The Personalist Project

Accessed on July 14, 2020 - 10:58:56

In Defense of Unimpressive Persons

Devra Torres, Apr 26, 2012

Why eight children?

Because we're personalists.

Let me explain.

After all, with Earth Day just past, our family might strike even sympathetic people as too much of a good thing (and less sympathetic ones as sheer insanity).

But to us, as personalists, the main thing about our eighth child, Gabe,

is not: "Oh, no!  Eight!  Too high a number!"

Likewise, we utterly miss the point about little Danica Camacho (whose name means "morning star")

if we say "Oh, no!  Seven billion!  WAY too high a number!" 

(Danica's mother clearly knows better: you can see it in her eyes.)

Since persons are not things, you can count them, but you can't quantify them.  Since they are not products, you are deeply misguided if you wish to screen them for quality control, even if they have Down's...

...and even if their parents' income isn't up to the rarified standards of middle-class American consumers.

Those who think the essence of a person consists of something as external as his numerical relation to others are deeply misguided.  They're hostage to what my beloved physics professor, Dr. Donald Cowan (former president of the University of Dallas), used to call "the myth of fact."  Our faith in statistics and empirical data is just as blind and naive as the simplest tribesman's belief in his local rain god.  To bureaucrats suffering from this malady, abstractions are far more real than Gabe or Danica.  Only if you can put a number on them do they count as real.  In fact, people's measurable aspects are the most important thing about them.  Statistics will tell you all you need to know.

Let's see: here's a ten-pound Hispanic/Ashkenazi male neonate, eighth living child of middle-class American parents.  Over there's a southeast Asian female, 5.5 pounds, second child of a low-income Filipino couple.  

There's always something that the statistics can't capture, though. My husband says he could identify each of our babies' personalities from the moment of birth (and he was at my side every time, so he would know).  

This one kind of laid low.  He looked like he wasn't so sure about the move to the outside world....

That one opened her mouth wide and started hollering right away....

Sure enough, the former turned out to be a more circumspect young man, the latter a more, well, commanding young lady.  (But I'll leave it at that: readers acquainted with my children are earnestly instructed to refrain from guessing which might be which.)  

All eight of them, and all seven billion of us, are persons, not objects.  "Reproduction," with its shades of widgets, mass production and quality control, is a singularly inadequate description of what goes into making of one of us.  

Please don't misunderstand: personalists do realize that marveling at the unrepeatability of each of us is no substitute for seeking out how best to feed, heal and educate us all.  But before you count and evaluate and plan for the welfare of these beings, you ought to give a thought to what, exactly, they are.  Mother Teresa, a very practical woman, was on to something when she said the idea of there being too many children was like saying there were too many flowers in the field, too many stars in the sky.

 This degree of cluelessness is right up there with the influential ignoramus character in Amadeus, the film about Mozart, who criticized one of the composer's symphonies as having "too many notes."

So lots of antinatalist arguments are misguided.  They're burdened with ignorance of the problem of underpopulation, and with gullibility about the politically motivated myths surrounding the state of the environment.  I don't propose to debunk antinatalism in this brief blogpost: I'll limit myself to referring you to Julian Simon on macro-antinatalism ("The world is overpopulated!") and to Simcha Fisher on micro-antinatalism ("Your household is overpopulated!").

What I'd like to address is this: there are certain pronatalist arguments that are fine as far as they go--but also miss the point.

First, there's the public-good argument: We need lots of babies to constitute our tax base.  We want younger, able-bodied working people to outnumber the elderly.  But birth control and abortion artificially shrink that base and enlarge the proportion of retirees.  The security we wish for our elders is impossible with too small a labor force.

Frustrated propoents of this argument have been known to make cracks about how it is, after all, their own children who will end up supporting the  very same intentionally childless elderly who despise their prolific ways.

Second, there's the Johann Sebastian argument: the very person whose life is being prevented or cut short might have turned out be the next Bach (who was his parents' eighth), or the one to discover the cure for cancer, or some other exceptionally interesting or useful specimen of humanity.  To screen him out simply for the crime of being baby number eight, or number seven billion, would have deprived us all of something irreplaceable.  This is unquestionably true.

(In fact, Margaret Sanger, the oxymoronic "mother of birth control," was the sixth of eleven children.  This creates a bit of a conundrum for her admirers.  As number six, she clearly shouldn't have come into existence in the first place.  But if she hadn't, she wouldn't have been able to help all those other mothers to escape their children's existence.)

Then there's a similar variant: the Otis argument, against the idea that women in hardship would be better off preventing or aborting their offspring.  For example, what if you were married to a sharecropper who was developing tuberculosis?  What if you'd have to be the sole breadwinner, living in a housing project, until your child could drop out of school to work as a well-digger and gas station attendant, and then die tragically in his twenties?  This was Otis Redding's mother a few decades ago.  An Otis-less world is a dreary thought.

So take care, the reasoning goes, lest we, in our ignorance, interfere with the existence, or lifespan, of someone especially "important."

All these arguments have merit.  Of course an economy needs a healthy number of babies, and of course you don't want to deprive the human race of someone extraordinary.  But none of them gets to the heart of the matter.  None is sufficiently personalist.

Our intrinsic value does not hinge on our contribution to the common good, or on the presence of unusual abilities.  Abortion would remain objectively evil even if it were true that Roe v. Wade brought about a drop in violent crime by eliminating future criminals.  

But what about those babies whose future just doesn't bode well?  Aren't we being a little cavalier here?

My friend, "Annie," put it best: 

"I made a mistake.  This baby is not a mistake."

She'd gotten pregnant right after high school.  She married the father, but they divorced shortly afterwards.  She married again, an alcoholic this time, and had two more children.  Then she divorced again, and spent the next few decades trying to raise her kids between exhausting shifts at the nursing home.  Her eldest, Stevie, ended up in a home for troubled boys, where she supervised his supervisors as closely and relentlessly as she could, never giving up on him.  I've lost touch with Annie, and I don't know how he turned out.

Chances that he'll be a world-famous artist or expert in anything, though, are small indeed.  Chances that he'll even be a productive member of society, as these things are measured economically, are slim, too.  So do we have sufficient data to ascertain that Stevie was a mistake?  Isn't there still something repugnant about that idea?

One of the most disquieting things that ever happened to me was during a prenatal doctor's visit about four years ago.  I used to make a point of looking respectable and sounding articulate during these appointments, the better to demolish any lurking stereotypes about large families and the grand multiparas who preside over them.  This time I succeeded: my earrings matched my shirt.  My hair was being unusually cooperative.  My slacks may even have been ironed.  I spoke in calm and friendly tones, with lots of big words.

And it worked.  The doctor, gazing at me in surprise, confided that she wished more people like me would have eight kids, instead of, you know...other types.  

She probably just meant that she wished, as I do, that all mothers had the educational opportunities and economic resources that she assumed I had (yes, lady, I have a master's degree, but no, that designer maternity shirt was picked up at a thrift store, and I've now handed it down to my sister for her umpteenth pregnancy, the better to mislead her unsuspecting ob/gyn).  But she clearly considered me one of the "fit."  I wished she hadn't said it.

Because fit or unfit, eight babies are something to rejoice about.  So are seven billion.  Not en masse, but one by one.  Not because they're "human resources," or because they might turn out to be something special, but just because they're unrepeatable and unique, conceived in the mind of an all-wise God and then made incarnate in time and space, embarking on the adventure of a life of free will among billions of other creatures as mindboggling as themselves.  That we can't always see it that way says less about the value of persons than it does about the limits of our minds and the stinginess of our hearts.

So, no apologies.

And happy Earth Day!