In contrast to earlier thinkers, who viewed children as little more than the property of their parents, contemporary philosophers working on the family now see children as right-holders to whom duties of justice are owed. This, in turn, has prompted a significant shift in our understanding of the content and distribution of parental rights, where only those who meet a minimum threshold of parental adequacy are morally eligible to parent a child, and where the authority they may exercise over their children is seriously limited by their children’s rights. Curiously, however, a similar shift has not yet occurred in our understanding of procreative rights: it is still widely accepted that adults are permitted to bring children into existence under virtually any conditions they choose, and that the act of creating a child automatically generates a right to parent that child.
One strand of my research explores the tenability of a more demanding account of procreative responsibility. It is based on the idea, sometimes attributed to Joel Feinberg (1992), that our view about the permissibility of procreation must be informed by our view about what children will be entitled to if and when they exist. David Archard (2004) refers to this as the birthright claim and summarizes it in the following way: “If a child should be guaranteed a set of rights, then no child should knowingly be brought into existence without a reasonable prospect of enjoying these same rights.” (404) Of course, at this level of description, the birthright claim is just a view about the implications that the rights of existing children have for the permissibility of procreation, and as such, it does not commit us to any particular view about what rights children have and is logically consistent with the view that children have no rights at all (Wilkinson, 2010, p. 86). In fact, Feinberg (1992) himself appeals to the birthright claim in support of a surprisingly undemanding view of the permissibility of procreation: because he assumes that children only have rights to lives that are ‘worth living’, he thinks the birthright claim will only proscribe acts of procreation that result in children with lives not worth living, or lives that are so low in quality as to make non-existence preferable.
However, when paired with a more familiar account of existing children’s rights, the birthright claim supports a more demanding and intuitively attractive account of the permissibility of procreation. Let us suppose that all children have—at the very least—rights to the satisfaction of the basic interests they require to lead minimally decent lives as children and to grow into independent and functional adults. These interests include, but are not necessarily limited to, their interest in adequate health, nutrition, shelter, protection from neglect and abuse, and access to adequate parental care, to name just a few. People can of course reasonably disagree about what should be on this list, but the individual items on the list are less important than what they collectively work to establish, that is, a minimally decent standard of living that all children have a right to enjoy. If we agree that all existing children have a right to this, then, according to the birthright approach, we should also think that all future children have a right to be born into conditions in which they have a reasonable prospect of enjoying a life that meets that standard.
There are many different objections that might be raised against the birthright approach. Some critics have argued that the birthright approach is simply ad hoc--that while appealing to a child’s right to be born into minimally decent conditions might allow us to account for an intuitive moral wrong in some cases of procreation, we do not always have reason to attribute such a right to children independently of the fact that it allows us to account for that moral wrong. Other critics have objected to the invocation of rights in the sui generis context of procreation. For example, critics have argued that rights cannot be intelligibly ascribed to children who do not yet exist; that disadvantaged children would retrospectively waive their birthrights to the extent that they endorse their existence; and that children would lack a legitimate complaint about the violation of their birthrights insofar as their only alternative was non-existence. In my paper “Children’s Rights and the Non-Identity Problem,” I address each of these objections and explain why they fail to undermine more demanding principles of procreative responsibility like the birthright approach. Presently, however, I am interested in exploring an important objection that arises once we accept the birthright approach as a coherent action-guiding principle: that it would prohibit innocent victims of injustice or disadvantage from permissibly having children. This type of objection is nicely summarized by David Wasserman (2005, 138), who writes,
the claim that children are entitled to the satisfaction of such a higher standard [than a life worth living], even if unavoidable impairment precludes it, seems ad hoc, with disturbing implications. It would condemn parents of limited means and prospects, or in hostile or unstable social environments, from having any children, even children expected to have lives worth living despite their privations and hardships.
In other words, endorsing a more demanding account of procreative responsibility may have the effect of excluding more prospective parents from permissibly having children, including those who cannot secure minimally decent conditions for their children due to circumstances beyond their control. If this implication seems harsh or unfair—as Wasserman and others claim it does—then it appears to count as a consideration against more demanding accounts of procreative responsibility.
