In the last two centuries, there has been a massive shift in the legal, social and institutional norms surrounding sex – both in terms of women’s rights and regulation of sexual activity. And, undoubtedly, there will be more such shifts in the future – the sexual norms that emerge in the future may well make even the most strident liberals of today blush. What to make of this complex and sometimes confusing landscape? This is the subject of the 2012 Annual Uehiro Lecture Series, entitled ‘Sex in a Shifting Landscape’ and delivered over the next three weeks by Professor Janet Radcliffe Richards. The first lecture occurred on November 14 (you can listen to the podcast here and here), with two more to follow on November 21 and 28. Continue reading
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?
By Charles Foster
As some may have noticed, today there is a wedding. It has been immensely costly, and while I do not for a moment resent that expenditure, the cost has an important ethical corollary.
The money has been spent primarily to ensure dynastic continuity. By accepting our money for their Bollinger and bobbies, William and Kate are impliedly accepting our commission to use their best endeavours to breed. They have taken the People’s Shilling, and have become, first and foremost, breeding animals. Their gametes are held in trust for the nation, and they should guard them. Kate must marinate her eggs in the finest organic nutrients that Fortnums has to offer: William must never wear tight underpants, and always wear a box when he plays cricket. Continue reading