“Question everything. Learn something. Answer nothing,” said the ancient Greek dramatist Euripedes. At least the internet says he said it. At best, it’s probably misattributed. But it is advice which some bioethicists take to heart. They are fond of deconstructing even the most fundamental elements of human experience.
Take, for instance, the slow-moving debate over at the Journal of Medical Ethics on whether it is right to desire to be biologically related to your children. In other words, is it immoral to love your child because he or she is “bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh”?
Before you utter an expletive (balderdash, piffle, claptrap, drivel, etc), try the idea on for size for a minute. It appears a tad more plausible if it is compared to racism, which is balderdash. The idea that we should love people who are related to us and look like us and hate people who don’t is universally condemned. That was the philosophy of Nazism and it brought unparalleled misery to the world.
Aha! says a bioethicist, why should parental affection be treated differently? Isn’t intense parental love a close cousin to racism?
Rebecca Roache, a lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and formerly of Oxford University, argued a couple of years ago that:
the wish to be biologically related to one's children—like the wish to associate only within one's racial group—can have harmful effects. The wish to associate only with members of one's own race can (and does) result in people being denied important opportunities on account of their race. And the wish to be biologically related to one's children means that the vast majority of aspiring parents create new babies, despite there being millions of existing children without families in need of adoption or foster care; as a result, aspiring parents' preference for biological relatedness to their children leads to existing parentless children being denied the opportunity of a family.
When another scholar, J. David Velleman, countered in Philosophical Papers that “it is immoral to create children with the intention that they be alienated from their biological relatives—for example, by donor conception”, Roache dismissed his assertion as “unhelpful armchair philosophy”.
Why pose this bizarre question at all? It seems almost blasphemous to question the love of mothers and fathers for their children. Where is this coming from?
The question seems to be sparked by uneasiness over the legal and moral status of reproductive technologies. The ethical status of the huge IVF industry depends on catering to the desire for biologically related children.
A poignant recent example comes from the Australian media. Max Delmege, a 72-year-old millionaire and his 34-year-old wife Sam, have laid open their personal lives on television as they struggle to have an IVF child. Over the past three years they have had three miscarriages, 11 IVF cycles and spent more than A$100,000. “I just do it because I have to, if I want to have a baby, I just have to do it,” a teary Sam told the media. If Sam’s yearning were viewed as illegitimate, adoption would be her only option – and the IVF clinics would be forced out of business.
IVF also makes it possible to raise children whose link to at least one of their biological parents is non-existent. Does this matter? Most gay and lesbian parents insist on having a biological connection with their child. Should their desire for relatedness count?
Artificial reproductive technologies have opened a can of worms.
Commenting on Roache, Ezio Di Nucci, of the University of Copenhagen, argues in the same journal that the racism angle doesn’t hold water, partly because the notion of “race” is fuzzy and has been largely discredited.
Nonetheless, he agrees, that the desire for biologically related children is still “morally illegitimate”, although it is just a “moral vice” which does not call out for government regulation. (Thank God for small mercies – what if the government decided to enforce Di Nucci’s moral code by removing children from their natural parents and farming them out in the community?)
What is his reasoning?
Basically that such a desire is obnoxiously patriarchal. “Liberation [from the patriarchy] requires the establishment of fair and equal parental projects where biological ties do not play any role in the distribution of roles, responsibility, and ultimately power,” he writes. Why should a woman be expected to care more for children simply because she carried them in the womb for nine months? Social expectations like this are glaringly unfair.
Belief that loving your own children is immoral is unlikely to take hold. But scepticism about the value, even sacredness, of a biological connection is spreading. How else could same-sex marriage be justified?
Di Nicci suggests that the public policy consequence of his argument is that “having non-biological children [should be] just as accessible—if not just as easy—as having biological children. But it could also be used to justify removing the legal and social presumption that children do best when raised with their biological parents. This would be a dangerous development. Watch this space.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.