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The Parental Investment Factor and the Child's Right to an Open Future

From: Hastings Center Report
Volume 39, Number 2, March-April 2009
pp. 24-27 | 10.1353/hcr.0.0125

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Parents have dreams for their children, sometimes quite specific and narrow. Musical families may assume that their children will choose an instrument early and devote so many hours to practice that other activities and even friendships are severely constrained. Ronald M. Green, a professor of ethics at Dartmouth, points to the many toddlers he sees at alumni events wearing "diminutive Dartmouth sweatshirts inscribed with their hoped-for graduation years."1 Society tolerates such dreams quite well. But should we also encourage access to genetic and reproductive techniques that allow for the creation of "babies by design," or what I will term directed procreation?2 And does it matter if these techniques require a large or small investment of parental time, money, and energy?

Two methods of directed procreation now available include sperm sorting, which increases the odds of having either a boy or a girl, and preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), originally developed to detect and avoid serious genetic conditions such as Tay-Sachs disease but suitable for sex selection and eventually other purposes, such as choosing children with athletic potential. Links have been discovered between specific athletic potential and variations of the ACNT3 gene, for example.3 Because changes in technology will soon permit whole genome embryo screening as a routine part of in vitro fertilization, parents testing embryos for conventional reasons such as avoiding lethal disease can choose to test for other traits at little additional cost. Indeed, some clinics that offer reproductive services report that they are beginning to receive requests for such services, and at least one has announced that it intends to begin to offer them in cases where the screening technology has progressed far enough to make it possible.4 Gene modification after birth is another way in which parents can increase the likelihood of having a child with the specific traits they desire.5

The argument for permitting directed procreation is grounded in the respect Western culture gives to reproductive liberty. Respect for procreative choices can be seen, for example, in the value-neutral ethic of genetic counselors and in the unregulated state of reproductive technology in the United States. One of its most articulate champions is John Robertson, who argues that procreative liberty is "an important moral right" based on the "centrality of reproduction to personal identity, meaning, and dignity."6 Even the U.K.'s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, charged with policy decisions that severely constrain parental choice in assisted reproduction technology, nonetheless declares that its first loyalty is to procreative liberty. "The decision to have children is an area of private life in which people are generally best left to make their own choices."7

However, this respect, almost reverence, for autonomy in reproduction also grounds reasons for limiting directed procreation. The robust respect for parental autonomy ought to be complemented by a respect for the autonomy of the future child as well. One way of framing this concern is to appeal to a child's "right to an open future."

Parents so fixated on the importance of having a girl, or a musician, or an athlete, will find it extremely difficult to be open to the child's own interests and natural direction. Parents who go to great trouble to have a child with perfect pitch may find it very hard when the child spurns the piano for the basketball court. Parents who go to great lengths to have a girl—even and perhaps especially if it is to "balance" a family in which there are already sons—may want a child not merely with XX chromosomes and a female anatomy, but a daughter who will exhibit certain predetermined gender characteristics as well.8

Directed Procreation as a "Wake-Up Call"

Some will argue that we should not single out directed procreation as bearing unique risks to the child's future autonomy but instead tolerate it to the same extent that we tolerate religious education, Dartmouth sweatshirts, and pink flowered wallpaper for baby girls. Parents certainly do often have strong expectations that children will join the family business, attend the mother's school, or be "a chip off the old block" in any number of ways. But the startling...



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