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Future perfect: possible children, science and ethics

by David Archard, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Honorary Vice-President of the Society for Applied Philosophy

Towards the end of the Warnock Report there is a discussion of future possible developments. One is that of the gene editing of early-stage embryos. The Report remarks sceptically that such a technique has ‘overtones of selective breeding’ but is anyway ‘purely speculative’ (12.16). An earlier chapter of the Report had proposed instead the donation of gametes or embryos to avoid inheritable genetic abnormalities (9.3).

Dave Archard. Future perfect: possible children, science and ethics. HFEA 30th anniversary expert series

Yet even if we agree that PGD is a good thing and not eugenicist in a bad way we need to know exactly why it is and what its proper limits are.

However, we now know that PGD currently offers a safe, tried, and trusted technique for avoiding the transmission of some truly dreadful inheritable conditions without the need for such donation. PGD is, we can agree, a thoroughly good thing.

Warnock’s concerns were thus overstated. If she was worried about eugenics, we can note that we are talking about the choice by parents to have children free of awful conditions, not that of evil regimes to eliminate supposedly lesser races.

Yet even if we agree that PGD is a good thing and not eugenicist in a bad way we need to know exactly why it is and what its proper limits are. This is because we can presently speculate but with more confidence about future developments. Knowing why we should do PGD helps morally forearm us for those new possibilities.

Warnock intended all of her suggested regulations to allay public concerns about any slippery slope. Here the slope is one from ensuring that children are born without some genetic conditions to selecting preferred characteristics for any offspring, such as greater intelligence or strength or other socially useful characteristics. This is probably what she meant by unacceptable ‘selective breeding’. The PGD regulations work by insisting that genetic choices can only be made if there is a significant risk of a serious condition being inherited.

Yet there are two problems with the regulations. The first is in interpreting what is meant by ‘significant’ and ‘serious’. Many a meeting of the relevant HFEA committee – one I chaired for a number of years – has worried about whether a particular condition, even if it fully described, could with confidence be called ‘serious.’ Working with explanatory criteria of ‘serious’ – such as the impact on quality of life or the nature of the treatment the condition requires – helps. All the same, at the end of the long day, the final judgment on whether some condition is a serious one is that of a small group, well-intentioned, conscientious, impartial, dispassionate, and wise though its members are.

Is it that parents have a right to their own healthy child as some appeals to the Human Rights Act Article 8 – the right to family life – might suggest? Or is that future children have an interest or perhaps a right to be free of debilitating conditions?

That some committee has to make these judgments does of course ensure that not just any choice of future child can be made. In this manner properly licensed PGD allows a couple to have a child unaffected by a serious condition and to whom they are both biological parents. But adults could avoid having a child with an inheritable serious genetic condition in other ways. They could remain childless, adopt, or – as in Warnock’s original suggestion – seek gamete donation.

So, the second problem is what justifies the use of PGD for only licensable conditions. Is it that parents have a right to their own healthy child as some appeals to the Human Rights Act Article 8 – the right to family life – might suggest? Or is that future children have an interest or perhaps a right to be free of debilitating conditions?

If it is the first – an Article 8 entitlement - a lot of argumentative work would be needed to show that prospective parents do have such a right, one not just to have a child but to have one to whom they are biologically related, and which is free of certain conditions. And what stops the slide to parental choice of the best possible child? How then in this context should Article 8 be interpreted?

If it is the second possible justification– the interests or rights of future children – then some difficult metaphysical puzzles hove into view. Here is definitely not the place to address these. However, what does need answering is why we should not simply think that future children might be not just free of serious conditions but in fact the very best possible children they could be.

Warnock was both an extremely good philosopher and a remarkably astute policy maker. She worried about what could be morally justified and attract the support of the public and Government. She thought some developments just too far off to worry about and, anyway, too ethically dubious to be contemplated. But those developments are with us, and others such as gene editing have now to be seriously considered. To allay the moral worries she had at the time and might have now we need to spell out why we are not justified in choosing the best possible children but only justified in choosing within certain limits that are at best open to subjective interpretation. Article 8 does not provide an obvious answer; nor does any appeal to children’s rights. To find an answer, we need to think harder, and once more, about what Mary Warnock described in her preface to the Report as the ‘fundamental moral and, often religious, questions’ raised by developments in the field of human assisted reproduction.

David Archard is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast, Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Honorary Vice-President of the Society for Applied Philosophy.

​He is an applied moral philosopher who has published widely on many topics, especially the moral and political status of children, the family, and sexual ethics, and who has played a prominent role in public policy through his work as a Member and Deputy Chair of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority and now as the Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

Visit his website.

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Review date: 30 September 2023