Thinking About the Ethics of Procreation in Terms of Risk

ethics of procreation

To the philosopher Rivka Weinberg, we need to think about the moral permissibility of procreation in terms of risk. In her book The Risk of a Lifetime: How, When, and Why Procreation May Be Permissible (2015), she presents a conservative position on the ethics of procreation, deviating from both the strong antinatalist position which says that procreation is always or almost always wrong (existence is a net harm, according to David Benatar) and the strong pronatalist position which typically holds an optimistic view of life, making procreation almost always permissible.

Rather than considering procreation in terms of harms or the impossibility of consent (as antinatalists do) or focusing just on the joys of parenting and human life (as pronatalists do), Weinberg considers procreation a risk (mainly for the person who is created). She adopts a broadly Kantian/Rawlsian position and establishes two principles that would justify procreation: the Motivation Principle (the desire to engage in a relationship of parental responsibility for another) and the Balance Principle. The responsibility to raise a child, Weinberg argues, stems from what she calls the “hazmat theory of parental responsibility”. 

Let’s now explain her view of procreation as risk, the principles she believes justify bringing a new human life into the world, and what she means by the hazmat theory.

How to Think About Procreation?

For Weinberg, procreation is not a gift, as many people generally assume it is; nor is it necessarily a predicament. It is, instead, a risk we impose on another person for our benefit. It imposes a risk because the child’s life may not go well. Parents take this risk to enjoy benefits like family connectedness, fulfilling biologically and socially based desires to have children, having children around to look after you in old age, and the meaning, joy, and self-growth that comes with parenthood. Due to the myriad risks that a new being may face, we should, Weinberg stresses, treat procreation with a high degree of caution and restraint. Creating a new life is not to be taken lightly; it is, in fact, one of the most – if not, the most – impactful decision we could ever make in life. 

While Weinberg focuses on risks affecting the individual born, these are not the only risks; and here I don’t just mean how procreation might negatively affect the lives of parents – creating one more human being may also cause harm (directly or indirectly) to other people, non-human animals, and the environment. 

Many antinatalists might be even more risk-averse than Weinberg, viewing the risks faced by people with the best lives as not worth taking. Even without a family history of severe physical conditions and mental illness, or without the socioeconomic conditions that increase the risk of them, the general likelihood of still being afflicted with a form of cancer (50%) or even Alzheimer’s (7% if aged 65 or older) may be deemed too high to impose this risk of another person. Then there are, of course, harms that are inevitable (physical and psychological pain, and death – if one adopts a deprivationist account of death, which views it as a harm, due to the goods it deprives us of), as well as pretty much inevitable harms (such as grief) and likely harms (such as senility). Depending on how one perceives risk – the weight given to different risks in their degree and kind – and inevitable harms, one may find that Weinberg is either being overly cautious or not cautious enough.

Most people tend to value moral principles like autonomy, equality, benevolence, and altruism. Yet procreation is done without the child’s consent, produces an unequal relationship, and can seem to be both manipulative and selfish. But we do not usually think of procreation as violating our core values; so what we need then, Weinberg posits, is a motive that could make procreation reasonable and morally permissible.

The Ethical Justification for Procreation

What justifies procreation, says Weinberg, is the “parental motive”, already mentioned: the desire to engage in a parent-child relationship. This relationship should ideally be mutually beneficial and respectful of the child. It must be a relationship of nurturing and being nurtured, as well as involve the establishment of family ties that provide security, friendship, and intimacy. Without this motive, procreation is not justified.

According to Weinberg’s hazmat theory of parental responsibility, gametes should be seen as dangerous material; they have the potential to create a new person with many important needs and who can face all kinds of risks in life. We are responsible for our gametes as we would be if we possessed any other hazardous materials or objects (such as a car). If we have sex and the result is a child, even due to contraception failing, we acquire parental responsibility. Just as procreation is thought about in terms of risk, so is the material that makes procreation possible in the first place. Sperm and ova are highly potent materials that we possess, which through a single act can have massive ramifications. She states that “if we do things that put our gametes at high risk of joining with others and growing into persons, we assume the costs (and rewards) of that risky activity.”

