Does Technology Affect the Law and Morality of Parental Planning?

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Now that prospective parents have the option to genetically design their kids (at least to a point), what does this mean to society in terms of other responsibilities involved in child-making?

One recent provocative article advocates that the availability of new baby-making technologies should catalyze revisiting whether “biologism” – the prioritization of passing along our genes should be subordinate to a more moral approach to begetting children, i.e., adoption. The author, Leo Kim, cites a litany of ethicists and a host of arguments advocating against “natural” birthing in favor of adoption. Unfortunately, the premise is neither new nor legally supported.

Bringing More Children to this “Crummy” World is Immoral

Among the prime reasons cited against bringing more children into the world, is the negative sentiment of young people who, according to recent research, are “very” or “extremely concerned” about the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world. 

 “[C]limate change is the sole factor for me in deciding not have biological children. I don’t want to birth children into dying world.”

-  31 year old study respondent.

This concern is not new. Philosopher Derrick Parfit raised the issue in 1984 in his landmark work Reasons and Persons. Further, it has nothing to do with the new birthing technology.  

“Coming into existence is always a serious harm. People should never, under any circumstance, procreate – a position called ‘anti-natalism’’ David Benatar

And while philosophers like David Benatar argue against procreation on moral grounds, claiming that “all lives contain more bad than good,” the law disagrees. 

A host of cases reject the claim of wrongful life against a physician who botched an abortion of a fetus affected by German Measles or a sperm bank that provided sperm programmed with heritable diseases, holding that the sanctity and wonders of life preclude such a cause of action. As one court stated:

“This court has recognized the "very nearly uniform high value" which the law and mankind have placed upon human life. In view of our society's acknowledgment of the sanctity of life, it cannot be said, as a matter of public policy, that the birth of a healthy child constitutes a harm cognizable at law.”  - Becker v. Schwartz

Even children born with gross anomalies cannot be spared this legal reverence for life, as courts almost uniformly deny these children the right to claim negligence against the perpetrators of actions leading to their birth (as much as legal commentators, like myself, might disagree)

While the mysteries  (and relative benefits) of life vs. non-life may be the ambrosia and nectar of philosophers, technology is the predicate for Kim’s re-evaluation of biologism. The new technology’s ability to sift through embryos and select a particular genetic package for gestation and the ability to designate a non-maternal gestational mechanism, such as surrogacy or artificial womb technology currently evaluated by the FDA, supports Kim’s point that once we recognize that the “birthing vehicle or person” may not be the biological mother, we should consider whether biological-relatedness is important at all – to the well-being of society or the child.

Relying on a gaggle of ethicists, she says no.           

More reasons to favor adoption:

In opposition to biologism, Kim asserts, in a somewhat chaotic manner, various rationales:

  • Genetic provenance, or genetic identity and biological similarity, does not prevent a child from suffering.
  • A child’s self-actualization doesn’t stem from genetic relatedness or gestational history but from the parent’s treatment of the child.
  • Adoptive children, too, develop familial resemblances.
  • Societally, we should strive to eradicate biological separateness and dismantle similarities based on race or biology.
  • Genetic similarity should not be the criterion for ethical relatedness. - “Genetic provenance has long been used as a tool to construct and uphold white hegemony; think of the legacy of the “one drop rule” that erected whiteness around a logic of ancestral purity.”
  • Prioritizing relatedness is no different than arbitrary trait selection, such as height or eye color.
  • The reliance on genetic ties (or any other behavior) as being “natural” should be eschewed, as socially, different types of diverse family relationships are now recognized.
  • Biologism depletes resources needed for adoption.  - “The desire for related children undermines the likelihood that someone might adopt – taking potential resources away from an existing child in need.”

Kim never addresses the importance of biologism to the parents or parental needs and desires and  to my mind, this is another key concern. Adoption, of course, is a noble objective. But commingling individual and societal needs and biological, legal, and philosophical rationales under the guise of technology is both confusing and disingenuous.

Technological advances provide a predicate for re-evaluating our concept of the family unit and societal mores in general. We need to disentangle the rationales and  separately identify the best interests of the child, parents, and society.

Evaluating the discord in world preferences for genetic anonymity in gamete donors versus the child’s right to know their identity highlights the child’s needs (and right) to know their biological identity. This conclusion suggests the importance of biological ties – to the child.

Parents, too, value biological connectedness, as does the law. While a child cannot sue for the harm in being born, the rights of parents to sue for loss of genetic affinity –“the fracture of biological parenthood” when a sperm bank mixed up sperm donors depriving the parents of the right to a biologic connection to a child is recognized in some countries [1].

Newer technologies assist in furthering the biological quest of parents.

  • One new technology has produced an algorithm that improves IVF success rates.
  • Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), a newer form of IVF, also improves success rates.
  • In Vitro Gametogenesis (IVG), now in its infancy, allows the regression of adult cells to nascent gametogenic material, allowing fertilization with a spouse of one’s choice in cases where parental fertilization otherwise would have been impossible  

In sum, newer technology fosters child-bearing. Is Kim suggesting that we abandon technological advances in favor of his morally preferred end?

The recent availability of trait selection does produce a quandary and an urgency to debate related issues, as Kim points out. But is selection for preferred traits a proper predicate to advocate adoption over biologism? True, the Pandora’s Box of IVF, a necessary component of gamete donation, has opened up questions about whether it’s advisable, ethical, or problematic to select the “best child”  or indeed any child. But is selecting for height no different than selecting a parent who is biologically related, as Kim asserts?

Selecting for children of a particular genetic lineage does beget other choices. And this would have been a legitimate inquiry for Kim to address. New technology allows us to select not only against disease and for isolated traits, but for genetic constellations, which as a whole matrix might be categorized as “best” in its class. Of course, “best” is a matter of preference. Will you select for beauty, brains, or brawn in your offspring? Should you want to?

Bioethicist Julian Savelsecu created the concept of procreative beneficence, asserting his moral imperative of selecting the “best” child – whatever that means. Adoption does not allow for that possibility. If all children are selected for Savelescu’s “best” genotype, the exact mode of genetic expression (the phenotype) will still depend on environmental and social forces, e.g., socio-economics, birth order, and exposure to environmental elements. As I’ve written, selecting for certain traits means eliminating others, and “those others,” now regarded as unwanted, may be precisely what the human race needs to survive future apocalypses we can’t even dream of today.

Further, selecting for the favored package of the day cheapens the end-product. if everyone selects for brains, for example, thinking their kid will be the brainiest, that only raises the bar. Brainy kids will be a “dime a dozen” and some kids will still be smarter than others. A lot smarter.  Here are real questions needing resolution.

The Right to bear a Child:

Perhaps most significantly, morality is supposed to reflect a generalized societal consensus. Kim neglects to note that procreation is a fundamental right in the United States, reflecting the legal consensus[2]. Begetting genetic children, the first biblical commandment, if one is able, is also a religious imperative. On this issue, religion and the State come together. From a biological perspective, fostering genetic diversity via reproduction is also socially beneficial.

It will take more than one person’s moralizing to change that state of affairs.

[1] ACB V Thomson Medical Pte Ltd* Recovery Of Upkeep Costs, Claims For Loss Of Autonomy And Loss Of Genetic Affinity: Fertile Ground For Development?

[2] Oklahoma ex rel. Williamson, 316 U.S. 535 (1942