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Procreative liberty

The Social Policy Research Unit at the University of York recently released a report that found that social services are often too quick to return maltreated children to the family home. These children may be better in care, the report claims. Reflecting on this question raises the related matter of the procreative liberty of individuals who are at highly elevated risk of having children who will be very aggressive.

Should we attempt to prevent them having children, or, alternatively, place them under special scrutiny?

We might think here of people with different forms of the MAOA gene. Different forms of the gene raise different problems. One – fortunately rare – form seems to confer moderate mental retardation and a highly elevated propensity to violence in males. Another, much more common, form is not a risk factor for elevated aggressiveness by itself, but it does make aggressiveness much more common in adult males who were victims of abuse as children. Knowing that a certain individual carries the first polymorphism seems to give us reason to – at very least – discourage them from procreating, or to encourage them to procreate only in certain ways (to use sex selection, for instance, to ensure that their children will be female). Knowing that someone has the second polymorphism seems to give us reason to discourage them from procreating if they are themselves likely to be abusive or are partnered with someone who is abusive. After all, a propensity to violence is something we want to reduce. It is bad for the community, and bad for the perpetrator, too – on average, people with poor impulse controls tend to do badly in pursuing their life goals.

We ought not to limit procreative liberty lightly. I say this not, or not only, because this liberty is important, but because limiting it would require such extensive interference in daily life. We do not want the state in the bedroom. However, there may be a case for at very least monitoring the parenting of those known to be at risk, and being somewhat quicker to remove children from their care if their parenting is abusive.
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5 Comment on this post

  1. Interesting post.

    We have some historical experience with eugenics, of course, and it’s not one that we generally regard as positive. Of course we should not assume that everything the Nazis did was wrong , but it’s surely significant that even if eugenics (including forced sterilisation) persisted in Sweden well into the post-war period, as I have read, they eventually decided to get rid of it. As you say, we should not limit procreative liberty lightly. If I was in a position of having to decide on such a proposal, even if it involved the softest of (nevertheless discriminatory) I would almost certainly oppose it.

    It’s not that i think your argument is entirely without merit, but the issue of state intrusion is for me decisive. Another consideration is that whatever the genetic influence may be, upbringing, values and beliefs also play an essential role. Focusing on these factors seems to me to be a far more promising way of reducing violence.

  2. The decision, whether to have a particular child, or children at all, is not always limited to the father and mother, given genetic counselling, amniocentesis and the widespread availability of abortion services (even in the US). This makes the decision of the kind of child to be born polycentric and therefore less likely to encourage sameness in a particular population. On the other hand, there are problems with this approach.

    The availability of his kind of added assistance to the parents’ decision whether to allow a live birth, is probably more likely to help the better-off and better-educated classes in their decision whether to have a child, and could contribute the increasing difference between rich and poor to better their social/economic situations.

  3. You’re quite correct, Dennis, but in all the cases you mention this is indeed assistance, which the parents choose. That doesn’t mean there is no state intervention – even in the US 🙂 – for example courts intervene in determining custody, but there’s nothing there that immediately seems compromise procreative liberty, whereas the issue Neil raised was that: whether there can be a case for the state to restrict this liberty. My answer was basically: yes, but not a convincing one.

  4. Peter: I agree about the oblique nature of my comment relative to the post. I was suggesting, all too subtly I’m afraid (I sometimes leave out ending paragraphs), that government might have a role that is less aggressive by financing private organizations that offer these services to the less advantaged. Of course, politics (religious groups with substantial voting blocs at their disposal, or great influence) would get in the way.

  5. Thanks Dennis – I think that’s quite an interesting suggestion, and there may be quite a strong case for it. Your right about politics, of course, although this may be less of an issue in some European countries.

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