A contentious implication of her theory, nonetheless, is that sperm and egg donors have responsibility as parents for the children that their gametes are used to create. As is standardly practised, when a sperm donor sells sperm to an agency, he waives his parental rights and is absolved of parental responsibility. In Weinberg’s opinion, this kind of gamete donation is morally wrong since it involves the abdication of parental responsibility.

Weinberg considers the extreme position that procreation is almost always permissible by drawing attention to the non-identity problem or the paradox of future individuals. It applies to population ethics and procreative ethics, and it refers to the moral problem of finding someone wronged by the choice to either procreate or not. Can an act be wrong even if it is not wrong for anyone? What moral status, if any, should future people have? Is a flawed existence – which might be extremely flawed or only minimally so – better or worse than no existence at all? 

If potential parents are trying to decide whether or not to have a child and they decide not to, Weinberg does not think they have wronged anyone. As she and antinatalists often point out, no one is deprived of existence by choosing not to procreate because no one exists to be deprived. One has to exist to experience benefits and harms. Existence itself is not a benefit or harm but a condition for both. One’s motivation to procreate cannot be the good of the child because prior to his or her existing, there is no individual who needs or wants existence.

Weinberg then addresses the antinatalist view, which states that all or most procreation is wrong. An antinatalist might argue the following: life is bad, or likely to be bad, procreation imposes life – and therefore a bad life – on someone, and so it is wrong to procreate. Weinberg rejects the conclusion that it is always wrong to procreate because subjectively people tend to affirm life. Most people are glad they exist and were brought into the world, and would sign up to life again if given the chance. Benatar challenges this trend, however, with the claim that such a view is influenced by evolutionarily hardwired biases to see reality in an overly positive light.

Weinberg does not think that Benatar has a special, accurate assessment of the human condition while the rest of us are deluded optimists. Moreover, we cannot objectively show life to be bad (as Benatar tries to) because there is not just an objective element to well-being but a subjective aspect to it too. And the goodness of life is to a large degree subjective. To Friedrich Nietzsche, for instance, all of life is affirmed, including suffering, which is positively valued since pain can strengthen our character, lead to great personal achievements, and is required for the experience of joy.

Weinberg concedes that a particular individual life may be objectively good or bad in some way. We can imagine many instances in which life and its conditions are objectively bad; take the cases of slavery or being born with severe birth defects. But these circumstances do not necessarily or universally obtain. For this reason, we cannot say that life is necessarily objectively bad. 

Weinberg also rejects Seana Shiffrin’s argument that procreation is impermissible because it is done without the child’s consent and such consent can never be obtained. Her response is that children cannot consent, so we can assume hypothetical consent, in which a person would consent if he or she were in a position to do so. To many antinatalists, nevertheless, procreating without obtaining consent is not comparable to making other choices based on the principle of hypothetical consent, such as making beneficial decisions for children or certain patients (e.g. the unconscious) who are unable to explicitly consent to treatment. Asheel Singh is one philosopher who opposes the appeal to hypothetical consent as a way to justify exposing children to the harms of existence.

Instead of adopting an antinatalist or pronatalist position, Weinberg proposes a Kantian/Rawlsian account of when procreation is permissible. This view aims to balance the procreative liberty of parents with the responsibility to maximise the procreative goods of the child, which would include physical health, education, social connection, self-respect, and freedom from oppression. 

Her view is based on the two principles mentioned. These are the Motivation Principle: “Procreation must be motivated by the desire and intention to raise, love and nurture one’s child once it is born” and the Balance Principle: “Procreation is permissible when the risk you impose as a procreator on your children would not be irrational for you to accept as a condition of your own birth (assuming that you will exist), in exchange for the permission to procreate under these risk conditions”. These principles are drawn from the contractualism of John Rawls and the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Weinberg makes an analogy between these principles and the risk-management requirements that are placed on people who handle hazardous materials like uranium.

