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"'Having' Children: The Choice between Procreation and Adoption" by Veromi Arsiradam and Adam Ferner

Artwork by Joanna Borkowska

Over the last two decades, there has been increasing engagement in western analytic philosophy with ethical issues of family-making. Philosophers have asked whether procreation is permissible, whether there is a duty to adopt rather than procreate, and how we might radically reconceive parenthood. Importantly, these discussions are influenced by complex socio-political factors and provide conceptual foundations for potential government action. The debates are becoming more nuanced – and the need for them, in an era of pandemic and increasing public awareness of racial justice movements and environmental crises, is only growing more acute.

Adoption and Fostering vs. Procreation

Here are two simple thoughts. Firstly, all children have a right to be cared for. Secondly, it makes sense to prioritise care for children who already exist. These two thoughts encourage the idea that there is a moral responsibility to look after existing children who are in need of care rather than making more. In the work of philosophers like Tina Rulli and Daniel Friedrich, this idea forms the basis for a duty to adopt rather than procreate.

While adoptive practices are typically considered morally praiseworthy, they’re far from mainstream. Most societies value adoption, but not enough to provide suitable supports to make it equally accessible as a means of having children. Only a few people proactively consider non-biological parenthood as an option, especially when there’s no impediment to procreation.

Generally speaking, procreation is regarded as superior or preferable to other forms of family-making. This is unsurprising given the pervasiveness of bio-normative ideals, which enforce a bias towards “natural” baby-making. In most societies, at most levels of cultural discourse, producing your own child is seen to be an essential part of a happy life, making meaning and bringing joy. So while many agree that adoption is a social good, this message is controverted by the widespread endorsement of, asymmetrical social supports for, and celebration of procreation.

At the time of writing (February 2021), the national press in the UK is celebrating the news that two royals, Harry Mountbatten-Windsor and Meghan Markle, are expecting their second child. The royal family is an instance of deeply entrenched institutional pro-natalism; at the heart of the monarchy is the belief that “blood-lines” matter. Power emanates from those with a specific birth-right. It is unsurprising that citizens within monarchies, like the UK and Canada, are biased towards procreation, since the Crown has structural prohibitions against adoption; the head of state cannot be an adoptee.

These background pro-natalist pressures don’t simply marginalise children in care (though that would be bad enough). They may also encourage prospective parents who are experiencing infertility to view adoption as a last resort: adoption should be turned to only after having tried costly and potentially risky assisted reproductive technologies.

Not only are there socio-cultural disincentives to adoption, there are legal and administrative ones as well. The burdens placed on adoptive parents are, on the whole, heavy and inequitable, and include (but are not limited to): requirements of parenting skills training, intensive medical (including psychological) evaluations, financial assessments, criminal background checks, as well as home studies and check-ups. Prospective foster parents go through similar intensive screening procedures.

The point isn’t that it would be better if these checks-and-balances were altogether removed – these processes ensure that adoptees and foster children are properly cared for – but that there is a glaring disparity with biological parenthood. Biological parents are not subjected to any of the parental licensing processes that typically target adoptive and foster parents. As Carolyn McLeod and Andrew Botterell argue, this constitutes a form of discrimination against adoptive, foster and (in general) non-biological families.

Having biological children is challenging (especially so if assisted reproductive technologies are needed) but socially, legally and administratively, adoption and related childcare practices present considerably more barriers. So it’s no surprise that prospective parents typically opt to procreate rather than adopt or foster.


Adoption and Child Welfare in an Era of Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated economic disparities, racial inequalities, and failures of social support systems. Adoption and child welfare systems are no exception and the issues described above have worsened during the global crisis. Within weeks of the World Health Organisation categorising the virus as a pandemic (in March 2020), we began to see the negative impacts of existing and newly-implemented laws and social policies on child welfare systems. (We focus on the UK, Canada, and US because this is where most of the English-language research and scholarship on adoption and child welfare has been produced, but similar trends to what we discuss also appear in other countries.)

