New Year’s Ethics Quiz: Is It Ethical To Order A Woman Not To Have Children?

(This is my favorite judge picture, and I like to use it every year)

(This is my favorite judge picture, and I like to use it every year)

Kimberly Lightsey, 30, was being sentenced on four counts of child abuse for leaving her four children, ages 2 to 11 at the time, at a hotel while she went out to play. She had an arrangement with another mother in the hotel to watch the children, but that woman also was partying hard, it seems—so hard that she forgot what room Lightsey’s children were in. Meantime, one of Lightsey’s children, who was confined to a wheelchair, rolled out into the hallway and fell over.

Prosecutors asked for a 32-month jail sentence, but Judge Ernest Jones Jr. offered Kimberly a chance to avoid jail time. He would give her two years of house arrest and 13 years of probation, provided this aspiring Mother of the Year agreed not to have any more kids during that period.

She took the deal, but now The American Civil Liberties Union and her lawyer are wondering if the sentence is legal. My guess: it’s not, but that isn’t the issue. Let’s say this is within a judge’s power, and the sentence is legal. Your Ethics Alarms Quiz Question, the first of the new year, is this:

Is it ethical?

I don’t think so.

Tom didn’t mention it by name, but I think that one of the inalienable rights is to have children if you want them. It may be unethical to have kids when you can’t afford them , or care for them, or are the worst parent this side of Octomom. But abusing a right doesn’t give the law, or the government the right to take that right, except in the very narrow ways the penal system permits. Other punishments are cruel and unusual, and thus prohibited, which is why I think the conditions imposed here won’t stand. Ethically, however, the operative rule is cruel, and cruel is unethical.

Since Kimberly is 30, a 13 year forced hiatus on child-bearing is in all likelihood a lifetime ban. That is too close to judicially ordered sterility for my ethics alarms. The sentence also fails the Ethics Chess test. It creates the possibility of terrible ethical dilemmas developing later. What if she becomes pregnant accidentally? She will be motivated to get an abortion, presumably. And if she believes that life begins at conception, then what? Isn’t the sentence then indistinguishable from court-ordered abortion?

This is an abuse of power, using the threat of imprisonment as extortion to force a woman to give up a right that must be for her to exercise or not, without government interference.

____________________________

Pointer: Tim Levier

Facts: ABC

30 Comments

Filed under Gender and Sex, Government & Politics, Law & Law Enforcement

30 responses to “New Year’s Ethics Quiz: Is It Ethical To Order A Woman Not To Have Children?

  1. Ysbryd

    I don’t think this issue is as black and white as you seem to convey here.

    • Unless you explain how and why, this is a completely useless statement. If it were black and white, I wouldn’t offer it as a quiz, which implies that reasonable people will reach different conclusions. Is she being told not to have children? Yes. Is she capable of having them? Yes.Is she being stopped by threat of imprisonment from doing want every woman has a right to do? Yes.

      What’s your point?

  2. bellisaurius

    Worse, I don;t even see how it’s a good deal. She’s still a felon, she’s still under confinement for nearly as long as the prosecutors wanted, and under probation for four times as long. I’m guessing she sees her kids and friends a bit more, but she’s got less room to play with in the long run.

    If the judge thought she was worth saving, and maybe that he didn’t want to pull a mom from the family over hair brainedness, why not just put her under some kind of harsh dcfs supervision for a period of time at the end of which her record gets expunged?

  3. S

    I’d like some more info here. On what basis do you state that having children is an inalienable right? Are you referring to Thomas Hobbes?

    To me, it looks as if the question of whether the sentence is ethical rests on the underlying question of whether having children is indeed an inalienable right.

    Additionally, I’d like to clear up why you think the sentence is cruel. Is that because of the potential for ethical dilemmas down the track if she becomes pregnant accidentally?

    • Well, do you think having children is a privilege? Granted by what authority, and based on what? It is covered by the basic ethical values of autonomy, liberty, equality, and respect. Forced sterilization is a taking of something innate to an organism against that organism’s will. The inalienable rights Jefferson referred to, based on the works of philosophers like Rousseau and Locke, were life (including the basic processes of life, such as reproduction), liberty (the right to associate with whom one chooses, live where one wants, and work in one’s desired profession, among other things, and pursuit of happiness, which includes a family. American jurisprudence has long held that it is an inalienable right. The privacy and abortion rulings of the Supreme Court indicate it. Logic indicates it.

      The burden is on you to show otherwise.

      • It is covered by the basic ethical values of autonomy, liberty, equality, and respect. Forced sterilization is a taking of something innate to an organism against that organism’s will. The inalienable rights Jefferson referred to, based on the works of philosophers like Rousseau and Locke, were life (including the basic processes of life, such as reproduction), liberty (the right to associate with whom one chooses, live where one wants, and work in one’s desired profession, among other things, and pursuit of happiness, which includes a family. American jurisprudence has long held that it is an inalienable right. The privacy and abortion rulings of the Supreme Court indicate it. Logic indicates it.

