What are we to make of the case of Nadya Suleman, the
California woman who gave birth to octuplets through IVF? The case
has inspired lots of internet chatter and water cooler talk. I
maintain that insurance and government funding are the least of the
worries of this case. The case illustrates two deep problems with our
current attitudes toward artificial reproductive technology (ART).
First, no one has a right to have a baby. Second, the state should
not be in the business of deliberately separating father from their
No one has a right to a baby. That is because becoming a
parent is something no one can do alone. It is the ultimate team
effort. To say that a woman is entitled to a baby comes awfully close
to saying that someone is required to help her have one. But this is
obviously nonsense. No one is required to help her.
What we mean to say when we think that someone has a
right to a baby is something like this: I have the right to try to
persuade someone to cooperate with me in the physical act necessary
to create a baby. I am not entitled to the cooperation of any one
particular person, or to some generalized cooperation from society at
large. I am only entitled to try.
If I am successful at getting someone’s cooperation,
the child’s father has as much entitlement to that child as I do.
Both parents have rights and responsibilities toward their child.
This protects the legitimate interests of the child in having the
care of both parents, as well as the legitimate interests of both
parents in the well-being of their child. Those rights, which flow
naturally from the organic reality of human sexuality, inhere in both
Even if one agrees with me that no woman is entitled to
the cooperation of any particular man in impregnating her, one might
still object that my position is hopelessly old-fashioned and
out-of-date. Technology relieves us of the necessity of having any
kind of personal relationship with your child’s other parent. We
allow unmarried women access to artificial reproductive technology,
complete with anonymous sperm donors, on a regular, and completely
unregulated basis. So why are we now all of a sudden hysterical over
a woman exercising her “free choice” to implant all the frozen
embryos she has on hand? Any woman is entitled to unlimited access
to the use of artificial reproductive technology, provided that she
can pay for it.
But look at what this position actually entails. We are
permitting women to have babies without any relationship with their
child’s father. Under normal circumstances, we think there is
something wrong with parents who don’t cooperate with each other
for the good of their children. In the case of artificial
reproductive technology, we not only permit it, we enlist the aid of
the state to make it possible. The legal intervention of the state
permits a woman to do something that could not be possible in the
ordinary course of human life: she can have a baby without ever
having even a single encounter with her child’s father. The state
enables all the arrangements that make this possible. The state makes
the sperm donor, that is to say, the child’s father, a “legal
stranger” to the child. The state preserves the anonymity of the
donor, which obviously could not happen in a normal encounter.
Now children get separated from their parents all the
time. But we usually recognize this as an unavoidable tragedy, from
which any humane soul would spare the child if we could. But in the
case of artificial reproductive technology with anonymous sperm
donors, the state is actively separating a child from his or her
father. The state itself is enabling something that we ordinarily
strive to prevent.
And why is the state acting as the agent of separating
children from parents? Because the woman wants the state to do so.
But her desires are not a sufficient reason to violate so basic a right as
the child’s right to affiliation with both parents.
This is the real tragedy which the Nadya Suleman case
brings to light. It is not that she made an unconventional decision,
in part using other people’s money, and counting on financial
support from her parents and the state. The problem is that no one
has a right to have a child, in the way that anyone with the ability
to pay has a right to buy a house. This use of the language of the
market assumes the very point that is necessary to prove, and which I
believe can not be proved: namely that a child is a kind of
commodity, to which other people have rights and entitlements. The
child is not an object of rights, but a person who has rights of his
or her own. The child is an end in himself or herself.
The violation of rights in this case took place well
before she and her doctor decided to implant “a lot” of embryos,
rather than a “reasonable” number. The real violation took place
when she decided, with the help of the state, that she was entitled
to the use of someone else’s genetic material to achieve her
personal reproductive goals.
I am second to none in my admiration for the market. But
not everything should be treated as if it were a commodity. Children
are not commodities, and neither is someone else’s genetic
material. It is time to rethink our whole approach to artificial
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is the Founder and
President of the Ruth Institute, and author of Love
and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work,
newly reissued in paperback.