Government policies aimed at curbing infection rates have created additional barriers to adoption processes: travel bans have made it more difficult for prospective parents to adopt children internationally; court closures for in-person proceedings have created delays and backlogs; strict border controls and restricted immigration have resulted in legal challenges to children’s citizenship claims.

These aren’t just matters of inconvenience. “Lockdowns” and household-limited gatherings are themselves actively harming children, making them more vulnerable to domestic abuse and exploitation. School closures and stay-at-home orders make it more difficult for children experiencing violence to reach out for help from teachers, support workers, or community members. Child support helplines have experienced a surge in call volumes and text messages, with children reporting increased stresses related to living arrangements, household finances, and mental health issues.

The lack of social interaction also renders invisible the harms children may be suffering, including psychological harms that result from stress related to the loss of loved ones, financial difficulties that leave their families without stable income or secure housing, and gender-based harms against girls and queer (including trans*) youth. Migrant and refugee children, and children living in conflict zones, face compounded threats to their wellbeing as they continue to confront a lack of access to basic necessities of life, including proper sanitation systems, healthcare and adequate living conditions.

Children who might otherwise be identified as in need of parental care or eligible for adoption may be overlooked during the pandemic, and travel bans and strict border controls significantly decrease the possibilities for international adoption. This is at a time when international adoptions have been severely restricted by sending countries, and rates of international adoption in many of the top receiving countries have sharply declined over the past few years. For example, the number of children adopted within the UK over the past five years has dropped by over a third. In Canada, the rates of international adoptions have also plummeted. (There are various reasons for this, including sending countries’ attempts to promote domestic adoptions in “the best interests of the child”, restrictive policies driven by international relations, and perhaps also higher standards set by the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.)

The pandemic has also created more challenges for youth “ageing out” of care. In the UK, approximately one-third of children in foster care exit the system when they turn 18. A similar situation affects thousands of youth who age out of care in Canada and the United States annually, though some provinces and states provide limited continued support for youth until they turn 21 or 24.

Even in non-pandemic circumstances, young people who age out of care are at a higher risk of experiencing poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, criminal activity, and incarceration. When funding for their education, accommodation, healthcare (including mental health services), and employment assistance is cut off, these youth are left without basic support. As a result, they are more likely than their peers to drop out of high school or leave post-secondary education, and face unemployment and financial precarity.

The pandemic has made the systemic disadvantages even more challenging. For those who do not have a familial support system, the many life challenges that accompany independent living are compounded by the pandemic-driven economic downturn, along with unprecedented rates of job loss and income insecurity. For many youth, even when government supports extend beyond 18, the state’s sudden severing of Crown wardship responsibilities is akin to an expulsion or abandonment rather than a supported transition into adulthood.

In response to the pandemic, some states in the US and some provinces in Canada have extended certain types of support to youth who have aged out of care. But these supports are limited both in timeframe and meaningful assistance. At a time when many young adults are leaning on familial networks for financial, accommodation and psychological support, foster youth are being forced by the state to fend for themselves.

Strategies for limiting the spread of the virus, like lockdowns and “bubbling”, may well reinvigorate notions of “nuclear families”.

Moreover, strategies for limiting the spread of the virus, like lockdowns and “bubbling”, may well reinvigorate notions of “nuclear families”. As people retreat into their biological family units during this time of crisis, social norms (including pro-natalist ones) reassert themselves in ways that are harmful to adoptees and children in foster care systems.

These considerations throw the choice between procreation and adoption into even starker relief. If we care about children, if we believe the pandemic has accentuated the difficulties faced by those in care, then why procreate rather than care for existing children whose circumstances are worsening?


Black Lives Matter and Racial Injustices

There is a growing awareness in the media and in the mainstream of the pervasive and oppressive effects of white supremacy. Here we see the politics of the pandemic, procreation, and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement intersecting. Last year, BLM protests were carried out in response to police brutality and the killing of Black men, women and children in the US. These protests were the subject of extensive media coverage, and they raised awareness about the forms of systemic violence that Black people and other people of colour are subject to. Among these are racist systems of reproductive control.

