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The Rights of Children: Biology Matters

Amanda Tipton

Melissa Moschella - published on 03/15/14

Children should know who their parents are. Is this really that controversial?

Now that many children conceived with the help of donor sperm or eggs have reached adulthood, many of these donor-conceived adults have claimed a right to know their biological parents. This phenomenon has led a number of European countries to outlaw gamete donation. Even in places where anonymous donation remains legal, such as the United States, there is a growing trend toward the use of non-anonymous donors. This shift away from the use of anonymous gamete donors parallels the shift toward greater openness in adoption, and it marks an increasing recognition that knowledge of one’s biological origins and contact with one’s biological parents when possible are important for human well-being.

This recognition points to a more fundamental critique of donor conception. Indeed, the basic premise of arguments against anonymous gamete donation—the recognition that children have a fundamental interest in knowing their biological parents—implies that conceiving children with donor gametes is always morally problematic, even when the donor is not anonymous, because it always involves conceiving children with the intention of depriving them of a parental relationship with (at least) one of their progenitors. Thus, it is different from the usual case of adoption, in which a child already exists; putting a child up for adoption is an attempt to give that child the best possible care in non-ideal circumstances.

Although it seems hard to deny that children can benefit from access to information about their biological parents, many remain skeptical of the claim that actually being raised by biological parents is important for the well-being of children. After all, many adopted and donor-conceived persons flourish, and many children raised by their biological parents fare poorly. And while social scienceshows that children tend to do best overall when raised by their married biological parents, some argue that this is simply due to cultural attitudes that place so much emphasis on the importance of biological ties.

An accurate ethical evaluation of donor conception requires a deeper philosophical investigation of the common view that parent-child biological ties really matter in themselves. In other words, we must ask: Are there unique benefits to children in being raised by their biological parents? Or is a biological parent fully interchangeable with any other equally competent and loving parental figure?

I argue that the parent-child biological bond really does matter in itself, because there is at least one unique and important benefit that biological parents—and only biological parents—can provide for their children: their parental love. My claim, in other words, is that children have a fundamental interest in being loved by their biological parents, and that, strictly speaking, no one else can replace biological parents in this regard. Moreover, except in cases of genuine incompetence, biological parents cannot love their children as they ought to—as their children need them to—without raising those children themselves.

Certainly, when biological parents cannot or will not raise their children themselves, others can generously take on that task and do an excellent job. And, in doing so, they can show great love for those children. But their love cannot replace the absent love of the child’s biological parents any more than the love of another man or woman can replace the love of an absent or deceased spouse. Biological parents, simply by virtue of their biological (genetic) connection to their children, have an intimate and personal relationship to those children that makes their love irreplaceable. The absence of their love is not like the absence of a stranger’s love, because, even if they have never actually met, biological parents are 

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