By Harisan Nasir
The sciences of reproduction has a significant focus on enabling couples to obtain genetically-related children. We see this in procedures such as In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) and more recently, In-Vitro Gametogenesis (IVG). This, despite the fact that there are millions of already existing children out there that could benefit from being adopted. Are there good reasons to prefer having genetically-related children? What sort of a loss does a mother suffer if she gives birth to and raises a child that she has no genetic relations to, due to a mix-up by the IVF clinic? Some philosophers have defended the importance of genetic ties, J. David Velleman, for instance, says the following:
“The baby in that carriage has an inborn nature that joins together the natures of two adults. If those two adults are joined by love into a stable relationship—call it marriage—then they will be naturally prepared to care for it with sympathetic understanding, and to show it how to recognize and reconcile some of the qualities within itself. A child naturally comes to feel at home with itself and at home in the world by growing up in its own family.”
On the surface, this seems convincing. Bonnie Steinbock argues that the genetic relation is “valued as an expression of the couple’s love for each other. The child is the living embodiment of the physical union of the couple” A child being a “union” of the love between two people sounds like a very sweet notion. But these concepts sound extremely vague when given a deeper analysis. What does it mean to “join together the natures of two adults?”. Since when did we have natures? According to the Chinese horoscope, I am a water-type Monkey. Is this the kind of “nature” that Velleman alludes to? This deferment to vague concepts seems to be a result of the failure of the enterprise to justify our desire for genetically-related children.
One of the more mainstream, vague concepts can be found in the “genetic bond” arguments. For instance, Steinbock mentions that “people may value ‘having their own child’ over adopting, because they would like a genetic connection with their child.” Purportedly, such a connection or “genetic bond” is an emotional relation that is grounded in the genetic relation. The “genetic bond” may also be the source of obligations and kinship. To have a “genetic bond” with someone means to be obliged to care for that person under certain circumstances and attend to him in times of need. According to this claim, parents have a “genetic bond” with a child because they are genetically-related. This is part of the same mainstream view that “blood is thicker than water”. According to this view, one has a “genetic bond” to one’s offspring, sibling or parent in virtue of our genetic relation to them. We feel a sense of love, camaraderie or concern to those that we are genetically-related to because we have this bond. There are several ways this account gets cashed out in justifying our preference for genetic-related children. Prospective parents desire a “genetic bond” with their child. This desire constitutes as sufficient reason to perform procedures such as surrogacy, IVF or IVG over adoption or egg donation because the latter two choices do not generate a “genetic bond”.
In this section, I will put forth an epistemic argument against the “genetic bond” to show that it really is a vague and vacuous concept. There is a challenge for anyone who claims that the “genetic bond” account can succeed. No matter how hard you try, the “genetic bond” cannot be directly experienced. How does anyone come to know that they have a “genetic bond” with another person? We do not have a sixth sense or apparatus in which one can detect or feel this “genetic bond” with people that we are genetically-related to. If there is a sensory capacity in which we can feel such a bond, our world would be very different. We can point to the cases of baby mix-ups in hospitals as one such instance.
Consider cases of infidelity: the father has no idea that he is not the genetic parent of the child. The very fact that it is necessary for babies to be tagged in hospitals to identify which baby belongs to which mother clearly shows that we do not feel this “genetic bond”. If it really is the case that we can sense the “genetic bond”, surely, these events would not occur. You would simply identify your baby by feeling this “genetic bond” toward them. If it is the case that you and your sibling were both adopted by different families at birth, surely, this “genetic bond” must still hold since you are still genetically-related. If you happen to see your sibling down the street, would it immediately be apparent to you that you are genetically-related to this stranger because you could feel the “genetic bond”? It seems implausible that we have such a faculty with which we are able to sense our genetic offspring and relatives.
One objection would be that we can actually know of our genetic relation. Through genetic testing procedures, we can tell if persons are genetically-related. Hence, there seems to be no epistemic challenge to proving so. But this is trivial. I do not deny what it is we may know about a person’s genetic relation. What I deny, specifically, is that we can know of such a relation simply because we feel a “genetic bond” or that we can know that we have a “genetic bond” simply by knowing that we are genetically-related.
What causes us to think that we can feel a “genetic bond” with our parents or our children? Most of the time, when we say that there is a bond between parent and child, we may think that this bond exists because of our genetic relation. This can be called into question as t could just be circumstantial. In most cases, both parent and child actually do have a genetic relation. When we are asked why we have intimate bonds with our parents, we mistakenly locate the source for such strong bonds in something genetic and biological. It is more likely that the factor that sustains such strong relations is in how parents treat their children, with love and care and vice versa. It is the case that parents and their children can mistakenly think that they are genetically-related but still maintain a strong bond and think that they do have a “genetic bond” when they do not.
A counterfactual argument may work here. We can imagine the case whereby in the closest possible world, you are not genetically-related to your child because unbeknownst to you, you are a chimera. You are justified in thinking that your child is genetically-related to you because you have given birth to that child. It seems that there would be no difference in your strong relationship with your child between both worlds. Your feelings and obligations for your child do not change. In fact, it seems that both worlds look exactly the same. Thus, this extra sprinkle of genetics makes no difference in the relationship you have with your child. Defenders of the importance of genetic-relations must be specific, what exactly is at stake when we give up genetic relations?
Image Credits: Parentmatch, David Velleman