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Friday, July 12, 2024

Preferring Biological Children Is Immoral

Recently, a close friend told me how much he wanted to be a parent one day. I asked if he’d consider adopting. Suddenly, he became hesitant—pausing before admitting that he’d like to have children who were biologically related. His answer wasn’t unusual; in fact, it was probably my question that was odd. Yet his brief equivocation felt significant, signaling a peripheral awareness that this answer has become complicated.

For most of Western history, it was a given that a parent would want their children to be their direct progeny. A child’s biological provenance was believed to ground the parent-child relationship in a hardwired, irrevocable bond. If anything, it was morally preferable that your child be directly related to you, since this was thought to provide a healthy foundation for growth and self-actualization. The bioethicist J. David Velleman expresses this line of argument when he writes that knowledge of one’s biological parents is a “basic good on which most people rely in pursuit of self-knowledge and identity formation.”

Yet this prioritization of biological inheritance (“biologism,” as some call it) has recently become unsettled. Previously, if you gave birth to a child, it was a simple certainty that they were genetically related to you—the biological fact was inextricably linked to their existence. Over the past few decades, however, practices like gestational surrogacy have shown that this need not be the case. Evolving family structures, advancements in fertilization and embryonic screening technologies, and changing moral sentiments have all contributed to a growing reevaluation of this deceptively simple preference. Once we begin to disentangle what is truly possible from what we simply assumed was necessary, we are forced to look at this “natural” preference with fresh eyes.

What we find is that, when contextualized amongst our other modern ethical norms, this preference can feel downright ancient—a vestigial remnant of a different epoch, a fossil no longer animated by the same moral intuitions that gave it gravity in the past. In fact, many of the arguments that might be made in favor of this prejudice run precisely counter to other changing attitudes toward parenting, family, and the role of biology in culture.

At the heart of biologism is the question of whether it is permissible to consider a child’s genetics when deciding to become a parent. Our improving ability to genetically screen embryos and the continued development of assisted reproductive technologies have enabled prospective parents to assess potential embryos for hundreds of traits—and forced us to revisit a wariness around biological considerations in reproductive decisions caused by the horrors of state-sponsored eugenics. Though many of the genetic conditions being screened for are fatal, we’ve begun to expand the net to encompass features like deafness and dwarfism (and despite skepticism about the possibility of eventually testing for traits like IQ and height, the desire is certainly there). All of this has given a new sense of urgency to the thorny issues regarding how, and to what extent, biology should play into a decision to have a child—as it’s clear that these considerations will play some role in the future.

A few core beliefs have already solidified. Namely, we have converged on the idea that if biology is to be a factor at all, it should only be considered insofar as it prevents harm and suffering. As Laura Hercher puts it in the MIT Technology Review, “public opinion on the use of assisted reproductive technology consistently draws a distinction between preventing disease and picking traits.” Studies, like one conducted by the Johns Hopkins Genetics and Public Policy Center, seem to indicate that this intuition is broadly shared. Anything more than this minimal scope and we begin to veer into the gnarled territory of gene fetishes and optimization logics well trodden by eugenicists.

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If we accept this argument, then the relevant question becomes whether a child’s genetic provenance—their biological resemblance to a parent—prevents suffering. We can quickly begin to sense the difficulty in justifying that it does. It’s unclear what sort of negative outcome is being avoided by opting for a genetically related child. This biological fact appears largely irrelevant to their well-being, especially when compared to those features (e.g. Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s) that we do deem permissible for consideration. Plotted against this scale, prioritizing relatedness appears far closer to selecting for an arbitrary feature like height than selecting against a deadly degenerative neural disease.

Proponents of biologism might argue that these ties do in fact produce a significant relationship between parent and child that proves critical to their happiness. Some, like Velleman, have claimed that similarity to one’s parents can impact overall well-being through the development of one’s identity. Yet that argument appears rather thin, as research on adoptees has indicated that this form of self-actualization doesn’t stem from genetic relatedness or gestational history, but rather from the parent’s treatment of the child. Though family resemblances can certainly help children develop a sense of self, the ethicist Tina Rulli reminds us that this can just as easily be realized through “the kind of resemblance that adopted children bear to their adoptive families.” Additionally, as Rulli notes, it’s not as if the gestational bond is the be-all and end-all for mother-child bonds; “mother-child attachment in infant adoptions occurs readily, and there is no difference in the quality of attachment.” Neither self development nor a fulfilling parent-child bond appears to necessitate relatedness.

On the contrary, this biological desire reinforces norms that we are explicitly aiming to dismantle. It places undue emphasis on genetic similarity as a criterion for our ethical relations, running against our stated hopes to expand our nets of responsibility and care beyond the borders of nation, ethnicity, culture, and even species. Instead, it normalizes a certain conception of family that reinforces these parochial categories. It’s for a similar reason that bioethicists like Hane Htut Maung have pushed back against the desire for prioritizing racial sameness when selecting gametes for assisted reproduction, arguing that this practice ultimately perpetuates a “particular normative conception of family that places undue emphasis on resemblances based on racialized traits.” Using things like biological similarity to ground a parent-child relationship deconstructs the notion that parents should love their children unconditionally, undermining what the scholar Rosalind McDougall calls the “parental virtue of acceptance.”

