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What about justice for children?

The problems with calls for “reproductive justice”


A 6-month-old baby with the baby's ultrasound image at 20 weeks. iStock.com/September15

What about justice for children?
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Brace yourself for “reproductive justice.” Two law professors, Greer Donley and Jill Wieber Lens, recently sounded the call in the New York Times as part of their argument for the pro-abortion camp to enlarge its vision to include women who have suffered from miscarriage.

So, what is reproductive justice? In the words of the authors, such justice is about “the right to avoid having children.” Just as important, it is also about the “rights to have children and parent them with dignity.” Much of that sounds familiar, but this argument comes with a new twist.

It would be helpful, since just about every activist seems to insert an issue-du-jour before the word “justice,” to contemplate the meaning of justice, properly understood. Christianity inherited great wisdom about justice from Israel, and the church is committed to justice as a mandate. Thomas Aquinas defined justice as the perpetual and constant willingness to render to each person what is due to him.

How does justice square with “the right to avoid having children?” At least part of what we see here is the legacy of the Pill—the sundering of sexual intercourse and procreation, the baby-making act and the baby. Contraception is against, that is, “contra,” conception, against the life in one flesh that would come from the one-flesh union. What does rendering to each person what is due to him look like in this so-called “right to avoid having children?”

Christians must start with the premise that the good of life is a basic. That is, we understand that life is a good thing in and of itself—not just an instrumental good toward something else. The baby in the womb, given his inherent dignity and moral worth as a member of the human species, has a right to life—just as much as you and I do. If justice requires that we render to that baby what is due to him, surely the protection of life for that defenseless baby is basic to any discussion of justice. But in an abortion, we extinguish the life of the baby in the womb—and do so with intent. How about the pregnant woman’s rights here, though? Do they not matter? They do—but such rights are properly limited by the baby’s right to life.

As to the argument that abortion is the avoidance of having children, let us be clear that the pregnant woman already has a child. That child is in her womb. As Robert P. George says, the human embryo is an embryonic human being. Abortion is not about avoiding having a child. It’s about getting rid of him.

Even when the child is manufactured out of the depths of longing for him and out of the intention to shower him with affections, the injustice to him still stands. He remains a commodity.

The second right the authors mentioned as part of reproductive justice is the positive right to have children. But are we, in fact, entitled to have children? This is not to confuse the issue with the truth that children are a treasure and an unalloyed blessing—which, of course, they are. But if we are entitled to have them, then children would be nothing short of due to us—owed to us. By hook or by crook, we’ll get ourselves one!

This would explain the take-no-prisoners approach to manufacturing children these days, the “tyranny of the possible” of third-party reproduction methods, like donor conception or surrogacy. How we go about commissioning the child is revealing. We treat them like luxury goods, not like gifts. Perhaps it is no surprise that children are increasingly a province of the wealthy.

This is, then, a common denominator between the two conceptions of the rights of reproductive justice: Whether reproductive justice is conceived as the right not to have a child—even to get rid of my already existing, living child in the womb—or the right to procure a child, the child is seen as a thing—as an object. Thus the baby is ill-treated as the person he is, and has been since fertilization. Even when such “reproductive rights” are fought for with the best of intentions, even when the child is manufactured out of the depths of longing for him and out of the intention to shower him with affections, the injustice to him still stands. He remains a commodity.

It is good of Professors Donley and Lens to desire justice. But their vision of “reproductive justice” is not true justice at all.

If justice, as Aquinas says, requires that we render to the child what is due to him, then he is worthy of dignity and respect. The child should never be a means, and is always properly an end. He shouldn’t be cast away like used goods or procured like luxury goods—however it suits us. A child is none other than a gift, which requires of us the proper posture of a recipient. “For lo, children are an heritage of the Lord,” the Psalmist sings, “and the fruit of the womb is his reward.”


Adeline A. Allen

Adeline A. Allen is an associate professor of law at Trinity Law School and an associate fellow at The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity.


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