BLM has been framed by some as a reproductive justice movement that resists state interference of Black parenting and police perpetration of sexual violence on Black women. The movement identifies that state violence violates Black parents’ right to raise their children, police officers perpetrate sexual violence on Black women, and police brutality is directed at Black women, as well as Black men.

Adrienne Davis and Dorothy Roberts, among others, have identified forms of state-based harms perpetuated against Black women during slavery in the United States. For example, Black women were exploited for political and economic gain, to benefit slave-owners; Black women were forced to reproduce “the slave workforce” and their childbearing in bondage was largely a product of oppression. Black women were subjected to forced sexual labour; they were denied autonomy, self-determination, and personhood in childbearing.

Another way women’s ability to procreate has been targeted is through coerced or forced sterilization. Racialized women have been prime targets of sterilization programs, with state-sanctioned administration of long-acting contraceptives occurring without their consent, and often with little or no medical supervision. Indigenous women in North America were sterilized in mass numbers without their consent, an anti-natalist practice that many recognize as genocidal. Sterilization has been and continues to be a method of state-sanctioned population control around the world that targets members (especially women) of oppressed racial groups.

Further, mass incarceration of racialized and Indigenous men and women in the US, Canada, and elsewhere has serious consequences for the possibilities of members of these groups to have biological children. Race-based segregation via mass incarceration has the effect of significantly depressing reproductive rates amongst racialized minorities, who are disproportionately represented in prison systems. Restricting conjugal visits and denying access to assisted reproductive technologies for inmates are some of the ways in which prison systems function as contemporary eugenics movements to restrict procreative liberties of certain groups.

Against a backdrop of slavery and colonization, state sterilisation, and the disruption of Black and Indigenous families by mass incarceration, reproductive rights are a racialised issue in the US and elsewhere.

The reproductive injustices wrought by white supremacy might justify procreation where otherwise there might be a preference for adoption.

These considerations lead us to one of the most persuasive reasons for choosing procreation over adoption. The reproductive injustices wrought by white supremacy might justify procreation where otherwise there might be a preference for adoption. As one of us (Veromi Arsiradam) has discussed, for members of racially oppressed groups, having a biological child may be viewed as constituting an act of political resistance to state oppression or an instance of reparative justice.

These considerations extend to other contexts of colonialist and genocidal projects like residential schooling of Indigenous children in Canada, the “Stolen generation” in Australia, and the Holocaust, where the act of procreation has an important resonance. Anti-natalist oppression and reproductive injustices have deprived individuals (as members of targeted social groups) of their abilities to bear children. Procreation arguably allows for those individuals to embrace pregnancy, childbirth and childcare as positive experiences, with women having autonomy and self-governance of their bodies.

For members of racially oppressed groups, procreation may also be seen as a means of liberation from injustice: the act of having children is an act of political resistance, an expression of self-worth and an affirmation of the value of one’s racial group. Arguably, by having biological children, one expresses solidarity with members of one’s group, simultaneously symbolising liberation from the burdens of reproductive suppression and resistance to the endemic undervaluing of one’s social group.

The combined concerns of reparative justice and political resistance seem to provide a justification for procreation. However, in these situations, children are being regarded as instruments for political action. Bringing a child into existence for the sake of seeking reparations treats the child as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself (after all, the child’s hopes and desires cannot be considered until it exists).

In addition to instrumentalizing children, a preference for procreation, even as an act of reproductive reparation, overlooks the needs of children who already exist and are in need of care. Consider, for instance, that the majority of children in need of adoption on a global scale are children of colour. Further, Black children and youth are disproportionately overrepresented in particular child welfare systems in Western multi-racial societies, including the UK, Canada, and the US. Likewise, in Canada, Indigenous children in care are overrepresented as compared to their non-Indigenous peers.

