Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

What Are Parents for? Reproductive Ethics after the Nonidentity Problem

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

What Are Parents for? Reproductive Ethics after the Nonidentity Problem

Article excerpt

Bioethicists often use the "nonidentity problem"--the idea that a child born with a disability would actually be a different child if she were born without the disability--to defend parents' rights to have whatever children they want. After all, a child is not harmed by being brought into the world with a disability; without the disability, she would not be brought into the world at all. But what happens if we turn the moral question around and ask, not about the benefits and harms to the child, but just about parental obligations? Will that lead to a different view of reproductive decisions?

As Milton's Adam observes in a fit of pique after his fall from grace, one of the things that parents do for children--analogizing God as father and mother both--is to presume to bring them into being. No informed consent is possible on the part of children-to-be, and, once we are here, there is no not having been here. In Adam's words (in verse that reappears as the epigraph to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein):

   Did I request Thee, Maker, from my clay
   To mold me Man? Did I solicit Thee
   From darkness to promote me ...? (1)

The lament is ancient. Nietzsche refers to the "ancient story" of Midas's capture of Silenus--and Silenus's cackle that "what is best for [human beings] is beyond [our] reach forever: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing." (2) Job wishes that his creation could be undone in language that inverts the creation story in Genesis 1:

   Let the day perish in which I
   was born.
   and the night that said,
   "A man-child is conceived."
   Let that day be darkness!
   May God above not seek it,
   or light shine on it.
   Let gloom and deep darkness
   claim it. (3)

Philip Larkin's vision in his oft-quoted poem "This Be The Verse" is funnier but perhaps even darker. I pass over the infamous first line (which as a rule is all that is ever quoted) for the final stanza:

   Man hands on misery to man.
   It deepens like a coastal shelf.
   Get out as early as you can.
   And don't have any kids yourself. (4)

This last bit of advice is presumably for "the good of the child"; the poet--or, in any event, the poem--appears to deem all human life to be wrongful life. (5) It is, obviously, an extreme judgment; and bioethicists, who tend to be cheerier sorts, do not go so far. (6) Then there are the paradoxes that cluster under the name of the nonidentity problem. These appear to dissolve the worry that parents can harm a child by bringing it into being, and so absolve would-be parents of any culpability for a child's existence in all instances but when one can predict that the child's life would be so terrible that it would not even be worth living. (7)

The nonidentity problem takes its name from the supposition that "in different outcomes, different people would exist." (8) Parents might choose, for example, between conceiving a child now though this child will have a disability (outcome 1) and delaying and having a different child without the disability (outcome 2). It is not the case that the child with the disability might have been brought into being without this disability if only her parents had delayed trying to conceive; if her parents had delayed, that child would never have existed at all. The only way for her to come into being was to come into being with her disability; and so (here is the kicker) it appears not to make any sense to say that her parents harmed her, even though they knew she would come into being disabled. The only alternative for the child, to speak nonsense for a moment, would be never to have been--which is nonsense since nonexistence is no alternative for her. Yes, nonexistence might be preferable for her if we could predict that she would not have a "life worth living"--if the "bads" of that life would overwhelm any goods in it, or if her existence were so terrible that it constituted an evil to her; but no, existence would not be worse for her than never having existed. …

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