Thursday, May 25, 2006

Reproduction Ethics

Over at Left2Right I have been contributing to the exchange on David Velleman’s post on reproduction ethics. The focus of Velleman’s post is Ian Mucklejohn and this story. Mucklejohn became the first single man in the UK to have his own children without a female partner. “With the help of the internet he found an American egg donor, had her eggs fertilised with his sperm in California and paid a surrogate to carry the babies” at a cost of just over £50,000. The result was triplets. Velleman believes that this man’s actions are unethical. The thrust of Velleman’s argument (at least as elaborated in the comment thread) is that Mucklejohn’s actions “added to the number of motherless children in the world, for selfish reasons”.

I don’t share Velleman's intuitions about this case. I certainly don’t think Mucklejohn has do anything unethical (on the contrary, from the description of the story I think his determination to father children- and provide them with a loving home- is rather admirable). I will outline the basis of why I disagree with Velleman, just to get things clear in my own mind.

I think the only defensible moral principles are person-affecting principles. So if a wrong is done you must have wronged *someone*. In the case of Hucklejohn I do not think he has wronged anyone. His three sons would not have been born if he did not pursue the course of action he pursued. So he has not worsened their situation. Had he fathered children with a partner he would have created different children.

Velleman’s criticism seems to be premised on a non-person affecting principle. This is implied in his claim that Mucklejohn’s actions “added to the number of motherless children in the world, for selfish reasons”. Furthermore, Velleman believes this case is analogous (in the relevant sense) with the case where a woman deliberately conceives a child while taking a teratogenic medication (thus giving birth to disabled children) rather than waiting until the medication is over and then concieve a different child.

I don’t think these two cases are analogous because what is unethical about the latter case can be explained by a person-affecting principle. Given the strains on public funds available for mitigating other misfortunes, we should try to avoid deliberately creating individuals who will divert scarce public funds away from others who could have benefited from those funds. So there is always someone who is worse off in cases like this. But I don’t think the same is true in the example of Mucklejohn.

Velleman’s latest response is that “even if she [the mother in the medication example] has all the money in the world to care for the child.. her deliberately conceiving a disabled child is wrong”. If (and it's a real stretch to even try to imagine such a fantastical scenario) this mother was a Robinson Crusoe figure who lived on a utopian Island where all her needs (and those of her child) would be satisfied without any effort I guess I would say that her deliberatively creating a disabled child would not be unethical. For me, a person’s reproductive decisions cannot be morally suspect if they have not worsened someone’s situation. Appeals to non-person affecting principles have always puzzled me. The only time when person-affecting principles sound like they might yield counterintuitive results is when one constructs fantastical scenarios that it's even hard to imagine. But when we consider real life cases it is non-person affecting principles that often yield counterintuitive results.