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Home arrow Psychology arrow The philosophical parent : asking the hard questions about having and raising children


Reproducing is not just adding a child to the world. Instead, reproducing is making yourself a parent of a child—making someone else a sort of second self. Selectiveness can be in tension with the parental state of mind, or so I’m going to argue.

The usual forms of protection are certainly not inconsistent with the parental state of mind. Seeing my child as a sort of second self will tend to make me want to protect her—from cigarette smoke, poor nutrition, and the like. That’s because of the “self” part: I aim for her good in the same way that I aim for my own good. But it’s also because of the “second” part: a baby is a whole new person, starting afresh with none of the nicks and cuts we all accumulate over time. Of course we want our offspring to be protected.

Some instances of selection are also clearly consistent with the parental state of mind. Take, once again, delaying conception until you have stopped taking Accutane. As far as procreation’s meaning goes, that really is innocent, just like we intuitively think. It’s innocent because the drug is to be avoided both ifyour goal is to have the best-off child (having normal ears is desirable), and if you want your child to come from you in the usual way—the way that makes us think of a child as a second self. After all, the drug disrupts normal fetal development, stopping the child from having the traits dictated by her parents’ genes or her mother’s uterine environment. A fetus developing under its damaging influence in effect has another progenitor besides her two parents, and not a benign one. Selecting the baby who will not be conceived under the corrosive influence of Accutane is perfectly compatible with the parental state of mind.

We should say the same thing about many other possible motivations for postponement. Suppose right now I can’t afford prenatal vitamins, but I will be able to later on. Or now I run the risk of being exposed to the mosquito-borne Zika virus, but later on the risk will be lower. Or now I’m living in an extremely stressful environment, but later on I’ll be able to conceive and gestate a child in peace. In all these cases, potential parents are trying to eliminate nefarious intrusions on the normal process of conception and gestation, clearing the way for the child to come from them in the usual way. They are selecting between two babies, not protecting, but innocently so.

But now take another type of selection, one that could come out of a sci-fi movie, but isn’t so terribly unrealistic. A couple opts for high-tech reproduction at Better Baby Inc., in order to be able to choose the baby’s traits. Bella’s ovaries are hyperstimulated, giving the couple ten eggs to combine with Ben’s sperm. The resulting embryos are inspected for defects and four pass muster. Those four are enhanced, using a new line of Additions™ DNA. Genes for tall stature and blue eyes are added. So are genes for life-enhancing character traits like the ability to postpone gratification and high self-esteem. The couple only draws the line at the ultimate innovation, which is on the last page of the Additions™ catalog: Perfect Child™, a line of embryos contributed by extraspecial donors and then enhanced in the lab. That option they reject.

Finally, a selection is made among their four enhanced embryos, and two are implanted. Nine months later, Bellissima is born, a girl who grows up to be healthy and fit, tall and blue-eyed, and strikingly endowed with self-esteem and the ability to postpone gratification. Whether or not it’s because of the gene insertions, no one can say for sure, but Bellissima becomes a great success in every way, and her success makes her exceptionally happy.

What should we think? Some ethicists think Ben and Bella actually do exactly as they should by being selective, if their decisions make for a better off child. Anything else would have been wrong. This is the upshot of an ethical principle proposed by Oxford ethi- cist Julian Savulescu. His Principle of Procreative Beneficence says we should choose, of the possible children we could have, the child with the best chance of the best life. Now, the possible children we could have are presumably the children we could have using our own gametes. Thus, we are permitted some bias in favor of our own. But beyond getting to use our own gametes, we must be optimizers. If the enhancements chosen by Ben and Bella give Bellissima a better chance of a good life, they are not just permitted to choose them, but obligated to do so.

Why don’t they have to go even further and choose Perfect Child™ if the result would be a child with an even better chance of a good life? Apparently, Savulescu respects the desire to have a child who is biologically our own—up to a point. We may start with our own embryos, despite their not being the very best. But we should choose among them, and even modify them, to generate the child with the best chance of the best life, at least as long as this is not too onerous.

But does drawing the line at Perfect Child™ really make any sense? If Ben and Bella may draw the line there, then it seems to me they also don’t have to optimize when it comes to their own embryos either. The less-than-ideal outcome is the same in both cases and so is the motivating thought: "I just want my own child, I don’t have to have the very best.” If that’s an acceptable thought when Ben and Bella decline an unrelated Perfect Child™ embryo, it’s also acceptable in couples who decline high-tech interventions that promise to deliver babies with better lives.

In fact, it’s more than acceptable. It’s positively good to see our children as wonderful, just the way they are. The tendency to see only good in our own is at its peak at the start of a child’s life. Later, we may have to contend with toddlers who have tantrums and teenagers who don’t do their homework or who total the car. But the sense of the child’s original marvelousness persists. We love that perfect-seeming child and feel dedicated to him or her throughout years of sometimes arduous parental labor.

Aggressive optimizers like Ben and Bella would appear to have different attitudes. Having their own child does matter to them, as evidenced by the fact that they decline Perfect Child™ technology, but they feel compelled to have not just any child of their own, but one with the most optimal features. Now, they might defend this as an unselfish act. They don’t care about having a child who is healthy, fit, and well endowed with advantageous traits. They might say they would see the child who comes from any of their embryos as equally their own, and equally perfect. In fact, they might insist, they would have found their child just as wonderful if the gene manipulations hadn’t worked; they would have been just as loving to a less optimal child and just as dedicated to her well-being.

Some philosophers are prepared to believe you can pursue traits in a baby without caring if they wind up being absent. For example, in an article about Michael Sandel’s book on designer babies, the philosopher Francis Kamm writes, "One can know that one will care about someone just as much whether or not she has certain traits and yet care to have someone, perhaps for their own sake, who has, rather than lacks, those traits" So optimizing doesn’t intrude on unconditional acceptance.

I’m not entirely persuaded. Yes, we can know we will care about a child just as much, whether she scores high or low on the SATs, but nevertheless want her to score high (for her own sake). But decisions to pursue assets before a child even exists may be in a different class. It would be hard to know about something as mysterious as the besotted feeling parents have for their children, starting at the beginning of their children’s lives and persisting through thick and thin. Would that love be threatened if parents essentially designed their own children, picking traits from a menu of possibilities? I don’t see how anyone could know for sure.

My impression is that even the most hard-headed parents find something miraculous about their children, a response that’s integral to the love and dedication they feel. I’m not sure we could find a child amazing and miraculous, while also knowing her personality was assembled using ingredients sold on page sixteen of a catalog. And so selectiveness ought to be considered at least possibly a threat to parental love.

Now, once parenthood gets underway, we don’t accept the miracle of our child as is, ignoring all the child’s flaws and shortcomings. We may very well help the child score higher on the SATs! But in all our endeavors to improve and develop, there’s still an underlying sense of the child’s being perfectly wonderful at the core. It’s this baseline affirmation that seems potentially compromised if we start off adding a bit of this and taking a way a bit of that, to make the very best child. The core child could stop seeming quite so amazing and deserving of dedication, if we assembled him or her.

And of course, that would be bad. Parental dedication is crucial to parental satisfaction—which surely matters; and it’s also crucial to the well-being of children. We should preserve that initial sense of a child being perfect just because he or she is ours, unless we have a very compelling reason to let it go. And it does not seem as if the traits being discussed here—height, eye color, and some personality traits—give us that sort of a reason.

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