Spread the love: a new principle for procreation in the age of IVF

Michael Cook
27 Jul 2013
Reproduced with Permission

Utilitarian notions of reproductive autonomy may not be as simple to apply as they seem. For several years Oxford's Julian Savulescu has been preaching the principle of procreative beneficence. Couples should do whatever they can give their child the best possible life. This means that he or she should have good health, high intelligence and physical attractiveness. Creating premium childrne is not simply morally permissible, but morally obligatory.

However, Savulescu's argument is controversial even among his fellow utilitarians. In the August issue of the Journal of Medicine & Philosophy, two colleagues, Thomas Douglas and Katrien Devolder, criticise his views as too individualistic. Procreative beneficence, they contend, concerns only the child. What about society?

Procreative beneficence, they argue, must be supplemented with another concept, procreative altruism. "This new selection principle instructs parents to select children whose existence can be expected to contribute more to (or detract less from) the well-being of others than any alternative child."

Practical decisions about bringing children into existence have to balance the two principles against each other. At the moment, science's understanding of how genetics influences behaviour is still primitive. However, it should be possible to select against traits like diabetes, substance abuse disorders, psychopathy and schizophrenia, because these impose huge costs on the rest of society.

Douglas and Devolder recognise that there are some objections to their portrait of parental responsibilities. One of the weightiest is that it could lead to coercive eugenics. They see nothing wrong with eugenics as such, but people should not be forced to create children of a particular type. Imprudent application of the principle of procreative altruism might lead in that direction. Unlike many other bioethicists, they believe that the slippery slope is real:

"The concern about a slippery slope to immoral eugenics, we believe, should be taken seriously. It may well constitute a decisive objection to adopting our two-principle model, particularly in certain illiberal societies. However, in most liberal democracies, reproductive autonomy is firmly entrenched in both the law and the prevailing psyche."