond a tolerated level. Weaknesses, e.g. those of children, are to be compensated for. (All this is just theory but anyway…) So, if everyone strives for his own happyness, this will (in theory) increase global happyness. I think this is why I cannot see any ethics problem with an egoistic motivation in the above bedroom example (mutually agreed version). Two adults have to know what they are doing and the law makes sure everyone can back out if he thinks something is going wrong.

    Depending on age, Children cannot be expected to make decisions which are in their own best interest, though. In extreme cases (such as sex), lawmakers made the decisions for them and authorities are to enforce these. When it comes to less extreme issues, it is the parents who are to decide for the child.

    Now the problem of motivation is back: Parents are given the power to decide for their children in order to execute this power in the child’s best interest. Speaking in legal terms, there is a principal-agent relationship between the child (principal) and its parents (agents). Self-serving of the parents is as little good as self-serving by any agent. (Well, it is indeed worse because the child is more vulnerable than anyone else, so the libertarian approach is even further from being appropriate…) But as long as the parents are well-intentioned and diligent, the child being the potential beneficiary bears the risk of something going wrong.

    Uncertainty changes the utilitarist decision rule only slightly: Have the child if you have reason to believe that having it will make the world (including yourself and the child) happier than not having it.

    Stressing the responsibility for the (potential) child and your personal environment a little more, I am inclined to rather say:

    Have a child if you feel like it, having it will not cause any conflicts with the other affected people (e.g. the prospective father) and you have reason to believe that the child, at the end of its own life, may consider the latter as having been worth living. But bear in mind that, as soon as the child exists, you are its agent!

  5. Addenduum: The last paragraph was intended to read:

    Have a child if you feel like it, having it will not cause any conflicts with the other affected people (e.g. the prospective father) and you have reason to believe that the child, at the end of its own life, may consider the latter as having been worth living. Under these conditions, selfishness behind the decision does not hurt. But bear in mind that, as soon as the child exists, you are its agent!

  6. Being a German jurist, I would first say something in defence of the Court that stated “Everybody may have a child for whatever reason.”, if this is necessary at all. I haven’t read the decision but I’m fairly sure that they said something like: Everybody may have… from the point of view of the criminal law. For the criminal law is only there to protect the most important interests of a society or the individuals in the society from imminent peril. These interests are chosen by the democratically elected legislator and they are conclusive the way they are put into the law.
    So people are free to have the worst ideas (there is no punition if it is proven that someone is a “ratfink”), unless they attempt to put them to practice, which is where the criminal law comes in. In the present case, it’s the actual abuse that is accusable and not the (causal) acts that lay months or years before it.
    All this says very little about the question whether reasons for having a child are unethical. Many people don’t even have a reason for having a child, you don’t have to justify yourself as regards to nature that sometimes just makes it happen – and sometimes not. There are indeed people like E.M. Cioran who state that having a baby is always irresponsible because the baby is thrown into life without being asked for it’s consent.
    Now if you turn to Kant for a clue in that matter, he would say that it is unethical and against human dignity if people don’t respect the idea of human existence possessing it’s “reason in itself” (“Zweck an sich selbst”, don’t know how to translate). This would probably imply not to fully instrumenalize a human existence if you have the choice of bringing it to life or not, and to let it be and let it become the “reason in itself” if it is born under no special auspice and with no special intention.
    So I’d say there are less shocking intentions than the ones in the case above that are unethical when they are related to the question of having a baby or not. Think about the idea of having a baby in order to try to mend a relationship that has gone to pieces, in order to make someone marry you… If you are lucky enough to have the choice, I think you are not allowed to make the choice with regard ONLY to yourself.

