Rights and Reproduction

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It is in the context of reproduction, interpreted broadly, that many of the issues concerning the ethics of science and technology have arisen. The birth of the first so-called "test tube" baby in 1978 set in motion an ongoing process of questioning interventions such as assisted reproduction, embryo research, and cloning.

The notion that human beings possess a legitimate inclination to conceive and bear children is part of traditional natural law teaching. For instance, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) argued that human beings share those inclinations "which nature has taught to all animals," such as sexual intercourse, education of offspring, and so forth (Summa theologiae I–II, Q. 94, a.2). As traditional natural law was transformed into modern natural right, and human sexuality became increasingly mediated by science and technology so as to become both more productive and subject to human control, the intersection of human rights and having children (termed variously both reproduction and procreation) became increasingly contentious.

One contention centers around what are termed reproductive rights, generally indicating women's right to control whether, when, and how they bear children. There is clearly an important gender dimension to the issues. The right to be free from interference such as sterilization, on the one hand, and the right to abortion, on the other, have been important historical landmarks in women's control over their fertility.

Historically, the content of the reproductive rights has gradually increased, however, beyond freedom from interference to include a right with a much wider scope, such as the right to positive assistance in reproduction (that is, the use of technology in the case of infertility); and also to choice of the kind of children one has (for example, sex selection and genetic factors). Reproductive rights in this sense remain hotly contested at least to some degree: While there is widespread acceptance of in vitro fertilization, some potential means of assisted reproduction continue to be regarded by many as unacceptable, such as reproductive cloning. The right to choose to avoid preventable genetic disorder in one's children is also regarded as problematic by those who find such choices expressive of intolerance towards difference.

Disagreements depend to a considerable extent on different views on what the fundamental basis of the right is—for example, on whether the right to reproduce is claimed a natural right, or as an aspect of autonomy—and on how these concepts themselves are understood. For example, it might appear strained to argue for a natural right to reproduce by artificial means, unless it is argued that the artificial is necessary in order to fulfill a natural purpose of human life. Should infertility be regarded as a disease that needs treatment, or just an unfortunate inability to satisfy one's wishes? Again, while on the one hand an autonomy argument might be deployed to suggest that the right to reproduce is an aspect of doing as one wants with one's body, on the other hand, in so far as reproduction has effects on others and requires the allocation of health care resources, it is difficult to see how the argument can, by itself, provide an argument for the cooperation of others. The welfare of future children is a consideration that may compete with that of the reproductive rights of adults.


SEE ALSO Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART); Eugenics.

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Rights and Reproduction

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