"Why Children?" is a collection of essays by 18 women describing the reasons for and consequences of their decision to have or not to have children. rAccompanying each essay is a photograph and brief biographical sketch of its author.

In biological terms, the question "Why Children?" is equivalent to the question "Why life?" Along with metabolism, adaptability, complexity and regulation, reproduction is a basic characteristic distinguishing living matter from nonliving matter. This is not to say that every living organism will reproduce. Populations of ants, bees, termites and other social insects, for example, consist predominantly of sterile drones and workers, and in many herd animals only a few dominant males succeed in reproducing. But only humans, as George Gaylord Simpson pointed out, apply to life itself the uniquely human processes of "choice, values and moral judgment."

Only humans, therefore, make a deliberate choice regarding reproduction. This book demonstrates, however, that "choice" is shaped by personal history and social and political influences over which the individual has little control. The women who speak in these essays are varied and divergent: "conventional" mothers, adoptive mothers, artists, writers, political activists, heterosexual, bisexual and lesbian women, and women who have chosen to remain childless.

To exert power of choice over reproduction -- a biological mechanism as fundamental as breathing or eating -- is not an easy or simple matter for a woman, whatever choice she makes. The ever-present threat of nuclear war, environmental degradation, instability of human relationships in modern society, and the growing political influence of feminist ideals profoundly affect a personal decision which has lifelong consequences to the individual.

The women in "Why Children?" explore in detail the reasons for their decisions, and describe honestly how that decision has affected their personal lives. They speak for themselves alone, justifying and explaining but never advocating their decisions to others. Parents and nonparents write with respect, understanding and admiration for each other. The scope of their thinking and the emotional, social and practical ramifications of their choices are truly enlightening.

The book offers no definitive answer to the question whether or not to bear children. It does provide a wealth of informative, often very moving experiences and ideas for a thoughtful person to consider in making what is an irrovocable, fundamental decision in her own life. A woman who has already committed herself to parenthood or nonparenthood will find support for either choice.

Consumer these observations from contributors to the book:

Irena Klepfisz:

"None of this is ever very simple. There are pleasures that one gives up when one decides not to have children. But as I keep telling myself: you can't have everything. Choices have to be made, and consequences have to be lived with. The act of choosing inevitabley bring loss. It is a difficult lesson to understand and accept. I keep trying to relearn it."

Barbara Hanrahan:

"Writing is my religion. . . . I love writing of others' real worlds which are my fantasies. But to do this I must be apart; I must be free enough and alone enough to remain true to the child I once was, that I am still. Because I do not mock it, becuase I do not forget or replace it with another, the child in me remains alive and strong. It is the source of all my creativity."

Judith Barrington:

"It is one thing for a woman to make sacrifices or take risks for her beliefs, but quite another for her to see her children suffer because of them." b

Sara Ruddick:

"Maternal work is done in the face of death. The wanton and unacceptable indifference of nature can frustrate even the most devoted maternal care. The possibility of illness, accident, physical and mental damage make up the context of maternal work. Society supplements the indifference of nature by its cruelty, bigotry and violence. War can destroy, in an instant, years of maternal love and hope.

"It will not be enough to develop political consciousness. It is notorious that in political life and political organizations women become severs and apologists. This may be especially true of mothers, since maybe we are weakened by our strangeness to public life and repelled by it in its patriarchal forms. We will need the minds and energies of feminists, many of them nonmothers, if we are to articulate ideals and techniques of implementation which truly represent both our fears and our best hopes."

Although the book is by women and about women, it is not exlusively for women. Parenthood, after all, depends oln the initial cooperation of a father, whose choice between parenthood or nonparenthood has traditionally had far fewer consequences on his personal life. Many of the same considerations and moral issues are relevant to both men and women in choosing to bring new life into this world. If a father wishes to participate more fully in the daily care and pleasure of childrearing, he will find much to ponder in these essays. "Why Children?" offers both male and female readers a good basis for making an informed decision about parenthood and its significance to their own lives.