The Price Of Denying Choice
June 13, 2005
A former economics reporter for the New York Times and a Pulitzer Prize
nominee, Ann Crittenden has also been a reporter for Fortune, a
financial writer and foreign correspondent for Newsweek, and an
occasional commentator for CBS News. She is the author of, most
recently, The Price of Motherhood.
I waited a very long time to have a baby-in fact, I narrowly escaped
being that woman on the T-shirt who looks at her watch and cries, "Oh, I
forgot to have a baby." But luckily I didn't forget, and I did have a
wonderful, healthy child well after my 40th birthday.
I had waited so long to become a mother because I took motherhood
seriously. I wanted to be sure I was ready to put that child first in my
life. And this is what reproductive freedom is ultimately all about:
responsible parenting. Reproductive freedom is not just about women's
choices. It's about society's willingness and ability to raise healthy,
happy children who grow up to become the productive citizens of
You don't usually hear this, but the truth is that you cannot have
well-nurtured, well-educated children or a modern, dynamic economy
without reproductive freedom. Put another way, denying reproductive
freedom is a perfect formula for economic backwardness.
The Costs Of Child-Rearing
Let me explain. Two things have happened to human reproduction in the
modern world-by which I mean the last 200 years. First, the costs of
raising a child have steadily risen-in terms of the time, energy and
resources it takes to prepare a child for adulthood. In a peasant
economy, it doesn't matter whether you leave a child on a swaddling
board all day, because a lack of attention won't jeopardize its future
as a subsistence farmer. And even privileged children can be relatively
neglected because they are going to inherit their class status anyway,
no matter how they turn out.
But in a more dynamic capitalist economy, children have to be
well-trained and fast on their feet. They have to go to school and learn
how to read and write. They have to learn how to tell time and to be on
time; how to work all day without slacking; how to be frugal and defer
gratification, how to obey increasingly complex rules of the workplace.
Above all, they have to have the desire to get ahead. All this means a
much bigger job for parents. Children like this don't just pop up like
mushrooms, without any cultivation. With the beginning of the Industrial
Revolution, child-rearing started to become what is today: arguably the
hardest and most time-consuming job in the world. In a complex world,
parents have to stop having babies and start raising children.
I found a wonderful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that sums up this
change: "In dealing with my child, my Latin and Greek, my
accomplishments and my money stead me nothing; but as much soul as I
And 70 years later, Teddy Roosevelt said "I can be president, or I can
raise Alice, but I can't do both."
But we all know that Emerson and Roosevelt really didn't do the lion's
share of the work. Increasingly, as the 19th century progressed, men
were leaving the household to work in factories, businesses and offices,
leaving mothers in charge of educating the children, previously the
father's responsibility. Extended families slowly gave way to the
nuclear family, and now we have the single-parent family-usually a
single mother struggling to raise her children by herself. In other
words, as child-rearing has become more and more demanding, it has
become, more and more, the work of women. And women have responded very
intelligently: by having fewer children and putting a greater investment
of time and energy and resources into the precious few they have.
A Nation's Most Precious Resource
This is an historic shift. Demographers call it the shift from quantity
to quality in child-rearing-and it is happening now all over the world.
Obviously, this shift can only occur when you have reproductive freedom.
Only when women are free to have just the number of children they want
to have, and can adequately care for, can they produce the kind of
children who are equipped to succeed in the modern world.
In recent years, economists have started to quantify how important
skilled human beings are in creating wealth. It has been estimated by
the World Bank that almost 60 percent of all wealth in developed
countries is created by human beings, known by economists as "human
capital." People are the basic raw material of the post-industrial
economy. It has been said that today, running out of highly educated
workers is like running out of iron ore in the Industrial Revolution.
Because the earliest years are the most important in terms of developing
human capabilities, this all means that mothers and other early teachers
are the most important wealth producers. Women produce the major source
of wealth in the economy. And they couldn't do this without choice.
As a former financial reporter, I like to look at it this way:
Just as free enterprise is a requirement for economic growth and
development, freedom of choice is a prerequisite of economic
development. Just as there is no debate over who is in the best position
to decide whether a man or woman should start a new business, by the
same token, there should be no debate over who is in the best position
to decide whether to start the most important business of life-a family.
Should the woman make this awesome decision, which will call upon
everything she has-her heart, her intelligence, her time, her energy,
her very being, not just for three or five years, or for 20 years, but
for a lifetime? Or should the government decide?
Should the parents decide? Or some self-appointed morals police?
The world saw the consequences of denying reproductive freedom at the
end of the Cold War, when they opened the appalling orphanages of
Romania. The Communist dictatorship had denied Romanian women the right
to decide for themselves whether they were equipped to be good mothers.
Thousands of women were forced to have children they didn't want or
couldn't care for. Many of those children were abandoned to state
orphanages and to permanently damaged lives. And now we find ourselves
in a struggle against those who want the government and courts here in
the United States to do to American women and children what a Communist
dictatorship did to the women and children of Romania.
The Threat Of Compulsory Motherhood
If the Bush administration succeeds in its efforts to pack the federal
courts with judges who oppose reproductive freedom, there is a real
chance that responsible motherhood will be replaced with compulsory
motherhood, to the detriment of women, children and the entire country.
It's time for the advocates of freedom to fight back with a vengeance,
and start talking about real life. It's time to take back this debate
and start talking about what is truly moral. Women's free agency is a
moral issue. Children's well-being is a moral issue. Who is the moral
actor- the person who takes on the responsibility for another's growth
and development, or the person who would force that responsibility on
others without accepting the consequences? Motherhood is so challenging
a commitment, and so important to our future, that to coerce anyone into
it is utterly immoral.
We should also welcome a discussion of choice in terms of government
intervention. We need to take back the rhetoric about "big government,"
and make clear that the advocates of reproductive freedom are the ones
who favor small government. We are the ones who want to keep the
government out of our bedrooms and hospital rooms. We are the ones who
favor individual decision-making in the family. We are the true
followers of Adam Smith, the great laissez-faire economist, because we
proclaim that women, like other wealth creators, if left unfettered will
be guided as if by an invisible hand to produce children with the best
possible chance to live happy, productive lives.
Advocates of reproductive freedom have to stop being on the defensive
and stop giving ground to the home-grown mullahs in our midst. The
battle in the United States over reproductive rights needs to be seen
for what it is: part of a global battle against fundamentalism. It is
just one part of a global attack on women's hard-won freedoms, including
the freedom to decide how to fulfill our family responsibilities.
The real choice facing Americans is the same choice facing the Saudis,
the Iraqis and everyone else caught in a struggle between modernism and
the forces of fundamentalism. It's perennially puzzling to me why that
struggle seems to center, everywhere, on women's freedom-including the
freedom to create a world of more cherished children.