- Book Review
Parental Obligations and Bioethics: The Duties of a Creator collects and supplements Bernard G. Prusak’s work on the ethics of procreation and parenthood, and applies his unique theoretical approach to related issues in bioethics and social philosophy. In this review, I’ll first summarize what I take to be the argumentative core of the book, and then offer a brief critical assessment.
In an attempt to get a grip on the grounds and contents of procreators’ obligations to the children they create, Prusak focuses chapter 1 on the case of two people who conceive a child with the intention of giving it up for adoption once it is born, their only reason being that it would be fun or novel (10). Intuitively, it seems that acting on this intention (either by conceiving the child or by relinquishing it once it is born) would be wrong, but justifying this intuition proves tricky. After rejecting several possible justifications, Prusak explores the idea that the given, biological relationship with one’s birth parents is potentially valuable in a way that would make it wrong to intentionally create a child with the goal of preventing it from enjoying such a relationship (19). But, as Prusak notes, failing to involve oneself in potentially valuable relationships isn’t usually considered wrong (think of all the potential friendships you’re spurning right now!), so why is it wrong in the case of procreation (22)?
The question we are left with at the end of chapter 1 gets answered in chapter 2, where Prusak argues, pace Elizabeth Brake (2010) and others, that the costs imposed on a child by its procreators are significant enough to generate a prima facie moral obligation to parent the child. Even though it seems that, in typical circumstances, a child cannot be not harmed by being born (8–9), its being brought into existence makes it subject to various risks of harm, which is a cost that its procreators (provided their actions were sufficiently voluntary) must address (29). But why should this require anything more than finding adoptive parents for a child, perhaps in addition to subsidizing the cost of the child’s upbringing? In other words, why do procreators have a moral reason to parent the child that other similarly capable adults don’t have?
Prusak’s answer draws on Seana Shiffrin’s “equivocal view” of procreation (1999, 136), according to which creating children is morally [End Page E-1] problematic because it imposes risks of harm without the child’s consent and absent the threat of any greater harm (since had the child not been created, no harm could have befallen it). One of the features of a healthy parent-child relationship is that it provides the child with emotional and intellectual capacities needed to bear both ordinary and extraordinary harms (34). This explains why procreators must see to it that the children they create have parents; putting money into a trust fund would be insufficient. Further, procreators have a prima facie moral obligation to do the needed parenting themselves because, in Prusak’s words, “no one other than one’s procreators . . . can be called on to answer for the fact of one’s being” (35; cf. Shiffrin 1999, 140). The need to know the intimate details of one’s origins and to be able to engage directly with those responsible for one’s birth is evidenced in Mary Shelley’s tale of Frankenstein’s monster, and in the quests of adopted people and people created with anonymously donated gametes to know their biological origins (36). According to Prusak, since procreators are uniquely situated to address this important need, they have a special responsibility to take on the role of parent for their biological children.
The remaining chapters of the book defend and extend Prusak’s positive view of procreators’ obligations. In chapter 3 he considers an argument by Elizabeth Brake (2005), who builds off of insights from Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” (1971) in order to show that men who do not voluntarily assume obligations to support their newborn children do not have such obligations. Prusak rejects Brake’s conclusion (which would spell...