How should a proponent of the birthright approach respond to this objection? In general, it seems like they have two main options: either (1) they can concede the objection and explain how it can be accommodated by the birthright approach (call this the conciliatory response); or (2) they can reject the objection and explain why it should not be accommodated (call this the non-conciliatory response). David DeGrazia (2012) is an example of a philosopher who endorses the conciliatory response. On DeGrazia’s (2012, 168) account of procreative responsibility, prospective parents have a presumptive duty to ensure their children are born into conditions in which an extensive list of basic needs are satisfied, though they are morally “off the hook in those circumstances in which their inability to meet a basic need is a consequence of external circumstances and not their own character deficits or pathology.” This conciliatory view apparently allows DeGrazia to maintain his more demanding account of procreative responsibility while avoiding the unsavoury implication that “most adults in some developing countries who would be loving, attentive, and resourceful parents should refrain from having children.” (169)
Is the conciliatory response defensible? Despite its initial appeal, I think it is vulnerable to at least three important worries that ought to be taken more seriously. First, the conciliatory response seems potentially out of step with the way that we treat similar constraints on action deriving from injustice or disadvantage. From the point of view of the birthright approach, the general structure of the dilemma facing disadvantaged prospective procreators is as follows: due to circumstances beyond their control, a pair of agents cannot exercise one of their own basic rights (or realize one of their own basic interests) without violating the basic rights of another person. In other cases that share this structure, it is not obvious that the agent is morally permitted to exercise the right in question, even if the interest it protects is very basic or important. Consider, for example, the closely related case of parenting. It is generally accepted that children have a right to minimally decent parental care, and that persons who are either unable or unwilling to provide that care are morally ineligible to parent. In this case, attaching a certain amount of weight to children’s interests has the effect of disqualifying some persons from permissibly parenting, even when their inability to satisfy a child’s interests is due to circumstances for which they are not personally responsible, e.g. a lack of parenting competence that is rooted in a traumatic upbringing of their own. However, the bare fact that a particular conception of children’s rights disqualifies some persons from permissibly parenting does not necessarily count as a consideration against that conception, particularly if there are strong independent reasons for endorsing it. While we might have an obligation to offer assistance to such persons, or to take certain measures to improve their capacities or resources, it is an odd response to increase their eligibility by weakening our conception of children’s entitlements or exempting them from the requirement to provide their children with minimally decent parental care. I am thus inclined to agree with David Benatar (2015, 417), who worries that the conciliatory view is an ad hoc exception, or a form of moral gerrymandering “designed to limit the number of cases in which procreation is judged to be morally wrong.”
The second worry about the conciliatory response is related, and has to do with our social response to constraints on action deriving from injustice or disadvantage. Continuing with the analogy of parenting, consider three possible responses to a person who, through no fault of their own, lacks the resources or emotional capacity to provide a child with minimally decent parental care. One response is to simply conclude that they are ineligible to become a parent and to insist on their obligation to refrain from becoming a parent. This response seems insensitive to the strong interest that many people have in becoming parents. A second response is to revise our conception of eligibility and exempt them from the requirement to provide their child with minimally decent parental care. This response seems insensitive to the strong interest that children have in receiving minimally decent parental care. However, a third possible response—one that is sensitive to the interests of prospective parents as well as children—is to acknowledge the unfortunateness of their position and take certain measures to improve their capacities and resources, to a point at which they can permissibly pursue their parental aspirations. Indeed, if we think that the opportunity to become (and remain) a parent is sufficiently important, then we should view the plight of disadvantaged prospective parents as a form injustice to be rectified. On this view, the inability to permissibly become a parent due to injustice or disadvantage is itself a form of injustice or disadvantage, one that can ground duties of assistance in others. In many societies, these duties of assistance are discharged through the provision of a variety of family support services, including parental subsidies, counselling, educational programming, and the like.
Something similar can be said in the case of disadvantaged prospective procreators: the inability to permissibly create a child due to injustice or disadvantage is itself a form of injustice or disadvantage that can ground duties of assistance in others. However, in simply exempting disadvantaged prospective procreators from the duty to ensure that their children are born into minimally decent conditions, the conciliatory response cannot account for these duties. It therefore fails to register an important feature of the situation—that the inability of the disadvantaged to procreate permissibly gives us an additional weighty reason to respond to their disadvantage—and it supports a set of norms that is worse from the perspective of children’s interests.
However, a third and final worry is that the conciliatory response may also support a position that is, at least in one way, worse for prospective procreators. Arguably, prospective procreators do not merely have an interest in procreating; they also have an interest in doing so in a way that is consistent with the rights of the child they bring into existence. When a set of procreators are exempted from the duty to ensure their child is born into minimally decent conditions, they may be able to realize their interest in procreation, though the realization of this interest may be tainted by the knowledge that it has come at the cost of their child’s enjoyment of their basic rights. This might be better for them than a scenario in which they are morally barred from procreation, though it is worse for them than a scenario in which their inability to satisfy a child’s birthrights gives rise to duties of assistance.
In summary, then, the conciliatory response seems potentially deficient insofar as it (a) is out of step with the way that we treat structurally similar cases, (b) fails to generate duties of assistance, and, as a result, (c) supports a set of norms that is arguably worse for both prospective parents and the children they bring into existence. Does this mean that we should endorse the non-conciliatory response? This response faces some strong and very understandable intuitive obstacles, though I think that some of these obstacles can be overcome by recognizing that the moral constraints placed on disadvantaged prospective parents give us an additional weighty reason to respond to their disadvantage. I am currently exploring this line of argument further in a work-in-progress titled “Procreative Responsibility in Unjust Conditions.” Whether it can vindicate the birthright approach against Wasserman’s objection remains to be seen, though I am confident that defending a position on this question is much more complicated than many commentators have tended to assume.
Archard, David. “Wrongful Life,” Philosophy, 79(309), pp. 403-420.
Benatar, David. “Procreative Permissiveness,” Journal of Medical Ethics, 41(5) (2015), pp. 417-418.
DeGrazia, David. Creation Ethics: Reproduction, Genetics, and Quality of Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Feinberg, Joel. “Wrongful Life and the Counterfactual Element in Harming,” in Freedom and Fulfillment: Philosophical Essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
Wasserman, David. “The Non-Identity Problem, Disability, and the Role Morality of Prospective Parents,” Ethics, 116(1) (2005), pp. 132-152.
Wilkinson, Steven. Choosing Tomorrow’s Children: The Ethics of Selective Reproduction. Oxford: Oxford University