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Article Announcement:Which lives matter most? Thinking about children who are not yet born confronts us with the question of our ethical obligations to future people.

Professor Dominic Wilkinson and Keyur Doolabh have recently published a provocative essay at Aeon online magazine:

Imagine that a 14-year-old girl, Kate, decides that she wants to become pregnant. Kate’s parents are generally broadminded, and are supportive of her long-term relationship with a boy of the same age. They are aware that Kate is sexually active, like 5 per cent of 14-year-old girls in the United States and 9 per cent in the United Kingdom. They have provided her with access to birth control and advice about using it. However, they are horrified by their daughter’s decision to have a child, and they try to persuade her to change her mind. Nevertheless, Kate decides not to use birth control; she becomes pregnant, and gives birth to her child, Annabel.

Many people might think that Kate’s choice was morally wrong. Setting aside views about teenage sexual behaviour, they might argue that this was a bad decision for Kate – it will limit her access to education and employment. But let’s imagine that Kate wasn’t academically inclined, and was going to drop out of school anyway. Beyond those concerns, people might worry about the child Annabel. Surely Kate should have waited until she was older, to give her child a better start to life? Hasn’t she harmed her child by becoming pregnant now?

This issue is more complicated than it first seems. If Kate had delayed her pregnancy until, say, age 20, her child would have been conceived from a different egg and sperm. Because of this, Kate would have a genetically different child, and Annabel would not have existed.

See here for the full article and to join in the conversation.

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4 Comment on this post

  1. Before Kate becomes pregnant, she has the option of becoming pregnant soon, or waiting six years. At this stage, in both cases, the “babies” involved are imaginary.

    If Kate decides to wait six years, the baby she was considering at 14 remains imaginary. So there’s no need to shed any tears for it.

    If she has a baby at 14 and decides not to have one at 20, then that later baby remains imaginary. Again, no need to be concerned about it since it never existed.

    We need to avoid formulating these questions in ways that imply the “people” are “real” before they’ve even been conceived. They are imaginary and if we choose options that screen out genetic recipes containing this or that defect, or wait until more opportune times, those “people” will remain imaginary.

    They don’t exist and never will, so they aren’t going to miss the opportunity 🙂

  2. May I sympathetically point out that you are missing the point? The question is not whether future and possibly future individuals are missing opportunities. The point is how to compare morally relevant interests in actual and counterfactual circumstances. In the example above, the question is Kate’s decision was bad *because* the counterfactual baby would have been better off than the one she actually ended up having.

    1. No I don’t think I was missing the point, as outlined in the linked “non-identity problem” article. To quote them:

      However, the non-identity problem arises when we face decisions that change which people will exist. In those cases, person-affecting reasons do not help us. In our case with the 14-year-old Kate, delaying her pregnancy would change who would exist in the future. It wouldn’t benefit any particular child; there is no person-affecting reason for Kate to delay her pregnancy.”

      Kate would actually be quite correct, before becoming pregnant, to point out that choosing to have a baby at a later date would not benefit the individual that would be born if she had a baby earlier.

      But as I pointed out, at that stage both “babies” are imaginary. There’s no point worrying about them being “different people” because neither exist.

      So one should sensibly argue that it would be preferable for whatever baby is born for it to be born when she’s better able to manage with motherhood.

      But if she decides otherwise, there’s no point nagging her about it afterwards 🙂

  3. If its being preferable for whatever baby to be born that it is born when she’s better able to manage with motherhood constitutes a moral reason, then Kate’s failure to comply with that reason clearly makes her morally blameworthy.

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