What Do We Owe Children?

In working on a writing project yesterday, I came across an issue of the journal Ethics & Medicine from 2014, which had an editorial piece entitled “Shouldn’t Children Want Parents of Their Own?”

The article, which was written by ethicist C. Ben Mitchell, was sparked by a lecture in which professor Margaret Somerville argues that “children have a human right to natural biological origins” or, to state it slightly differently, “a right to biological parents of their own.”

Mitchell points out that the focus of almost all discussions around having children and building families is focused on the adults rather than on the children. Indeed, I have seen this over and over in my work on the issues of third-party reproduction: egg donation, sperm donation, and surrogacy.

Time and time again, adult desires trump the needs of children.

Mitchell describes the process like this:

It is largely assumed that (1) since it is the right of the adult(s) ‘to have a child of their own,’ (2) any lawful reproductive arrangement they employ is, therefore, licit. Prospective parents’ rights to choose if, when, and how to have offspring trumps other goods or rights, including the rights of the children born from their gametes.

He suggests, however, that we would do better to come at these third-party reproduction issues from an entirely different direction. What if we were to ask what responsibilities we as adults have toward children? What do we owe them ethically?

Mitchell, again following Somerville, says that one of the things owed to children is a relationship with their parents. He points out, “For millennia of human history, sundering the child-parent bond has been seen either as a tragedy, travesty, or both.”

Somerville herself said,

It is one matter for children not to know their genetic identity as a result of unintended circumstances. It is quite another matter to deliberately destroy children’s links to their biological parents, and especially for society to be complicit in this direction.

And yet, that is exactly what we see in third-party reproductive arrangements. This is precisely what is at stake in current battles in New Jersey and New York, which are seeking to make surrogacy contracts legally enforceable in those states. It is, at its core, societal complicity in the deliberate destruction of children’s links to their biological parents, and indeed to their whole family history and ancestry.

This, friends, is both a tragedy and a travesty.

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