Contemporary racial disproportionality in child welfare is inseparable from histories of racism and colonialism upon which countries like the UK, Canada, and the US are founded. The oppression of certain groups takes many forms in child welfare systems, including heightened surveillance and interventions of Indigenous and racialized children and families compared to their non-racialized counterparts. Take, for example, the discriminatory practice of “birth alerts” in Canada, where children’s aid societies pre-emptively alert hospital staff if they believe a newborn may be in need of protection, sometimes resulting in the removal of these children from their birth families. Practices like these are founded on deeply entrenched, harmful stereotypes that Indigenous and racialized parents (those most impacted by these policies) are not capable of caring for their children.

Children of colour are more likely than white children to be removed from their homes and placed in foster care; they tend to remain longer in care, receive fewer services and supports while in care, and are less likely to be placed in adoptive care or returned to their original homes.

At the same time, there is a shortage of “same race” foster and adoptive parents to care for these children, which results in many of them being placed in the care of white families.

These considerations encourage the thought that the choice to foster or adopt members of one’s racial group may equally be an act of political resistance. Throughout history, dominant groups have sought to fragment and diminish bonds and connections within certain communities as means of achieving larger political projects, such as colonization. This was achieved, in part, by design or circumstance via the removal of children from families. Customary care in Indigenous communities, for example, is a way for children to be cared for within their birth communities and serves as an act of political resistance to colonialist systems of childcare, like the Sixties Scoop and the Millenium Scoop.

The structural inequalities need to be addressed. This might involve acts of political resistance like procreation. But it might equally involve adoption and fostering. We encourage those who are persuaded by racial solidarity and the reparative arguments described above to see non-biological and non-genetic parenthood as another form of political resistance, which is responsive to the needs of existing children.


Procreative Harms and Extinction Rebellion

Bringing a child into existence is one of the most environmentally impactful decisions anyone can make. Sian Cain reports in The Guardian that in the UK, having a child results in the production of around 58.6 tonnes of carbon emissions every year, compared, for instance, with the 2.4 tonnes produced as a result of car ownership.

Bringing a child into existence is one of the most environmentally impactful decisions anyone can make.

Since the middle of the Twentieth Century, there has been a dramatic and troubling spike in the global population. In 1950, the global population of humans was roughly 2.6 billion. At present, it is around 7.7 billion, and the United Nations predicts that by 2100, it will be around 11 billion (a conservative estimate as compared to Diana Coole’s estimate of 27 billion by 2100). This dramatic growth is leading to issues of food and fuel scarcity and widespread environmental degradation.

While population growth modelling serves as a gross indicator of the inevitable depletion of finite environmental resources (despite our best efforts at technological innovation to support greater numbers of people), environmental ethicists have shifted their focus to analyzing consumption-based anthropogenic environmental degradation. What this means is that ecological footprints, which vary based on an individual’s affluence and lifestyle, are the appropriate measure for anthropogenic impacts on our environment. Procreation viewed as a consumptive act raises questions about whether the demands of morality may be unevenly distributed amongst prospective biological parents in different parts of the world. For instance, if an average person from a wealthier country has a much larger ecological footprint than an average person from a poorer country, what does that mean for the respective procreative harms associated with creating a biological child in these societies?

Many philosophers, including David Benatar, Christine Overall, Sarah Conly, Anca Gheaus, Corey MacIver, Travis Rieder and Trevor Hedberg, have expressed environmental concerns related to procreation.

Extinction Rebellion and other environmental movements often centre the idea that we must care for “the future of our children”. This is an ironic if not self-defeating refrain given their recognition of the damaging anthropogenic impacts on the planet. Environmentalists also sometimes make the mistake of conflating “not having children” with necessarily being childless (or, as Sara Ahmed reframes it, “child-free”). This problematically assumes that “having” children can only be done through procreation and not other forms of family-making. Conscientious abstention from procreation (which includes so-called “birth-strikes”) is fully compatible with becoming a parent through adopting or fostering an existing child in need of care. Acknowledging this softens the otherwise seemingly stark demand, articulated by Sarah Conly in her book One Child: Do We Have a Right to More?, that in the light of environmental degradation the right to procreate extends to only one child. In fact, it’s possible to “have” more if you embrace a more capacious understanding of what it is to “have” children.

