Newgenics is built on a foundation of autonomy and reproductive rights, but some philosophers have argued in favour of a stronger claim: when presented with a situation in which they could choose between two possible children--one healthy and one disabled--potential parents have a moral responsibility to choose the former because the healthy child would have the better life. This idea, the Principle of Procreative Beneficence, was first articulated by Julian Savulescu, and is uncomfortably plausible to even critics of newgenics: it appeals to a very basic duty of parenting, providing one’s children with a good life, and that makes it very difficult to argue against.
Principle of Procreative Beneficence
Julian Savulescu agrees that potential parents have the right to choose between possible children, and goes one step further. According to Savulescu, when potential parents are offered a choice between two different possible children they should “select the child, of the possible children they could have, who is expected to have the best life, or at least as good a life as the others, based on the relevant, available, information” (415). Exactly what this means is best explained through example, so consider a couple who is using in-vitro fertilization to have a child, and elects to use PGD to determine whether their children will have any genetic abnormalities. Two embryos are produced, and a battery of tests is performed: embryo A shows no abnormalities, while embryo B shows a genetic predisposition to developing asthma (Savulescu, 415). According to the Principle of Procreative Beneficence (PPB) the potential parents should implant embryo A because that child would be expected to have a better life, giving the potential parents a good reason to choose it over asthmatic embryo B.
There are several subtle points underlying the PPB. First, it raises questions about what it means to have a “good life”: how large a role does one’s health play? If we take the PPB seriously, health is an integral component. Returning to the example of embryo A versus embryo B, asthma would have a negative impact on quality of life because it would require management with medications and inhalers, causing inconvenience, and limiting the opportunities available to the child that would have been born. Advocates of the PPB argue that life with a disability is “clearly worse” (Bennett, 32) than life without; otherwise, they argue, it does not make sense to attempt to develop cures and treatments for these conditions, and it would also be inconsistent for us to consider it wrong if a parent were to disable a child on purpose. They supplement this argument with appeals to popularity, as many would agree that a non-disabled life is better than a disabled one, and to the personal experiences of those who become disabled due to accident or illness, who report that their lives were made worse by their disability.
Some responses to Procreative Beneficence
The assumptions underlying the PPB are not unproblematic, and have been subject to criticism by many writers. Some have pointed out that disabling a child on purpose is not the same as giving birth to a child with a disability, because while the consequences in either case are the same the actions taken to bring about those consequences are very different (Bennett, 33). Others have pointed out that an argument appealing to what most people believe about life with a disability is flawed, since those people are evaluating a life that they have never lived.
Disability advocates have also questioned the importance given to physical health in measuring whether a life is good, and have complicated the personal testimony of those disabled by illness or injury: they demand that the reasons given for the self-reported lower quality of life be made clear. To start, they point to the social model of disability, which cautions that there are two sides to the disability coin: there are, on one hand, real physical impairments associated with being disabled, but these must carefully be distinguished from the social structures that create challenges in the day to day lives of the impaired (Amundson, 109-111). Therefore, when it comes to the unhappiness of those disabled by illness or injury, they should specify whether this unhappiness is due to their actual physical impairment, or whether it is due to social structures that now create challenges in their daily lives. Disability advocates might also ask whether those disabled by illness or injury are confusing their emotions: they may report a lower quality of life due to the grief that they are currently experiencing, as they have lost their previous life, and have perhaps lost the ability to do something that they used to enjoy.
In response to the personal testimony of those disabled by illness or injury, disability advocates have appealed to their own stories in an effort to demonstrate that their lives are good and worth living, and that the self-reported decrease in quality of life reported by individuals who become disabled is not entirely due to their impairments, and is due in large part to living in an ableist society that does not fully embrace different ways of being in the world (Amundson and Taira, 53-57; Bauer, 247-251).
Parenting and virtue
Finally, critics can also question the model of parenthood that the PPB relies on. The PPB assumes a model of parenthood based on duties towards one’s children: duties to provide for, educate, and protect, for example. On a duty based model, when a person becomes a parent they consent to a contract outlining their role and the responsibilities that they have toward their child, and they have these responsibilities because the child has--or will grow into an adult that has--rights equal to those of the parent. These duties can be enumerated either as those to which all rational agents would agree (Kant, Rawls), or those which cannot reasonably be rejected (Scanlon). Such a duty-based model supports newgenics and the PPB by positing that parents have a duty to provide their children with a good life (or, alternatively, to protect them from the harm associated with disability), and giving them a way to ensure that this happens.
Rosalind McDougall has suggested an alternative model of parenting that would condemn newgenic practices and deny support to the PPB. A virtue-based model, briefly, shifts the focus from the actions of potential parents to their character, and the relevant character traits are those which help to promote human flourishing. And, since parents are tasked with raising children, the character traits in question will be those that help to promote the flourishing of children (McDougall, 184). McDougall suggests that when we ask the question “how is one to parent well?” at least three virtues fall out: acceptingness, committedness, and future-agent focus (185). All three of these are relevant to the issue of newgenics.
First, the parental virtue of acceptingness holds that, “if nothing else, parents who want their children to be happy should aim to love their children for who they are, not who they would like them to be” (McDougall, 185). The characteristics that children have are unpredictable: even if a parent could control some of them through newgenics, there are many others that would still be unknown, and that parents would only come to learn as their children grew up. Parents should be ready and willing to accept this unpredictability.
Second, the virtue of committedness calls on parents to be committed to both their children and their role as parents. Children come into the world dependent on others for their very survival, and they should be “born to parents who have reasonable expectations and intentions of being active and present to bring up the child” (McDougall, 186). We should also want them to be born to parents who are not going to run away at the first sign of difficulty. Parenting is hard work, regardless of whether the child being raised has a disability: it is a modern myth that “normal” children are easy to raise, and parents should be prepared for any eventuality.
Finally, the virtue of future-agent focus involves promoting the development of one’s children into good moral agents which, on a virtue-based account, would amount to teaching them about the virtues, good character, and good judgement. This opens the door to a world that would be more accepting of individuals with different ways of being in the world.
Amundson, R. (1992). Disability, Handicap, and the Environment. Journal of Social Philosophy , 23(1), 105-119.
Amundson, R. & Taira, G. (2005). Our Lives and Ideologies: The Effect of Life Experience on the Perceived Morality of the Policy of Physician-Assisted Suicide. Journal of Disability Policy Studies 16(1), 53-57.
Ashford, E. & Mulgan, T. (2012). Contractualism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
Bennett, R. (2014). Parenthood and Procreation. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .
McDougall, R. (2007). Parental Virtue: A new way of thinking about the morality of reproductive actions. Bioethics 21(4), 181-190.
Savulescu, J. (2001). Procreative Beneficence: Why we should select the best children. Bioethics 15(5-6), 413-426.