Creation Ethics

I love the Frankenstein allusions in Parental Obligations and Bioethics: The Duties of a Creator, by Bernard Prusak.  I also recently read that novel, precisely to think about parental ethics.  The basic idea of Prusak's book is that creators have special obligations to their creatures, like Dr. Frankenstein did to his monster.  Frankenstein was wrong to abandon the poor creature at birth (he runs out of the room when he wakes up, unlike in the touching picture above).  It would be wrong if a couple deliberately produced children for others to adopt, we think (don't we?).  But why? What are the grounds for parental obligation?

Prusak proposes a "causal theory" of parental obligation, in contrast with a voluntary commitment theory, on which you are obligated to raise a child only by the fact that you voluntarily took on that project. 
men and women acquire parental obligations to a child by voluntarily acting in such a way that the coming-into-being of this child was a reasonably foreseeable consequence in the normal course of events (p. 24)
The causal condition is supposed to be a sufficient condition for having parental obligations, not a necessary condition.  Frankenstein meets the condition, so has parental obligations to the monster. And procreators meet the condition when they bear children.  At least, usually.  Suppose a man winds up fathering a child because of a broken condom or a flawed vasectomy.  Was the sheer act of having sex an act with the coming-into-being of a child as a reasonably foreseeable consequence?  I'm not sure, but I think that's the idea.

Anyhow, here's what I have misgivings about.  The causal theory makes A have parental obligations to B in a highly diverse range of cases.   The causal theory by its very nature doesn't separate the case of making your own child (in the usual way) from other cases of creation.  Frankenstein is the parent of the monster, on  this account, no less than I am the parent of my children.  The problem, I think, is that we seem to have a special class of creator obligations to those that we create in the way parents create their children. That way of creating makes a child practically like a second self (as Aristotle puts it); and the parent, to the child, is a sort of second self too.  The causal theory says nothing distinctive about the parent-child case, but should.

The adoption puzzle is a great puzzle.  Why shouldn't a couple deliberately produce babies for others to raise?   On Prusak's causal account, the producers have obligations to parent the children they produce.  But how to make this more compelling?  He says parents, by creating a child, saddle the child with the mixed blessing of existence.  The child is owed an explanation and defense that can only come from the parent, as the responsible party.
If life is not an unequivocal good, then procreation is not a morally innocent undertaking, and it makes sense to think that a procreator has much to answer for in bringing a child unbidden into being. (p. 42)
Frankenstein ought to take care of the monster, not entrust him to someone else (p. 36):

In other words, it was Frankenstein's fault that the monster existed, so only Frankenstein could help him become reconciled to his existence.  And parents general ought to be available to help children become reconciled to existence.

I'll buy this as the reason why Frankenstein must take care of the monster (which he doesn't--he runs out the room the moment the poor monster wakes up!).  But our lives aren't fraught with "burden's and travails" in the same way.  I've been around for 16 years to help my kids cope with the fact that they exist, and haven't been called upon to do so.  I hypothesize that these kinds of discussions rarely take place, and so it can't be that parents have a prima facie obligation to raise their own children in order to have them.

So, what is the problem with the deliberately relinquishing couple?  I think it has to do with what makes ordinary parenthood distinct from Frankenstein-style creation.  Biological parents can legally transfer their rights and obligations to adoptive parents, but can't, at will, completely sever the tie between parent and child that makes one seem like a second self to the other.   So the parents are likely to be troubled-- they will either suffer or delude themselves.  And the child is likely to be troubled, in a long-term irresolvable way, by the transfer.  And it will be especially hard for such a child, compared to a regular adopted child, because he'll know this was intended by the parent, not accidental.

That may not be 100% satisfying as a complete explanation why having whole children for others is bad, but it seems part of the complete explanation.  And better--more generally applicable--than the idea that biological parents need to be around to help their children understand why they were born.

There are tons of juicy issues in this book, and it has a great bibliography--I am currently working my way through some of the titles, starting with a book about child abandonment by historian John Boswell.  My most serious complaint--why the ludicrous $130 price-tag?  If it weren't for that, I'd be saying "go read it!"


Utah's Procreative Argument against Gay Marriage

I'll hand it to the Utah lawyers trying to make a case against gay marriage-- at least they're not talking about people marrying goats and the like. Their latest argument is reported in the New York Times
“The state does not contend that the individual parents in same-sex couples are somehow ‘inferior’ as parents to the individual parents who are involved in married, mother-father parenting,” the state said. But, drawing on Supreme Court decisions endorsing the value of diversity in deciding who may attend public universities, the state now said it was pursuing “gender diversity” in marriages. “Society has long recognized that diversity in education brings a host of benefits to students,” the brief said. “If that is true in education, why not in parenting?”
There are two premises here--
  1. Gender diversity in parents is more beneficial to children than gender uniformity.
  2. Marriage should be limited to partners who have the characteristics that are more beneficial to children.
I am not actually dead-set against premise 1.  In fact, other things being equal, it does strike me as  better for children to be raised by gender-diverse parents as opposed to single parents or same-sex parents.  But the second premise is obviously outrageous. If you bought into it, you'd have to be for laws limiting the age of husbands of fertile women.  After all, it's more beneficial to have dads who are not decrepit or dead!   You'd also have to pass laws prohibiting marriage between people with serious heritable diseases.  If there are some subtle downsides to having same-sex parents, there are non-subtle downsides to having parents with achondroplasia.  For one, you're quite likely to have the disease yourself.  You'd also have to have laws prohibiting marriage between people who are divorced, since second (plus) marriages are less stable.  If it's subtly worse to have gender-uniform parents, it's unsubtly bad to have parents who get divorced.

And on and on.

Obviously, we're not going to limit marriage in these ways.  For one thing, marriage isn't just for the benefit of children, it's for the benefit of partners themselves.  And for another, it's absurd to think limiting marriage to ideal parents is in the best interests of children.  Where marriage is prohibited, partners simply have children outside of marriage, and that has many disadvantages for children. Furthermore, we can allow marriage between Xs and Ys and still have a discussion about what kinds of procreation are advisable in X-Y marriages.  Letting 80 year old men marry 30 year old women doesn't stop us from seeing that younger people make more ideal parents.  A couple might very well say yes to the marriage and no to procreation. Allowing same-sex marriage doesn't undermine the ideal of gender diverse parenthood either. A same sex couple could see the value of it, and discuss solutions. Maybe there are uncles or aunts who can provide the diversity that's missing in the marriage.

There's another road the Utah lawyers could have gone down, but it's interesting that they didn't.  They might have said that legalizing same sex marriage will tend to lead to more "new fangled" reproduction-- procreation involving gestational surrogates and donated or bought gametes.  They might have said we ought to slow down and think about commerce in gestation and gametes.  Should we really allow trade in these things?  Another question: Is it bad that so many children are being born without a basic understanding of their origins?  More gay marriage does bode more of this kind of reproduction, considering the desire many people have for biological parenthood and the shortage of children available for adoption.

Again, we can legalize gay marriage and still have a discussion about these things.  That's obvious, considering that marriage involving infertile people is legal, and we do discuss the ways that infertile people reproduce. All the innovations of assisted reproduction wouldn't be rendered self-evidently ethical, just in virtue of inclusive marriage laws.  In fact, some of these innovations are outright prohibited (e.g. commercial surrogacy) in some countries with very liberal marriage laws. 

So. Yes, let's talk about what's better and worse when it comes to raising children. But let's not think that will settle any questions about which couples are allowed to marry.  Surely the Utah lawyers actually know they're making very little sense, and soon these arguments will be off the table and replaced by something else.