Like Conly, Trevor Hedberg argues that the obligation to reduce one’s carbon footprint requires that people also limit the size of their biological families wherever possible. He maintains that prospective parents who strongly desire biological children should not have to give up the experiences of gestation and child-rearing but restricts the upper limit of permissible procreation to two children. Significantly, Hedberg also emphasises the way social and geographical position might factor into decisions about procreation. Given their access to high carbon-producing technologies, it seems likely that children in the developed world would have a larger lifetime environmental footprint than in other places.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that social position and privilege are central to the debates about procreation and adoption. This is true in relation to environmental impact, reproductive reparation and in considering the question of whether or not to adopt. The degree to which prospective parents proactively reflect on whether and how to have children is often a product of their social circumstance and dynamics of privilege (many people, for instance, lack adequate access to healthcare, family planning resources, and may not be able to – for various reasons – prevent or abort unwanted pregnancies). Given the gravity and complexity of these issues, it’s important when thinking about the ethics and politics of family-making to be attentive to evolving social issues and various pressures people face.


Radical Parenthood

The idea that procreation is justified on the basis of being “natural” or “normal”, and thus lies beyond the realm of moral scrutiny, is becoming increasingly hard to defend. Widespread social changes and collective consciousness-raising have opened up a conceptual space in which both procreation and adoption can be given critical consideration.

Intimately related to the project of exploring the nature of our procreative moral duties is the creative pursuit of imagining possibilities for radical forms of parenthood. What might our familial relationships look like when we reconceive traditional parent-child structures?

The idea that procreation is justified on the basis of being “natural” or “normal”, and thus lies beyond the realm of moral scrutiny, is becoming increasingly hard to defend.

Envisaging these futures and the legal frameworks to sustain them has been the project of philosophers like Anca Gheaus and Matthew Liao. Gheaus proposes that, in the event that environmental justice demands a reduction in population, it would be desirable (perhaps even obligatory) to embrace “multi-parenting”, where three or more adults raise one child. These non-monopolistic care arrangements would benefit children’s well-being and, at the same time, allow all adults to fulfil their interest in raising children. Similarly, Liao’s work presents multi-family adoptions, in which a child is placed in the joint care of individuals from different family units, as a solution to any prospect of qualified adoptive parents exceeding the number of adoptable children.

Currently, a largely unexplored form of care in existing philosophical literature is foster care. This is partly because in many cases, adoption – which can provide a secure sense of belonging and psychological stability – is seen to be preferable to alternative care arrangements. The Sixties Scoop, in which thousands of Indigenous children in Canada were removed from their birth families and placed into child welfare systems or in the care of white foster parents, is an example of a colonialist project that has had long-lasting negative impacts on Indigenous children, families, and communities. When designed appropriately, however, fostering is an important form of care.

Unlike adoption, foster care provides short-term respite for families who are experiencing difficulties and may benefit from time to access social supports for e.g., rehabilitation and domestic abuse. Moreover, foster care allows for birth parents to maintain parental ties with children and as such can be conducive to family reunification after a period of reprieve. There is a fluidity to the fostering process, and while in some cases this can be destabilising, in others (e.g., when underwritten by sound policy and well-funded systems of support) it can offer a flexibility that actually strengthens familial ties at the same time as creating new ones. Family-making in the future may be a dynamic and outward-looking process, resisting the “one size fits all” model of insular nuclear units.

Our primary concern is the welfare of adoptees and foster-children, but it’s worth noting that these alternative approaches to family-making have wider social effects. While transracial adoptions and transracial fostering can function as sites for “White Saviourism”, state-supported training for multi-racial family-making – and the families themselves – can also trouble the social constructions of race, which are the grounds for institutional, personal and systemic racism.

