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Selfish and septuagenarian: when do reproductive rights end?

Dr Anna Smajdor

Progress Educational Trust

23 September 2019

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[BioNews, London]

A woman in India has given birth to twins. In itself, nothing particularly worth reporting there. Women give birth to babies all the time. Twins come along less frequently – but still, this is not usually something to report in the media. The newsworthy aspect of this birth, then, is that the woman who gave birth to these twins is – depending on which news source you refer to – 72, 73 or 74. What is widely agreed is that she is indeed in her 70s, possibly making her the world's oldest mother. The reported age of her husband also varies from 78 to 82.

At the time of writing, both parents are reported to be in intensive care, while the twins are being cared for by the extended family. 

A quick glance through readers' comments in response to this story reveals some common preoccupations. Many commentators express some sympathy with the idea of reproductive rights. 'People generally have a right to have a child, but…'. A recurring theme is the selfishness of the woman, in seeking to have a child so late in life. For many, this outweighs the primacy of reproductive rights. 

The interest and outrage generated by this story is worth considering in further detail. One problem is that with the development of reproductive technology (in this case, egg donation followed by IVF treatment), the scope of reproductive rights comes into question.

It is increasingly evident that with technology, anyone could in theory have a baby, regardless of age, sexuality or relationship status. If we regard reproductive rights as being important, this should be a good thing. More people can fulfil their rights than would otherwise be able to do so.

But… apparently this is not straightforwardly the case. While the woman in question accessed treatment in India, in many countries she would have been barred on the grounds of her age. Likewise, single women, same sex couples, those who smoke, who are obese, who already have children, who are deemed unsuitable parents, are excluded from treatment in countries such as the UK. 

It seems that reproductive technologies, so far from extending the joys of parenthood to anyone who longs for a child, have given rise to a plethora of sometimes bewildering restrictions and regulations. Given the high value that people place on reproduction and on the idea of reproductive rights, it is worth questioning the basis of such restrictions.

Should this woman have been prevented from having treatment? Are countries such as the UK, which exercise careful control over access to assisted reproductive technologies, displaying a more ethical approach? What is it that justifies us in believing that some people's reproductive rights are worth respecting, but not others?

One answer is that the welfare of future offspring is the key concern. This brings us back to the question of selfishness. Most commentators who describe the woman as 'selfish' associated this judgement with the idea that the children will be severely disadvantaged by having such old parents. Thus, becoming a parent is only selfish in circumstances where the child will not thrive.

However, in recent years a number of ethicists have suggested that focusing narrowly on prospective parents is misguided. Care for children is, even in the most nuclear of families, often shared between a number of individuals who may or may not be related to the child. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, nannies, teachers, and many more. Indeed, in the case under discussion, we already know from the news reports that members of the extended family are taking care of the twins. Is it true that being cared for, or raised, by those other than a child's 'natural' parents is a life of such misery that their very conception should be prevented? If so, it would suggest that abortion is always a better option than adoption for women who become pregnant. 

However, there is another side to this issue. If we do not focus exclusively on parents as the necessary caretakers of their children, it calls into question the nature of reproductive rights themselves. Why did the couple in this case feel the need to have 'their own' children, if there were other children in their social environment, to whose care they could contribute?

The answer to this seems to go beyond the question of whether children really need their 'own' parents in order to live fulfilling lives. Rather, it is parents themselves who need 'their own' children, and for whom a role as aunt, uncle, sibling, grandparent, or family friend is insufficient for the drive they have to produce children who belong to them and no-one else. 

This does start to look more like selfishness. The urge to be a parent has little to do with the wellbeing of the child. Not just in the case of this particular couple, but for any person who longs for a child. Of course, most people hope and assume that their own child will thrive. But no-one reproduces for the sake of the child. That child does not exist. By definition, anyone who chooses to have a child, does so at least initially, for their own sake. There is no easy way to distinguish between those whose reproductive desires are selfish and those who are not. Seemingly, if selfishness is a reason to prevent people from reproducing, all prospective parents should be alarmed…

© Copyright Progress Educational Trust

Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.

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Date Added: 23 September 2019   Date Updated: 23 September 2019
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