No Grandparents: One Big Disadvantage to Having Children Later in Life

In a world where women are having children later in life, we are faced with new questions in reproductive ethics. Here we ask, "Do children have a right to be loved by grandparents?"

Across the world, couples are waiting longer to have children. This tendency has gone on for decades in the west and shows no signs of stopping. In the United States, the average age for a woman to have her first child rose from 21.4 in 1970 to 26 in 2013. Statistics for Europe, Asia, and the Middle East show similar data. But why now? What about our current age has produced such an effect?

While ever improving access to family planning services is undoubtedly a key factor, studies in Europe have suggested that a rise in the age of the arrival of a first child corresponds to increased participation in the labour force by women. Suggesting that women in the workforce wish to devote time to their work, despite the surprising benefits to productivity that having a child can bring. Considering the increasing number of opportunities women have in the workplace around the world, this trend of advanced maternal age is only likely to continue.

Having a child at a later age has various benefits and risks. Children born to older women tend to have a lower birth weight, more chromosomal abnormalities, and other negative outcomes. However, advanced maternal age is also associated with better parenting practices, a more stable home life, and higher income. Whether those factors cause or are caused by advanced maternal age remains in dispute.

However, the tendency of having a child later in life poses new and important questions for the ethics of parenting. Key among them, is there a right to have grandparents? After all, mothers who give birth at age forty-five run a five and a half percent chance of dying before their child’s 18th birthday. For that child’s grandparents the odds are undoubtedly much higher. If a child is born too late they can hardly be expected to have much of a relationship with their grandparents at all. 

Gillian Lockwood, a British medical director, has recently suggested that delaying childbirth to the point where a relationship with grandparents is denied amounts to depriving the child of something valuable. Citing the benefits of a strong bond with grandparents that becomes impossible to forge for a child born too late.

There is more to consider here than just the effects on child. What parent doesn’t occasionally ask for the help of someone who is experienced? What parent hasn’t sent the kids to their grandparent’s house for a few hours of peace? Is the loss of being able to expect grandparents to help raise children a major loss for all involved? 

And what about the concerns of our elderly grandparents? They may not have a right to grandchildren, but as Ira Byock, professor of medicine and of community health and family medicine at Dartmouth Medical School, explains, they too frequently receive short shrift. 

Perhaps having a child later in life is disadvantageous to the child in more ways than just the health risks? Of course, if the parents had a child at an earlier date, it wouldn’t be the same child to disadvantage. This is the “Non-Identity Problem” in philosophy; the problem of trying to improve some person’s existence by altering the circumstances that allow them to exist. Think your child would have been better off being born at a different time? They wouldn’t be, because then you are discussing a different person. Some argue that this renders any discussion of what a child born to older parents is deprived of a moot point.

The ethics of reproduction have other answers to the question of the right to grandparents that more directly answer it. Perhaps most practical is Julian Savulescu’s principle of “procreative beneficence”. His principles support having children who can be expected to have the best life. His work is concerned with embryo selection, but can also be applied easily to the question of when to have children. Perhaps having a long relationship with your grandparents is objectively good for a child? Whether or not that good outweighs the negatives of having a child when the parents are too young is another question.

Of course, the decision to have or not have children at all is a personal one. The question of if children are owed grandparents or not is but one question of many that prospective parents must ask when deciding if to have children. Given the demographics of our age, it is one that will be asked more often then it ever has been before. 



Busetta, Annalisa, and Ornella Giambalvo. "The Effect of Women’s Participation in the Labour Market on the Postponement of First Childbirth: A Comparison of Italy and Hungary." Journal of Population Research J Pop Research 31.2 (2014): 151-92.

Mathews, TJ. "Delayed Childbearing: More Women Are Having Their First Child Later in Life" (PDF). 2009. CDC

Morris, J. K., D. Mutton E., and E. Alberman. "Revised Estimates of the Maternal Age Specific Live Birth Prevalence of Down's Syndrome." Journal of Medical Screening 9.1 (2002): 2-6.

Schmidt, L., T. Sobotka, J. Bentzen G., and A. Andersen Nyboe. "Demographic and Medical Consequences of the Postponement of Parenthood." Human Reproduction Update 18.1 (2011): 29-43.

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we’re mining on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Photo Credit: National Geographic/Richard Donnelly
Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

For thousands of years, humans slept in two shifts. Should we do it again?

Researchers believe that the practice of sleeping through the whole night didn’t really take hold until just a few hundred years ago.

The Bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Surprising Science

She was wide awake and it was nearly two in the morning. When asked if everything was alright, she said, “Yes.” Asked why she couldn’t get to sleep she said, “I don’t know.” Neuroscientist Russell Foster of Oxford might suggest she was exhibiting “a throwback to the bi-modal sleep pattern." Research suggests we used to sleep in two segments with a period of wakefulness in-between.

Keep reading Show less

Antimicrobial resistance is a growing threat to good health and well-being

Antimicrobial resistance is growing worldwide, rendering many "work horse" medicines ineffective. Without intervention, drug-resistant pathogens could lead to millions of deaths by 2050. Thankfully, companies like Pfizer are taking action.

Image courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Antimicrobial-resistant pathogens are one of the largest threats to global health today.
  • As we get older, our immune systems age, increasing our risk of life threatening infections. Without reliable antibiotics, life expectancy could decline for the first time in modern history.
  • If antibiotics become ineffective, common infections could result in hospitalization or even death. Life-saving interventions like cancer treatments and organ transplantation would become more difficult, more often resulting in death. Routine procedures would become hard to perform.
  • Without intervention, resistant pathogens could result in 10 million annual deaths by 2050.
  • By taking a multi-faceted approach—inclusive of adherence to good stewardship, surveillance and responsible manufacturing practices, as well as an emphasis on prevention and treatment—companies like Pfizer are fighting to help curb the spread.
Keep reading Show less