        What Supreme Court decision holds that this right is inalienable, instead of being subject to reasonable regulation?

        • I said jurisprudence has held it—there hasn’t been a legal forced sterilization in over 30 years. SCOTUS, in Skinner, essentially made the qualifications so burdensome for forced sterilization that it gradually was seen as impossible. I think it would be found today to be squarely in the 10th Amendment, but in any event, the scope of Jefferson’s words cover reproductive rights, and the Constitution is based on them.

          But for the purpose of the post, I don’t care. Autonomy, freedom, liberty, fairness, kindness, the Golden Rule. Taking away the right is unethical.

      • Well, the precedent is set with crime and punishment.

        Like the murderer forfeits the protection of his right to life and is subject to capital punishment.

        Incarceration for lesser crimes is a forfeiture of freedom of movement and association.

        I’m not sure of the right answer. People who have displayed that kind of recreance do not usually learn lessons. So it seems something relatively severe is necessary.

        I’ve never been a fan of negotiating punishments.

        • As a society, we correctly deplore eugenics as inherently undemocratic, and hence unethical. Rich people are never told not to have more kids.

          • S

            Rich people aren’t told not to have more kids because they have the material resources needed to support more kids. Surely you don’t equate eugenics with the idea that people should take responsibility for their own fertility and not have kids they can’t support?

            • It is squarely on the slippery slope, which is why all the mandatory sterilization laws got declared unconstitutional on equal protection grounds. The effect is the same as eugenics, and the rationale for it was originally defended on that basis in the disgraceful Buck v. Bell, where Justice Holmes wrote, “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.” The inhereent and unavoidable fact that only those of lower socio-economic status will have these rights taken away goes into the ethical as well as the legal equation, and either way, it doesn’t compute.

              Are you named after Harry S Truman?

      • S

        By your definition liberty is an inalienable right, but we certainly believe there are situations where removing someone’s liberty is not only acceptable, but necessary and desirable. Some judicial systems even accept the removal of a person’s life (the death penalty). And while the right to life entails reproduction and the right to pursue happiness entails family, we all accept that there are situations where it’s necessary to remove someone’s children (child protection laws). These inalienable rights are taken away on occasion, and almost all of us agree that this is necessary to some degree.

        Another consideration here is that of responsibility. If someone wishes to have children, they must provide their children with an acceptable standard of care. Children are people too and they have rights of their own, and because they are dependent on their caregivers they are extremely vulnerable. For this reason I do in fact see having children as a privilege – one which is automatically conferred on all people once they attain the level of maturity and basic life skills needed to provide an acceptable standard of child care. A natural privilege, I would call it. And yes, I think there are times when it is appropriate for the state to interfere with someone’s right to have children, just as there are times when it is appropriate for the state to interfere with someone’s right to liberty.

        • We do not endorse the concept of pre-crime, as it violates principles of fairness and justice. Our system waits until a child isn’t properly cared for; it does not presume it won’t be cared for. This is consistent with the promise of America, which judges us on what we do, not what biases say we’ll do.

          Your argument works as “well” for mutilation, torture and flogging. We have decided on imprisonment and, in extreme cases, the death penalty as the sanctioned forms of state punishments. The former was available to this judge as well. Removing the woman’s human dignity—sterilization, which I believe this deal is tantamount to—was cited at the Nuremberg war crimes trials as evidence of Nazi “crimes against humanity.” I think that’s a good word for it. It is about two steps removed from eugenics. That’s an ugly slope you want to go climbing on. Not me.

          • S

            We’re not talking about a “pre-crime”, though. We’re talking about someone who has demonstrated that she’s an unfit parent. And we certainly aren’t talking about eugenics. She hasn’t been banned from having more children because of her race or religion or sexual orientation, or even because she’s an idiot. She’s been banned from having more children because she has proved that she either can’t or won’t look after them.

            You also didn’t explain how the right to breed differs from the right to enjoy liberty, and you imply you would accept it if the judge had chosen to imprison her, so you haven’t demonstrated that banning her from having more children removes her human dignity, while imprisoning her would not.

  4. oldgraymary

    Thank you, S, for stating my thoughts so clearly. Let me just add that I’ve long joked that spaying and neutering for humans who lack self control was not such a bad idea. In light of the forthcoming “All My Babies’ Mamas” reality show and recent statistics on babies born out of wedlock and raised by single mothers similar to Kimberly Lightsey, maybe it shouldn’t just be a joke anymore, ethical or not.

    • S

      You’re welcome, though somehow I doubt I’ll convince Mr Marshall :)

      It’s an unpalatable fact, but it is a fact: some people just shouldn’t raise children. And when we as a society choose to ignore that fact, innocent people suffer.

  5. Back in tougher times, the harsh facts of nature dictated the many encumbrances ie. wedlock, that people considered before choosing to have children. I didn’t have children, in part, because the narcolepsy I have, prevents me from doing what I believe is necessary to raise them. When I taught, I was astounded by some of the behavior of the parents of my students. A good portion of America now falls into that camp…like dogs having another litter of pups. Bringing another soul into the world should not be an automatic right. It galls me that so many miscreants, who can’t seem to do anything besides procreate, will sit there and cling to their identities as “parents” simply because the drugstore was closed 3 years ago when they were in the mood.

