Is reproductive freedom a human right?

In an opinion piece in New Scientist Alex Pearlman argues for lesbian couples to be allowed to use three-parent baby IVF in order to have children genetically related to both of the women.

In case you don’t know this new procedure would take the nucleus of one woman’s egg, the mitochondria of another woman’s egg and a man’s sperm – thus making a baby from three people. It was developed to help women who risk passing on mitochondrial disease to their children.

There’s actually a pretty low-level of genetic relatedness to the donor of the mitochondria, Pearlman says 0.2% but as a token towards being genetically related it ticks the box. Pearlman sees no reasonable objection to this procedure being used by a lesbian couple because “the desire for genetically related children is powerful, no matter gender or sexuality.”

That in itself is a phrase worthy of unpacking, suggesting that there is something deeper going on even than our sense of sexuality. But I’m not really interested in the sexuality of who benefits from this treatment. I’m more interested in the values that underpin the extension of this technology at all.

At the end of his piece though Pearlman makes what I consider to be a rather astonishing claim.

Reproductive freedom can be seen as a human right: every person has the right to have children or not, and to use the technology available to do so.

The problem is our understanding of the word ‘right’. It should be seen as a conditional freedom. Let’s take another family related concern, so for example adoption is seen in this way. I have the right to adopt as long as certain conditions are fulfilled.

Our use of the word right, is not as a freedom but in the sense of entitlement. I am entitled to adopt irrespective of whether the conditions are met and if my ‘right’ is denied then this is an infringement on me as person.

We see this argument being used all the time. Is it the right of a transgender person to undergo surgery at a stage they choose? Is the state should be obligated to fund it because it is their ‘right’?

The right to marry led to the redefinition of marriage so that people denied this conditional freedom could have it. Are children to be seen in this way? I have the right, the entitlement to have biological children irrespective of whether I fulfil certain conditions or not?

The potential to do something doesn’t automatically confer the right to do something. Just because I can doesn’t mean I should. It’s a clear example of technology leading the way and the ethics following after. Pearlman says as much himself,

These [objections] are not compelling, as other forms of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) are used for non-medical reasons.

What he’s saying is we’ve already done this so you can’t object to that. We’ve already got missiles, why complain if they’re nuclear? We’re already giving people IVF for non-medical reasons so why object to further extension of these possibilities. The horse has bolted. But that’s not a basis for an ethical answer.

A society that has no longer has an agreed basis for ethics, that cannot be consistent in its understanding of the value, means, purpose and place of human life is always going to led by the nose by the latest technological breakthrough, which is where we currently are.

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