Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Norplant and Irresponsible Reproduction

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

Norplant and Irresponsible Reproduction

Article excerpt

As a voluntary method of contraception that has met regulatory standards of safety and efficacy, Norplant[R] presents no major ethical or legal issues, beyond making it available to all women who want it and assuring that women are informed of its side effects. It has become controversial, however, because of attempts by judges and legislators to encourage or require that certain women use Norplant to avoid reproduction that is considered socially irresponsible or harmful to children and society.

Reactions to proposals to control "undesirable" reproduction have varied from enthusiastic approval to horror and outrage. Approval comes from those who believe the state may take steps to discourage or even eliminate such irresponsible reproduction, particularly with an easily reversible device such as Norplant. Others see proposals to offer, entice, or compel women to use Norplant as a violation of basic human rights - a racist or elitist response to problems that should be resolved by other means.

Whatever one's views about these proposals, it is clear that Norplant has succeeded in reintroducing a discourse of reproductive responsibility into public life - in particular, a long overdue discussion of reproductive responsibility and the state's role in promoting such responsibility.

Reproductive Responsibility

Any discussion of reproductive responsibility and governmental action to limit reproduction is a touchy subject. The history of attempts to limit "irresponsible reproduction" is replete with abuse and discrimination.[1] As a result, there is an extreme reluctance even to discuss the idea of irresponsible reproduction, much less propose coercive policies, for fear that it will be viewed as racism or lead to coercive state policies that will replicate earlier abuses.

Nevertheless, reproduction always has potential moral significance because it leads to the birth of another person, whose needs for love, nurturing, and resources have to be met. Thus a dialogue about the circumstances that make reproduction desirable or undesirable, advised or ill-advised, responsible or irresponsible is needed to help us determine the parameters of morally and socially acceptable conduct, and to guide or limit governmental action that affects reproductive choice.

Any judgment about the reproductive responsibility of individuals must pay attention to four issues: the importance of the reproduction in question to the person(s) reproducing; the ease or difficulty with which they could avoid that reproduction; the burdens that reproduction will cause resulting offspring; and the burdens or costs imposed on society and others.

Reproductive Interest. Reproduction is often said to be irresponsible because of the costs imposed on others, on the implicit assumption that the person reproducing has no important reproductive interest to justify those costs. What counts, then, as an important or significant reproductive interest?

An important issue here will be whether the persons will be involved in rearing resulting offspring. Reproduction is highly valued in part because of the rearing and family experiences it makes possible. A person who reproduces but has no contact with offspring may have a lesser interest in reproduction than a person who reproduces with the intent to rear children. In balancing the costs imposed on offspring and society against the value of the reproductive experience, the capacity and likelihood of rearing is a relevant factor.

The key question in each case will be the value to the person and others of the precise reproductive experience that is occurring. Distinctions will have to be drawn based on previous and likely future reproductive experiences, expected life span, amount of rearing, and the like. These complications may make it impossible, as a practical matter in most cases, to go beyond whether the person reproducing will be aware that he or she reproduced and whether the person will have contact with offspring. …

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