Heath Fogg Davis and Sally Haslanger both suggest that transracial adoptions challenge racial hierarchies. Fogg Davis calls for adoption policies that encourage transracial adoptions that flow in both directions (i.e., Black parents adopting white children as well as white parents adopting Black children). Likewise, Haslanger argues that racial integration within families can have profoundly transformative effects on parents’, children’s, and other families members’ understandings of race that can help to disrupt entrenched racial hierarchies within wider society.

Simultaneously, dynamic family models challenge heteronormative claims about who can and who cannot be a parent. Having two fathers or mothers, for instance, or having more than two or three parents, is commonplace in a system that acknowledges foster carers as parents.

Not insignificantly, practices of adoption and fostering also have the potential to disturb the silos of inherited birth-familial wealth, which contribute to economic disparities. If the legal structures that support family-making become more permissive (e.g., by deploying more flexible notions of “kin” as standard), “family wealth”, which can include privileges as well as money, may be more widely and equitably distributed. (Consider, for instance, the social upheaval that would have resulted had Kate Middleton and William Mountbatten-Windsor adopted a child and nominated them as inheritors of the British throne.)

In these ways and more, the practices of adoption and fostering are valuable as challenges to embedded bio-normative and racial structures. The non-biological family functions as a site of political resistance and progressive world-building.


Capitalism and “Having” Children

What is it to “have” a child? In the discussions above, we’ve aimed to encourage a more capacious understanding of what it is to “have” a child, to mean not just biological creation, but the incorporation of non-biological children into one’s family. However, “having” also has proprietary connotations, which are non-accidental to contemporary views of procreation and the way it’s enmeshed with capitalist conceptions of property ownership.

Few people have written so incisively on the intersections of procreation and capitalism as Patricia Hill Collins. In a section on “othermothering” in her Black Feminist Thought, she describes the practice by which Black women who are not “bloodmothers” care for non-biologically related children in their community. In her work we see that there’s nothing new or novel about the “radical parenthood” described in the previous section. Moreover, in describing the difficulties of sustaining the othermother tradition in middle-class, white suburbia, Hill Collins draws out the view endemic to parenthood in capitalist societies, that children are “private property”. Doing so, she articulates one of the central conceptual obstacles to greater social uptake of adoption and fostering practices: prospective parents want to have a child of their own – not “someone else’s”:

Under the property model that accompanies the traditional family ideal, parents may not literally assert that their children are pieces of property, but their parenting may reflect assumptions analogous to those they make in connection with property. For example, the exclusive parental “right” to discipline children as parents see fit, even if discipline borders on abuse, parallels the widespread assumption that property owners may dispose of their property without consulting members of the larger community (182).

Against this backdrop, Hill Collins says, the practice of othermothering – stopping to help non-biologically related children for free – is a rejection of the values of the capitalist market economy. Here, again, we see how fostering and adoption might function as a site of political resistance. To othermother, in a broad sense, is to perform both an act of care and a palpable challenge to the capitalist system.

To othermother is to perform both an act of care and a palpable challenge to the capitalist system.

Deciding between procreation and adoption is a moral and political action, and othermothering / adoption can be just as much an act of resistance as reparative reproduction. While we don’t endorse any infringement or limitation of reproductive rights, we strongly believe that, especially in the light of global events like the Covid-19 pandemic, the BLM protests and the climate crisis, prospective parents should reckon with these complexities before deciding to “make a baby”. Procreation is not entirely personal; the decision to bring a child into the world has implications for the environment, for local and global economic disparities, and perhaps most importantly for the millions of children who already exist and are in desperate need of care.

Veromi Arsiradam received a PhD in Philosophy in 2018. Her dissertation was on the duty to adopt children rather than procreate. She is currently a law student at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, Canada.

Adam Ferner is a freelance writer, editor and educator, whose books include: Organisms and Personal Identity (2015), Think Differently (2016), Philosophy: Crash Course (with Zara Bain and Nadia Mehdi, 2018), How to Disagree (with Darren Chetty, 2018), The Philosophers’ Library (with Chris Meyns, forthcoming) and Notes from the Crawl Room (forthcoming).


From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge"). If you enjoyed reading this, please consider making a small donation.

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