Monday, February 2, 2009

Is It a Good Idea for a Couple to Have 18 Kids?

Seven weeks ago, the now famous Duggar family welcomed the birth of their 18th child.

The next day, a college friend of mine asked me what my take was on said birth.

My short answer: God bless 'em.

I wanted to write more than just this, but hadn't the time.

Now, however, I do.

It seems to me that the question really being asked here—not just by my friend, I suspect, but also countless others—is:

Is it a good idea for a couple to have 18 kids?

This, to my mind, is the wrong to question to ask (or, at least the wrong question to ask first).

Rather, the question to ask is:

Is a given married couple following God's will?

This question can be answered only by 3 people:

1. God
2. Husband
3. Wife

Well, five, really, since God is actually Three Persons, but I digress.

I have exactly no competence to diagnose whether a given married couple (be they the Duggars, or the parents of a guy I used to work with—who had 21 children—or the couple I see at the park who have one child) is following God's will in determining how many children they should have.

Heck, I have enough trouble discerning if I'm following God's will, much less trying to figure out if other people are.

On the contrary, acting in good faith, I can only assume that they are.

Of course, when it comes to morally licit options for planning a family, contraception is right out. (**Shameless plug follows**
And, as it happens, I was recently asked by Sunnyday, one of my e-friends in the Philippines, to speak to the question, "Will contraceptive use make parents more responsible?" in a Filipino parenting magazine. I did so here [PDF].)

Another point to make is that the Duggars endorse the Quiverfull movement (sometimes colloquially referred to as "providentialism"), which teaches that natural family planning is, for all intents and purposes, tantamount to contraception. On its face, such a notion is untenable.

But again, for a given married couple, the decision of whether they could or should use NFP to space pregnancies is up to them to determine—with God's help, natch.

On this topic, a Catholic friend of mine told me not long ago that in the course of an online discussion with other Catholic women about NFP, someone tried to convince the group that it was necessary for a couple to get their bishop's permission before they could use NFP.

When my friend told me that, I had a sudden urge to run to the nearest wall and start banging my head against it in sheer frustration that there could be such profound misunderstanding of what the Church really teaches about when a couple can use NFP.

Christopher West speaks to this topic more extensively in an article entitled "God, Sex, and Babies: What the Church Really Teaches about Responsible Parenthood". And, the uber-intelligent Dr. Janet Smith offers a lengthier, more scholarly treatment of this issue in an essay entitled "Moral Use of Natural Family Planning" [PDF].

All this is to say that while QuiverFull is based on a false belief (i.e., that natural family planning is incompatible with God's will), it is also most emphatically not true to say that a given couple who elects not to "use" NFP within their own marriage is acting irresponsibly by foregoing consultation of charts and thermometers—and by so doing, end up giving birth to 18, or 21, or [insert number here] children.

So, once again, my three word comment on the Duggars' welcoming their 18th child:

God bless 'em.

And indeed, He has.


The Dutchman said...

Would you agree to these statements?

1] IVF is always impermissible.

2] It is always immoral to conceive a child out of wedlock.

3] It is always immoral to conceive a child you cannot afford.

And what to you think of the Suleman octuplets? A lot of Catholic bloggers have been defending the Suleman octuplets on natalist grounds, but I find her behavior inexcuseable. What thinkest thou?

John Jansen said...


Yes and yes to #1 and #2.

As for #3, I'd say it *could* be imprudent, but one would have a very hard time convincing me it's actually immoral.

Regarding the Suleman octuplets: I haven't read enough information to know the particulars, so I don't think I'm informed enough to make a judgment. (FWIW, though, my kneejerk reaction is that using fertility treatments when a couple has six children already is a bit odd.)

Deb said...

John, CCL has a great little publication by a priest called "is NFP good" to respond to concerns by many that NFP can only be used in extremely dire circumstances, I can mail you a copy if you would like.

John Jansen said...


Please do.

Feel free to email it to me at

or send it to me at our office:

Pro-Life Action League
6160 N. Cicero Ave. Ste. 600
Chicago, IL 60646

RobKPhD said...

I read through the Janet Smith piece, and it seems that, in the end, just about any reason qualifies for avoiding children.

When is it wrong to avoid having children? From Dr. Smith's paper, I couldn't tell you. "Saving for the children’s education, for retirement, or for possible emergencies" are cited as legitimate. Then what isn't? So I should only have children if I can send them to college? How healthy does my 401K need to be? Or are the answers to these questions relative?

This approach seems to suggest that a poor person should not have children (yikes! that would be a frightening teaching), doesn't it? I am sure that can't be right (though it would follow from the logic).

Yet if one is not impoverished, but comes under financial strain, that becomes a legitimate reason to avoid children. That is clear in the article. Clearly, there is a disconnect here.

This particular article of Dr. Smith doesn't really provide much guidance in following the teaching, but does provide lots of justification to not have kids. Perhaps there is too much of a nod to the American idols of income and education.