April 16, 2013 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

We often hear stories in the media about women (and it is usually women, not men) who are irresponsibly reproducing (e.g. teenage girls, older women, single women, women on welfare, women with addictions, etc.). While determining what counts as responsible reproduction is not always an easy task, one way to do so is by drawing on the principle of nonmaleficence (aka “do no harm”). John Arras and Jeffrey Blustein present this line of thinking in their discussion of what it means to responsibly reproduce: “If one can reasonably be expected to predict that, should a person decide to reproduce, the resulting child’s existence would fall below a certain threshold of acceptable well-being, the person can be blamed for reproducing irresponsibly.” Arras and Blustein enumerate a range of ideas of what counts as being below this threshold from least controversial to most controversial: child abuse and neglect, children born with severe medical conditions, “anything that parents do to lower a child’s potential” (e.g. drinking alcohol during pregnancy), and “parents who do not optimize their child’s potential for a good life” (e.g. genetic enhancement). Regardless of how this threshold is defined, the main idea here is that people should not reproduce if their potential children would be harmed. 

Let me briefly state and reply to two possible objections to the argument that people should not reproduce if their potential children will have a quality of life below a certain threshold. First, those who believe that any life is better than no life will argue that these potential children are harmed more through the prevention of their lives than they would be by living. This comparison is problematic not only because it’s comparing such vastly different things, but also because I am not sure how one quantifies the quality of nonexistence in order to compare it to the quality of life. Additionally, I do not think we could argue that nonexistent beings are harmed unless we imagine that there exists a place where all the nonexistent beings hang out and wait for existence and that this place is such a bad place that any sort of life would be better in comparison. 

Second, while people may believe that parents who knowingly have children whose lives will fall below the threshold are being irresponsible, this does not mean that they think these children should be prevented from living. It is true that some people will argue that the best way to protect potential children from living a life below this threshold is to prevent their birth. However, this argument does not entail that these potential children be denied life. In fact, this argument makes no claim about how these potential children should be treated once they become embryos, fetuses, and infants. The only normative claim this position affirms that responsible people should ensure that their potential children have a quality of life at or above the threshold of acceptable well-being. To act otherwise, is to irresponsibly reproduce. There is no normative claim about what action we should take, if any, toward people who reproduce irresponsibly or children whose lives fall below this threshold.   

Although drawing upon the principle of nonmaleficence will not provide us with a clear-cut and universally agreed upon definition of what it means to responsibly reproduce, it is a good starting point. Acknowledging the relationship between quality of life and harm enables us to think more critically about responsible reproduction. 

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.