Author: Ezio Di Nucci, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark
Is it morally legitimate to want biological children? There is a general argument about the legitimacy of bringing new people into this world; but there is also a more specific question concerning whether there is a moral difference between the wish to have children and the wish to have biological children – it is on this latter, narrower, question that I focus here.
Let us first explain the question: in case you haven’t noticed, it is possible to become parents without becoming biological parents – for example through adoption or reproductive technologies (even though, importantly, the boom of reproductive technologies is at least in part due exactly to the wish to become biological parents and not just parents).
So the question is a genuine one because there is a difference between becoming parents and becoming biological parents. But is the difference morally relevant? How can we possibly question the most normal thing in the world, you may wonder? We can: first of all – as I have argued in the past – biological ties are problematic from an ethical and political point of view: they can be said to reinforce what I call patriarchal prejudices; for example the idea that there is a ‘special’ bond between mother and child – and its ‘innocent’ consequence of mothers staying at home longer than fathers (with its related income-loss, lower pension, career ‘break’ and all the rest of it).
Also, having biological children is not cost-free – just think of all the possible adoptees who are not adopted as a result of a couple opting for a biological parental project. Admittedly, reasons why people might decide against adoption are not necessarily exhausted by biological considerations, as one may for example have a preference for being with the child from day one, say. Still, the wish to become biological parents is not innocent in at least the sense that is bears morally relevant costs; indeed, costs for some of this world’s most vulnerable people.
There are, then, both reasons to be skeptical of the patriarchal legacy of biological ties and actual costs for vulnerable people attached to the wish for biological parenthood. It has even been suggested that the wish to have one’s own biological children can be compared to racism. The idea would be that just like racism is a preference or discrimination based on biological ties (but is that really the case?), the wish to have biological children is similarly a preference or discrimination based on biology. The similarities are undeniable, as one could suggest that – in the latter case – potential adoptees would be discriminated on the grounds of not being biologically related to prospective parents.
So the case against biological parenthood is three-fold: (i) biological ties have a patriarchal legacy; (ii) some of the world’s most vulnerable are negatively affected; (iii) it has worrying similarities with racism (and we could add to this list general anti-natal considerations and also the fact that, in order to become biological parents, people sometimes bring into the world beings destined to great suffering).
Summing up, then, the wish for biological parenthood is anything but innocent: but is it wrong? Within a liberal framework it could be for example argued that individuals should be free to make reproductive choices, including the choice to become biological parents – which might even turn out to be a reproductive right. How could we possibly interfere with such a personal and intimate choice such as whether to reproduce? If we are allowed to interfere with that, is there anything left that we may not interfere with? Those are indeed plausible objections – even though they would need to be spelled out. Especially because I believe there is an important gap between the claim that biological parenthood is an innocent wish and the claim that it is an unalienable right: namely, we might well have the right to not just our wishes but also our vices, and biological parenthood might turn out to be one such vice (if I’m allowed such old-fashioned terminology). To put it plainly, we may not be able to deny people their wish for biological parenthood but that does not mean that such wish is not the legitimate object of moral scrutiny. More concretely, the argument against the innocence of biological parenthood ought to at least remind us of the importance of making alternative pathways to becoming a parent equally accessible.
Competing interests None declared