Consent to Conceive

The average age of marriage for women in Kuwait is 15.4. This statistic causes discomfort for many people because the average age of marriage for women in the developed world is double that of Kuwait.

When we imagine a 15-year-old girl getting married, we almost certainly picture a helpless girl, robbed of her innocence and independence by rape or through coercion into an unwanted relationship. We can’t help but revile such practices, since girls of that age in the developed world are still considered children, concerning themselves with homework and kittens, not raising a family. But is there really a objective standard for the age of marriage or, more specifically, childbearing? And if so, what is that age and how is it determined? There are several ways to approach this topic; let’s begin with an ethical perspective.

Withholding rights and freedoms based on age is discrimination, making children the most ostracized members of society. Children can’t marry, can’t vote, can’t drive, can’t work and they can’t destroy their bodies with dangerous substances such as alcohol and tobacco. They are also segregated into their own education and prison facilities and are regularly refused access to certain carnival rides. All of this is just fine, of course, because we know that children are foolish and irresponsible, which is why we keep knives out of reach of them. All youth are underprivileged, but that is something that we know and accept, so there isn’t really a moral argument for children having the right to give birth or marry in this cultural climate. Let’s move on to the emotional aspect of this issue.

From our culture’s perspective, children not only make poor choices, they are also emotionally unstable. By restricting their freedom, we are protecting them from the consequences of their own irrational behavior. Determining the age at which they are emotionally prepared to make such decisions is somewhat arbitrary and probably has less to do with the number of days spent they’ve spent on Earth than what they learn from culture and school. In America, young girls are taught math, science and history, not how to feed and care for babies. At some point, however, children do become emotionally stable enough to make life-changing decisions, and it’s quite possible that happens at age 15.4 in Kuwait. After all, we expect teens to factor polynomials, which is far more complicated than child-rearing. Now we see that there is no absolute moral law or measurable stage of emotional development dictating an appropriate age for bearing children. Perhaps our friend, biology, can shed some light on this shady issue.

Puberty is a stage of physical development which occurs between the ages of 12 and 16 in boys and between age 10 and 14 in girls. During this period, the body undergoes drastic morphological transformation, and life sucks. The eventual result of this process is a hairy, sweaty human body with a fully-functional reproductive system. Girls are biologically prepared to bear children by age 15, which is more than 10 years younger the average age of a woman giving birth to her first child in the United States. This means that by the time the average American woman gives birth to her first child, her reproductive system has been idle for a decade. Talk about rotten eggs.

All other mating creatures on the planet will attempt to procreate as soon as they are able, so is it really absurd to ask a sexually mature female to bear a child? Comparatively speaking, it certainly is not. Humans have seized control of their reproductive destiny from mother nature and redefined the appropriate age for parenting. We now stress the importance of independence, financial and educational success over responsibility and family. The result is young people who are able and willing to engage in sexual relations, but are not expected to accept the outcome of such activity. We teach them how to plant seeds, but not how to grow crops.

What’s even stranger about our reproductive behavior is that the average age of puberty for girls has been decreasing, which means that we are bearing children later in life while our bodies are preparing for childbirth sooner. In fact, there’s a well-documented story from the 1930s of a Peruvian girl who became pregnant at the age of 5. This case, along with modern Kuwaiti practice, offend our sensibilities because they undermine our culture’s notions of sexuality. But if our bodies are prepared for procreation, then is it not a mistake to avoid emotional preparation for such practices?

Perhaps our discomfort with 15-year-old mothers reflects a simple difference in culture, or a maybe it reveals our failure to prepare young people for adulthood, a natural and necessary ingredient for existence. Either way, we shouldn’t judge Kuwaitis, since their behavior more accurately corresponds to the stages of biological development, which is the only concrete, natural way to determine the proper age of consent to conceive.

But perhaps there is a way to take into account the physical, mental and emotional maturity of individuals. Rather than simply waiting until a specific number of days has passed since the child was born, we could wait until children reach puberty, then allow or require them to pass an examination before they can accept the responsibilities of adulthood. This way we ensure that they are in every way prepared for adult life. This may seem silly, but isn’t it far more ridiculous to think that a child becomes an adult overnight, and that every child experiences this transformation at the exact same time?

We don’t just assume that children can operate motor vehicles once they turn 16, yet we accept that they can vote, get married, own property, join the army and make other serious life-altering decisions based solely on their age. Also, if maturity becomes something that must be proven, then such a system could also be used to provide more consistent and concrete determinations in cases where sanity or cognition are called into question. This would be helpful, for just as we limit the responsibilities of children, we also do so with criminals, seniors and the mentally ill.

Don’t judge people based on the number of days they’ve been alive.

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