Based on her account, Weinberg believes it is impermissible for a parent to procreate if he or she carries an inheritable disease like Tay-Sachs, Huntington’s, or cystic fibrosis, because of the costs of these diseases. She also claims that procreation is most likely not permissible if one’s child is likely to have a significant cognitive disability. But since conditions like colour-blindness, polydactylism, depression, and many other mental illnesses are less significant or more adequately treatable, since considers procreation permissible in cases in which there is a genetic risk a new person will experience them. But with the more additional children you have, the more difficult that becomes to justify. For example, if a child has a 1% chance of suffering from schizophrenia, the benefit of procreative liberty may justify having one child, but not five (although the exact cut-off point is unclear).

Even for the well-off – for healthy, happily married parents in a good socioeconomic situation – the justification for having children decreases with each child. In an interview for Quartz, she said, “You engage in the parent-child relationship when you have your first child, so the moral restrictions increase with each additional child. We have very little interest in having a third child, a fourth child.” By the fifth child, she contends, the personal benefit is so small that imposing the risks of life on the child is “never justified”. So even if procreation is permissible under ideal circumstances, this does not mean that, ipso facto, having a large family is.  

Weinberg is not against bringing children into poverty, as while poverty is a negative, the parent-child relationship may benefit the parents to such a large degree that procreation could be permissible; although this situation would warrant having only one or two children, not many impoverished children. In circumstances like abject poverty or living in a war-torn area, though, the risks posed to the children may outweigh the interests of the would-be parents. The cost of not procreating is not greater than the cost of children being malnourished and not having access to basic healthcare or clean water. (It should be emphasised here that Weinberg is only proposing restrictions as moral guidelines, not as rules that ought to be legally enforced.)

For Weinberg, the procreative liberty of the parents is not as morally weighty as the well-being of the child. And for this reason, there would be many cases of procreation deemed impermissible under her view, which would outweigh the wish of parents to procreate. 

Issues do arise, however, when we try to weigh up which risks are morally acceptable and which ones aren’t. Why is a 25% risk of a child inheriting a disease unacceptably risky but not 5%? There will likely be differences in opinion in terms of what risks are worth taking. Antinatalists may consider the imposition of any serious risk unjustifiable, especially since they argue (which people intuitively believe) that we do not violate any moral duties by not procreating, including in circumstances when the new being can be expected to have a very good quality of life overall. “I don’t think there’s any persuasive power to say that there would be more happiness in the world if we constantly procreated. Who cares? The world isn’t an interested party. I care about the people who exist already and the people who will exist,” says Weinberg.

Furthermore, since adoption avoids the issue of creating a new life with new risks, the benefits of having your own genetically related child may not outweigh the potential harms of procreation – an argument defended by Tina Rulli. One argument in favour of having a genetically related child has been pointed out by the philosopher Melissa Moschella: 

…once children learn that the parents raising them are not their genetic parents, they can (as donor-conceived and adopted children often do) miss the specific love of those whose genetic contribution made them who they are at the biological level, and who may therefore offer them important insights into their personality traits, interests, physical characteristics, susceptibility to particular illnesses, etc.

The environmental impact of having a child – which entails the biggest carbon footprint, by far – may also require significant procreative restraint. In a later article published on Quartz, Weinberg tackles this latter issue by stating that “if [David] Wallace-Wells is right about the coming climate apocalypse, we have no moral business creating more people to suffer through it,” and that “If you want to have a baby, you’d better fix the world”. 

While there are a few aspects of Weinberg’s risk-based approach that are subject to criticism, it is certainly useful to explore an ethical position that avoids the extremes of antinatalism and pronatalism. It raises important questions about the particular situations and motivations that are relevant to procreative ethics, which demands a nuanced discussion. One of the most crucial takeaways from her view, which any antinatalist or concerned prospective parent would likely agree with, is that procreation must be thought of in terms of benefits and risks. It is not a decision that should be made thoughtlessly, casually, or based on mere social expectations.

(For a further explanation of these ideas, I’d recommend checking out Weinberg’s appearance on The Exploring Antinatalism Podcast and The Dissenter.)

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