Breeding is selfish. Having children who, let’s face it, probably won’t cure cancer but will drain our collective resources is an indulgence. But passing on one’s genes is also the most fundamentally human urge: if it weren’t for our ancestors deciding to do the nasty, I wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it.
Not so according to Leo Kim, a writer for Wired. In a piece titled “Preferring Biological Children is Immoral”, he argues that wanting a genetic connection to one’s offspring is not just a “vestigial remnant of a different epoch” but also that it is potentially bigoted.
Kim sketches a utopian vision in which parents use technological advances, such as gestational surrogacy, to bring up unrelated children, thereby strengthening bonds across society. Using the example of the Himalayan Na tribe whose members do not have a social category for biological fathers, Kim claims that a preference for genetic relationships reinforces “a dated conception of the family at odds with our hopes for a more inclusive ethics”. This is about as rational as rejecting clocks and calendars because the Amazonian Amondawa tribe has no abstract concept of time.
As with the best bad ideas, the reasoning starts with a laudable appeal to kindness. Kim points out that parents love their adopted children and that, as such, these bonds are possible regardless of provenance. Of course, no one wants to admit an adoptive child isn’t as loved as one who is biologically related. But nature isn’t kind and, like it or not, human beings are a part of nature.
Adoption, sadly, does affect a child’s life chances. Whether this is due to disrupted nature or nurture is unclear, but a report by Adoption UK revealed that adopted children are twice as likely not to be in employment, education or training (NEET) as their peers, while 16% of them have had contact with the criminal justice system and 39% have needed help from mental health services. Meanwhile, the psychological impact on children born to surrogates is, as yet, largely unknown. Like adoption, though, it is unlikely to be consequence-free.
The instinctive reaction of those who proudly declare themselves progressive is that existing boundaries and bonds deserve to be broken. As Kim argues, “insisting that you’ll only be a parent to a related child will be seen as increasingly reductive and close-minded — a stance at odds with the momentum of our expanding ethics”. But morality does not expand at the same pace as technology.
Ultimately, right and wrong are not relative states. The idea that familial bonds don’t matter can be intellectualised and shaped into a compelling argument but, deep down, at the core of what it is to be human, we know that it is wrong.