Should There Be a License to Have Children?

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Why you should care

Because unwanted pregnancies have plagued humanity since the beginning.

OZY’s next TV show, Third Rail With OZY, is launching on PBS this fall! To kick things off, we’re shelving anything PC and launching debates. Nothing is off-limits, and we’ll go where most fear to tread. Each Wednesday, we’ll post a provocative question, with a focus on topics that might make it onto the show.

Our question this week: Should you need a license to have a child? We want to hear from you. Email thirdrail@ozy.com with your thoughts or a personal story, and we might feature your answer next week. Dr. Steven Ballinger, a guitarist, artist and master woodworker who also dabbles in orthopedic surgery, weighs in below with his own proposal for how such a licensing system could be enforced:

It seems almost impossible to me that humankind has managed to become a force so dominant on this planet that we are actually in a position to physically destroy it. Somehow our soft, slow, low-fertility species has achieved this position despite the fact that we typically have only one offspring at a time — one that must gestate for nine months and that requires a period of intense nurturing after birth to survive independently. What is the secret to our success? Sex drive.

Ironically, the biological imperative that allowed the human population to explode has become one of our species’ biggest challenges. Unwanted pregnancy is a genuine tragedy, creating misery across time and class, and attempts to prevent it are likely as old as the knowledge of what causes it. Luckily, thanks to the scientific insights achieved by our large-brained species, we have it within our hands to uncouple human behavior from biology, and end the scourge of unwanted pregnancies once and for all — and without recourse to abortion or conventional birth control. Here’s how to do it: the reversible sterilization of every human male at birth.

All men would be sterile until they decided they want to conceive.…

Humans are among a small fraction of higher organisms that are able to conceive year-round. We have an intense sex drive that begins even before actual fertility occurs, maximizing the chances of reproducing. Therefore, the effective use of birth control to thwart an almost constant biological imperative requires diligence, planning and attention to detail. But what if there were a mechanism that could help forestall the need for such precautions?

The mechanism I am talking about would exploit a biologic detail so propitious that it seems almost too good to be true. The enzyme that provides the energy that allows sperm to swim (known as GAPD2) is unique to sperm, and blocking the normal function of that enzyme would allow production of normal sperm that lack the ability to swim, or fertilize an egg. It’s already possible to create an antibody that would attach to the active site of the enzyme exclusively and render a male infertile until the process is reversed. The technical capacity to induce the body to create these antibodies already exists, as does the means to temporarily block the expression of the antibodies, allowing the man to be temporarily fertile.

Sperm immotility is already the cause of about 80 percent of male infertility, and there are no detectable associated medical or physical problems. Unlike hormone-manipulating contraception, there would be no developmental, maturational or behavioral consequences. All men would be sterile until they decided they wanted to conceive. Then they would take an anti-antibody pill every day until pregnancy occurred or they changed their mind, at which point they would stop taking the pill and revert to sterility.

There are undoubtedly people who will find the proposition of immunizing boys for fertility at birth to be abhorrent. Still, the only difference between a sterilized boy and a natural boy in this scenario is that at puberty, when spermatogenesis starts, the sterile boy will produce sperm that don’t swim. That’s it. Some will also find the idea of uncoupling sexuality from fertility a nonstarter. But, being sterile does not prevent one from practicing abstinence, it merely prevents backsliding from abstinence resulting in a potentially life-ruining event for both the parent and child. The complicated social horrors of rape and incest would be forever relieved of the complication of resulting pregnancy.

Humans have risen above the animal nature of our evolution. Many of the instinctive assets that got us to the top of the food chain have become liabilities. The traits that separate humans from animals — scientific knowledge and reason — are available to us to effectively sever the disastrous connection of sex drive and unwanted pregnancy. A world full of wanted children would be a victory of reason over instinct. Cycles of poverty and abuse would see a major contributor nullified. Divisive social issues such as free birth control and abortion would become almost inconsequential. The price? Swimming sperm.

What do you think? Should men be pre-emptively sterilized? Email thirdrail@ozy.com.

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Propositions that fall on the continuum between controversial and utterly insane. Sometimes we're tongue-in-cheek. Sometimes, dead serious.