Moreover, the argument that this genetic tie has unique intrinsic value because it is “natural” steps into particularly dangerous territory. It’s precisely this argument that has been used for decades to discredit same-sex couples as unfit to be parents. An appeal to naturalism also easily leads into what the bioethicist Ezio Di Nucci calls “patriarchal prejudices,” the idea that it is only natural for mothers to serve as primary caretakers because of their biological-gestational relationship with a child. Language around what is “natural” and “unnatural” should always be viewed with suspicion. Ethnographic research of the Na in the Himalayas—who do not have a social category for biological fathers—for instance, shows us that even a concept as fundamental to us as fatherhood is not an inevitable product of human biology. Eliding the social phenomenon of parenthood with the biological phenomenon only sets us up to reinforce a dated conception of the family at odds with our hopes for a more inclusive ethics.

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There are more pragmatic, utilitarian reasons that we might be opposed to biologism. After all, the desire for related children undermines the likelihood that someone might adopt—taking potential resources away from an existing child in need. Though there’s been plenty written on the “shortage” of adoptable children (a narrative that goes back over five decades), the need for adoptive parents continues. Given this reality, we should avoid anything that actively disincentivizes this mode of parenthood. Our genetic biases are thus questionable to the extent that they induce a certain inflexibility that precludes viable, and arguably morally preferable, alternatives.

Perhaps the most extreme form of this argument comes from the anti-natalists, who roughly hold that not only should we adopt when we can, but that it is immoral to bring children into this world. Philosophers like David Benatar have made this case along a number of lines—arguing that in general, “all lives contain more bad than good” (especially given experiential asymmetries that mean that the “worst pains, for instance, are worse than the best pleasures are good”) and that humankind has wrought such damage on the environment that the world would probably be better off without us. The anti-natalists thus conclude that bringing about any new human life is wrong, and insofar as a biologically related child will necessarily be new, that preference is wrong by extension.

It’s a shocking line of thought, but one that has gained a fair amount of mainstream palatability as our outlook on the future devolves. Climate anxiety, for example, is causing some people to ask what kind of world the generations to come will inherit. The consensus: not a very habitable one. Meanwhile, as the US continues to gut its social safety nets, having children is slowly becoming economically infeasible. Many now feel that kids today will be financially worse off than their parents. All of this makes the future a pretty bleak place to bring a child into, and people are readjusting their plans accordingly. While this might not be an argument against the biological preference, the growing anti-natalist sentiment reveals a changing relationship to children that is already intersecting with it. As one 31-year old woman told researchers, “climate change is the sole factor for me in deciding not to have biological children. I don’t want to birth children into a dying world.”

As biologism becomes less of a given, we’re bound to witness changes in how we relate to family and parenthood. Adoption might become a more immediate default option for people hoping to become parents—this might, if we’re being optimistic, help shed light on an industry that can often be expensive, biased, and exploitative, resulting in its gradual improvement (though critics might fairly worry that an influx in demand would do precisely the opposite). It could also contribute to a continued decrease in birth rate, as the people who only wanted biological children reevaluate their desire to be parents at all. In the longer term, we should hope to witness the broader acceptance of nontraditional, nonnuclear family structures—ones that stem less from a default view of “natural” biological relations and more from active, self-conscious construction.

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Decentering genetics could also have repercussions that ripple out far beyond the family unit. Genetic provenance has long been used as a tool to construct and uphold white hegemony; think of the legacy of the “one drop rule” that erected whiteness around a logic of ancestral purity. The desire for biological ties, in many ways, can easily legitimize a racially inflected obsession with genetic history. In contrast, the sociologist Dorothy Roberts notes how “sharing genetic traits seems less critical to Black identity than to white identity. The notion of racial purity is foreign to Black folk.” By diminishing the importance of genetics in our family relations, we might begin to push back against the biological essentialism built into white supremacy, resisting those noxious ideologies that seek to use biology to ground social relations with one another.

That’s not to say that anti-biologism doesn’t come with attendant risks. It too, can be easily misapplied and weaponized against marginalized populations, like same-sex couples who want to pursue assisted reproductive technologies. The bioethicist Timothy Murphy tells us that “the deeply embedded social practices that sustain and support biologism in different‐sex couples ought to shoulder the brunt of the critique.” Furthermore, we should be conscious of the ways institutions like slavery denied the legitimacy of certain kinds of biological relationships. Resistance toward biologism shouldn’t be leveraged to invalidate the desires many might have in redressing these gaps and ruptures through, say, a rediscovery of one’s genetic ancestry using DNA tracing. It’s important that we always steer the development of these emergent norms in ways that are politically and historically informed, as no ethics is immune from misuse when placed in the wrong hands.

Despite these concerns, mainstream genetic biases are shifting. It is simply too inconsistent with the rest of our moral architecture to escape a contemporary reexamination unscathed and unchanged. People will obviously continue to have children who are related, but that relatedness should play an increasingly trivial role in the parental decision-making process. Insisting that you’ll only be a parent to a related child will be seen as increasingly reductive and close-minded—a stance at odds with the momentum of our expanding ethics. If one chooses to become a parent, then it will be for reasons that go beyond this narrow desire for biological self-reproduction.

Over time, we will finally come to realize that our relations with each other are not defined by our rudimentary, mechanistic desire to pass on our genes, but rather our capacity for love and care— the expansiveness of our attachments and the depths of our devotion to one another. In short, in all that makes us humane.

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