Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

What Are Families for? Getting to an Ethics of Reproductive Technology

Academic journal article The Hastings Center Report

What Are Families for? Getting to an Ethics of Reproductive Technology

Article excerpt

Procreative liberty; as the regnant contemporary framework for thinking about the ethics of reproductive technologies, has its defects. It begins with a pair of confusions and disregards a central, vital interest; it ignores the values at the heart of family life and relies on a thin and unsatisfying conception of human flourishing.

Intellectual frameworks matter: They direct our attention toward certain moral considerations over others, and they implicitly tell us what, like the cents column on income tax returns, can be ignored. Once the shortcomings of procreative liberty as the dominant framework in ethical discourse on assisted reproduction become obvious, so does the need for a more fulsome and nuanced framework, one that begins with the moral significance of the relationship between parents and children, the values at the heart of that relationship, and the ways in which people flourish, or shrivel--physically, emotionally, and morally.

I want to describe briefly the defects in procreative liberty as a framework for thinking about parents and children. I also want to propose a different starting point--a more challenging and complex one to be sure, that begins with what we value most highly and insists on keeping the broader picture in view, however difficult that may sometimes be. Finally, I want to explore what difference it would make to begin with one rather than the other framework.

An Impoverished Worldview

The confusions in the standard account of procreative liberty are twofold. First, procreative liberty seems confused as to its purpose. Does it mean to be an insightful ethical analysis that illuminates what is morally important about families, parents, and children? Or is it only a quasi-moral, quasi-legal algorithm for considering questions about law and policy in reproductive technologies? Its proponents often write as if procreative liberty was indeed a comprehensive moral account of the ethics of initiating parenthood, and implicitly of parenthood in general. (1)

The second confusion abides in the claim that decisions about what sort of child to have and what means to employ to create a child are merely the flip side of decisions whether to have a child--that is, decisions about abortion and contraception. Advocates of procreative liberty fix on the free choices of presumably autonomous adults. But abortion and contraception are means to not have a child, at least not at this time, or not under these circumstances. The not-so-flip side is the decision to have a child, to create a new person who will have interests, hopes, and concerns of her or his own. It is also a decision to initiate a vital, life-long relationship.

The most egregious defect of procreative liberty is its nearly complete disregard of the interests of children created through reproductive technologies. Advocates of procreative liberty accept one side-constraint: it does not justify creating a child who is worse off than if he or she had never been born at all. I have described this as akin to trying to divide by zero--an arithmetic operation that cannot yield a meaningful answer. All we need agree here is that, as a practical matter, this supposed constraint in practice constrains far too little, if it constrains anything at all.

Imagine a couple who ask that the developing spinal column of their fetus be disrupted, making the child paraplegic. Why would they want to do such a thing? Perhaps they desire the experience of raising a child with a disability, perhaps they believe the demands of caring for such a child will help keep their failing marriage together, perhaps they already have a child with paraplegia, desire another, but do not want their older child to feel less capable than its younger sibling or the child-to-be to feel different from its older sibling. We may be curious about the reasons or motivations behind such a request, but procreative liberty disallows interest in reasons and motivation. …

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