  7. It is obvious that it is absolutely unethical to have a child with the intention to abuse it sexually, because sexual abuse means violence, and in this particular case violence againt a completely helpless being who is dependent on the parents for his existence and well-being, which is abhorring. Regarding other reasons for having a child, I´ m not sure if one could make a general statement just on the basis of intentions of the parents. To conceive a child in the hope of rescuing an otherwise broken or unhappy relationship is in my opinion not quite intelligent, but not necessarily unethical, as long as the mother is ready to take the responsibilities for the child. (I talk of the mother, since she is the only one who could make such a decision. A man cannot force a woman to conceive a child to mend a relationship without her knowledege other than by raping her). –
    As to whether it is unethical to have a child, because it makes fun, one feels happier with the child, one expects support in old-age, etc. etc., what counts is how one treats the child. For , first, there e is no way of knowing if the parents, or the child , let alone the world will be happier in the long run. None of us can look so far into the future and see what life brings. None of us can guareantee the happiness of others, including the happiness of our own children. Therefore “making the world a happier place” doesn´t seem to be a valid reason to have a child, although it is of course quite an ethical motivation.
    Second, human beings have affective needs, that is they need other human beings not only for their physical survival, but also for their emotional health. (That´s why isolation is a form of punishment) We all live in one or other form of communal relations, even when we think of ourselves as “independent individuals”. Therefore, I think, it is not selfish at all to have children with the expectation of having more fun, enjoying life more, etc. And it is also not selfish, to expect that children support their parents as much as they can at times of need. We all need a sense of belonging together, which however can only be attained on the bases of reciprocal relations. When the parents spend so much time and energy bringing up a child, it is also quite justified that they expect assistance when they are old and weak. Of course, there are many relations, including family relations, where there is no genuine sense of communal interests (belonging together), but exploitation. But if this is an ideal to be cherished is dubious.
    Finally, we all have only a limited understanding of our own motivations. I think this holds true for the psychologists, as well, even when they are better equipped than others to understand the underlying motivations of their actions. Hence, I think the question about the ethical grounds for deciding to have a child is relevant only in cases where the motivation explicitly involves exploitation of the child – to have childeren in order to have enough men for wars, to have children to use them as slave labour, etc. , for all of which there is enough historical evidence. (In such cases , though, the individuals might have had quite different motivations than the authorities who called them to have and bring up more children.) Otherwise, as long as one takes due responsibility for the well -being of the child, the decision to conceive a child is not to be criticized on ethical gorunds. This holds true, also when one becomes pregnant unintentionally and decides to give birth to the child. And also when one decides to give the child to a fostering family for its own well-being.

  8. I do think there is a distinction between selfishness and maliciousness, though these may intersect. Having a child to carry on one’s family name might be selfish. Having a child to serve as as slave, or a sex slave, is deliberately, significantly harmful to the child. How much harm must there be or how bad must someone’s intentions be before a couple should be prevented from reproducing? That is a difficult question. It is also difficult to form enforceable laws around intention, though it is clearly central to murder.

    Another issue is one where one does not intend harm but foresees it. For example a woman foresees her husband might abuse a child but does not intend it.

    These are all difficult issues which your case raises

  9. I think that the intention is relevant as long as actions follow from that intention. For instance, if these people had the child with the intention to sexually abuse him but then, as soon as the child was born, they changed their mind and they acted as good parents, then no harm had occurred. The intention was certainly immoral, but if the child were raised by good parents (or also given up for adoption), he probably would have had a good life. (and the alternative would have been not to be born at all, for that specific child). The problem here is not (just) the intention, but the fact that they actually started to behave as sexual abusers when they took that picture and sent it around, because this shows that the intention to abuse the child was not there just when they made a choice to have a baby, but long after that. This raises another interesting question that is, should these people be prevented from having more children, once they’re out of prison? I think so.

    1. I agree with your point regarding intention: the parents should only be punished on the grounds that there was substantial evidence that they were acting on their intentions, even though the actual acts done were so far ‘comparably harmless’.

      Regarding your final point, it seems sensible to have a lifetime ban on having children for all parents who seek to have children for such purposes, but ideally if you could demonstrate they have significantly changed psychologically as a result of their time in prison, there would be some justification for allowing certain individuals another chance.

  10. You wrote:

    “intentions to conceive a child, and how do we asses whether these intentions are ethical or not?”

    We asses?

    Speak for yourself. 🙂

  11. I know in the minds of a lot of people there is a huge divide between humans and other species, although most of the characteristics that make for this divide look prety dodgy now, but, citing this case, how would we compare it with the actions of the majority of humans in our society who actually pay for, will and resist attempts to hinder the reproduction of millions of sentient beings belonging to non-human species simply and solely for the purpose of confining, exloiting and killing them for non-essential human ends? Unethical intentions or what?

  12. pregnantmethods

    I am no lawyer but it depends on the law suit which was filled against them. If the law suit had been conceiving with the intentions to sexually abuse the baby am sure the sentence would have been longer. Because I believe the judge in a bench trial—has a reasonable doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, the jury or judge should pronounce the defendant not guilty. Conversely, if the jurors or judge have no doubt as to the defendant’s guilt, or if their only doubts are unreasonable doubts, then the prosecutor has proven the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and the defendant should be pronounced guilty. In this case however it can be said that the child was not physical harm but if the couple had not been found earlier, a lot more would have happen which would produce doubt to the defendant’s guilt.

    However I still believe its morally wrong to conceive a baby with any other reason apart form co-creating as states in the Bible.

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