  6. Jack, do you think Lightsey has an uninfringeable right to birth as many children as she wishes, during her 32-month jail term?

    I think that where sufficient parental negligence is demonstrated, a parent forfeits any “right” to continue bearing children, and, forfeits continued opportunity for custodial responsibility. In short, I am not absolutely opposed to judicious forced sterilization and directed family/household re-constitution. I believe there is something ethical about something like, “Your right to bear children ends where my forced obligation to bear the burdens of raising them begins.”

    I know, I know, we could go on and on here, “for the children.”

    • That’s a deceptive starting point. You can’t lock someone up to stop them from having kids. The fact that she couldn’t have kids while imprisoned is an unintended consequence of imprisonment. She can’t go roller-blading either, but you can’t be locked up to stop you from roller-blading.

      “I believe there is something ethical about something like, “Your right to bear children ends where my forced obligation to bear the burdens of raising them begins.”

      Then you’re advocating sterilizing poor people. How do you make such a judgments and not end up, like Red China, restricting family size and forcing infanticide? Saying people should be licensed to have kids feels good when we read about horrible parents, but horrible parents can rear great people, and you never know when parent will figure things out.

      • How is the starting point I gave “deceptive?”

        I wasn’t considering locking up Lightsey as a way of stopping her from having kids, anyway. I was leading toward a what-if – ignoring that Lightsey was actually not sent to jail, while supposing she was: What if she did go to jail, got pregnant while in prison, and did not want or need an abortion? Are there prison accommodations for new mothers, little cell-homes for inmates and their offspring? I don’t know of any. What becomes of pregnant inmates’ babies?

        “S” has made points that I agree with. I am not advocating sterilizing all “poor people” as some class. But I do support government-imposed sterilization of certain people, based on their prior negligent or otherwise particularly dysfunctional and social order-damaging behavior.

        It is cruel and unethical not to stop people from conceiving, who have demonstrated negligence toward children already birthed plus lack of self-control to avoid conceiving additional children despite inadequate ways and means of supporting them. “Horrible parents can rear great people;” but, I believe a society of free and ethics-focused people deserves the power to respond to and manage the inherent risks and odds against that possibility, judiciously depriving some of some liberty for consequentially greater benefits and liberty for all.

        • I just think this is monstrous and nothing less. The government using its power to license child-bearing is essentially what you’re advocating. You trust “us” to do that? I don’t, and you shouldn’t. Prevent dumb people, ugly people, short people, weak people, brown people, from having babies because “certain people” don’t pass our standards about who should be allowed to reproduce, so it justifies our “judiciously depriving some of some liberty for consequentially greater benefits and liberty for all.” That’s where this sentence leads inexorably, if we accept the rationalizations for it.

  7. I see the problem here as applying the present onto the future. If she’s a bad mother to these 4 kids, take those kids away. The judge couldn’t even bring himself to do that, let alone send her to jail for the supposed crimes already committed.

    Also, what bothers me is that he’s forbidding a result, not an action. “Getting Pregnant” is a result of an action, not an action itself. So, how could he fix this problem?

    He *could mandate
    1) Sex not allowed
    2) Use of condom required
    3) Sterilization drugs required
    4) Surgery required
    5) implant required

    4 goes beyond the scope of the sentence, 5 is expensive and a financial burden, 2 is ineffective for the job plus hard to ensure proper use and could easily be lied about, 1 – good luck with that, 3 is best option but still a financial burden.

    Maybe he meant “not allowed to give birth”. In that case, he’s fine with her having sex and fine with her getting pregnant, but any life she creates must be killed before birth. So, basically, “Sorry kiddo, you’re gonna have an unfit mother, so we’re gonna kill you instead.” How does that make sense?

    • It doesn’t.
      Great summary and explanation of why the sentence is unethical, as well as impractical. A+ on the quiz, Tim.

      • I’m not bothered the same way Tim is, about the judge forbidding a result. Most likely, whatever the judge orders, however simple and clear, is not likely to be anything Lightsey will honor, even if she understands. Still, as I see it, the judge is forbidding “all of whatever” specific actions that would result in another pregnancy. Though it’s obviously a tall order for Lightsey, I don’t see anything different in that from some other case in which a defendant is ordered not to violate terms of probation.

        I do agree that it makes no sense to impose abortion. But, where justice forbids women to be mere incubators, by the same justice, society is also not merely some beehive of spare brood-cells for rogue queens’ hatching-at-will of virtual orphans.

  8. Sharon

    This is a slam dunk for me because I can’t get past the total disgust I feel by this judge’s decision. It is so inherently wrong that it makes me sick to my stomach…not to mention all the unintended consequences that have been previously mentioned. Also, is this a penalty which will be applied only to women since men cannot give birth?

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