Monday, November 27, 2017

The Plot Thickens: Rasanen on Ectogenesis

I recently wrote an article responding to Joona Rasanen's arguments regarding ectogenesis. Ectogenesis refers to an organism growing in an artificial environment outside the body in which it would normally be found. In this context, it refers to the human embryo or fetus gestating in an artificial womb rather than the woman's womb who conceived the child. That article was, itself, inspired by comments that I left on an earlier article on BioEdge. Rasanen, who is apparently a reader of BioEdge, responded to my comments in general. He wrote,
Thanks for your comments. However, I suggest you, and others, to [sic] read my article... I have not argued that a genetic mother has a right to the death of the fetus. I claimed that the right to the death of the fetus is couple's [sic] collective right which they can use together.
A right to genetic privacy should be understood not as an individual but as a collective right. That is because reproduction is not an individual but a collective action. Even though a fetus shares 50% of its genetic material with each genetic parent respectively, 100% of the fetus' genetic material comes from its genetic parents.
Also, I do not believe that we have full moral status from the moment of conception. Elsewhere, I have argued against such views (but if I am wrong it probably [sic] change the outcome of this debate).
I e-mailed Rasanen and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy of his article.[1] To recap, the four arguments I presented against his view on ectogenesis are:
  • Considering the embryo/fetus the property of the mother is dehumanizing.
  • The genetic material is not identical to the mother's genetic material but is a combination of the mother's and father's genetic material.
  • This argument proves too much (it would justify coerced abortions in some cases)
  • A violation of this nature would justify killing a person at any age if it justifies killing the embryo/fetus
Rasanen's thesis is that despite the views of abortion-choice thinkers, and despite the possibility that ectogenesis for the human embryo/fetus may become a reality one day, a pregnant woman doesn't just have a right to be unpregnant, she also has a right to the death of the fetus. I have perused Rasanen's article and now I intend to show that the arguments he provides don't justify the woman having any sort of right to the death of the fetus, even if we grant her the right to removal of the unborn child from her uterus (and I would only grant this for the sake of this particular discussion -- I obviously do not hold this position).

Argument #1: The right not to become a biological parent

Rasanen spells out his argument as follows:

1. Becoming a biological parent causes harm to the couple because of parental obligations to the child.
2. The couple has the interest to avoid the harm of parental obligations.
3. Therefore, the couple has a right to the death of the fetus to avoid the harm of parental obligations.

This argument is a non sequitur just on the face of it. The conclusion does not follow from the premises. If we assume that both premises are true, then one can avoid the harm of parental obligations simply by abstaining from having sex. Like bodily rights more generally, if the argument succeeds, then it only justifies abortion in rape cases, not in non-rape cases, which make up the vast majority of abortions.

However, let's examine his reasons for believing the premises to be true. He only offers reasons to accept the first premise, and they are: 1) even if the child is adopted out, if the fetus is allowed to survive the biological parents will always feel morally responsible for the child, which then could cause them significant psychological harm, and 2) he believes that biological parents actually do remain obliged, life-long, to their birth children, even when adopted out. Adoption doesn't resolve this issue, he says, because parental obligations cannot be fully transferred or delineated to adoptive parents. They are, by nature, non-transferable according to his view. However, Rasanen doesn't justify these two supporting arguments; his justification is simply that as there is no alternative ways to avoid the harm of parental obligations, then the parents have a right to the death of the fetus.

Even if we accept Rasanen's view as correct, that the responsibilities of parenthood cannot, by nature, be transferred (and I would argue he is wrong about his view of the non-transferability of parental obligations via adoption), his argument would not succeed. My counterargument is simply that Rasanen's argument is invalid because its conclusion doesn't follow from its premises. There is, in fact, an alternative way to avoid the "harm of parental obligations" -- to abstain from having sex. If you don't have sex, you don't get pregnant. Now I know that many readers of this blog might not find this an altogether appealing response (you should hear some of the things I've been called due to holding this view). But it doesn't matter whether or not this response is ultimately appealing. All that matters is that it is an alternative way to avoid this harm. Rasanen's argument is dependent on there being no alternative to avoid it, so by presenting a valid alternative, Rasanen's argument is also shown to be unsound.

Argument #2: The right to genetic privacy

Rasanen's second argument is formulated as follows:

1. People have a right to genetic privacy.
2. Ectogenesis abortion violates the genetic privacy of the genetic parents of the fetus.
3. Therefore, genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus.

I agree with Rasanen's first point. I think that people do have a right to genetic privacy. After all, if someone steals your DNA and clones you, it seems that two wrongs have been committed: first, in stealing your DNA, and then in cloning you. So I'll accept Rasanen's first premise.

However, even if I, again, grant Rasanen's second premise for the sake of argument (which I do not grant otherwise), his argument is, again, a non sequitur. It doesn't follow from the first two premises that the genetic parents have a right to the death of the fetus. Here are a few reasons why:

1) This argument proves too much. The fetus is already in existence. The parents' DNA has already been used to conceive a new human being. If we accept that this violation of the right to genetic privacy grants the parents a right to the death of the fetus, there is no principled reason why this would not grant them the same right when the child is older. Some women are not aware they are pregnant until they give birth (as incredible as this is to believe). Why wouldn't the mother have the right to kill her infant if she gives birth to a child she didn't even know she had? Or what if she gives birth to the child, but a couple of years down the road decides that it's just too difficult and wants to claim her right to genetic privacy? What principled reason is there to deny this? If your response is that the child is a person at that stage, then it's not a right to genetic privacy that is doing the work of justifying the death of the fetus but the argument that the fetus is not yet a person. So in that case, this argument doesn't justify the conclusion.

2) This argument again proves too much in the fact that it would justify coercive abortions. Now, Rasanen justifies his right to genetic privacy by saying because procreation is an act that requires two people, the right to the death of the fetus is not an individual right but a collective right. So the decision must be unanimous in order for the fetus to be killed. However, I'm not sure there are such things as collective rights, and the concept is a controversial one. It seems to me that all rights are reducible to individual rights, and any supposed right a group might possess must never infringe on the individual right of a human being, certainly not if the infringement is a greater harm than the prevention of being able to act in some way. So even if we conceive of the "right to genetic privacy" as a collective right, that collective right must never infringe on the individual right of a human being, so it still would not justify a "right to the death of the fetus."

Now, if both parents have a right to genetic privacy, then the child would be violating the father's right to genetic privacy just as much as the mother's. So he would have the right to force her to have an abortion. Or if they do give birth to a child, any grandchild that their child eventually conceives will also have come from their genetic code, so this would also justify the grandparents forcing their daughter to have an abortion for whatever reason. Rasanen apparently believes that when the child is still in the uterus, the choice to terminate the pregnancy is the mother's and the mother's alone to make. But this doesn't make sense considering his argument that reproduction is a collective act. If reproduction is a collective act, and the death of the fetus a collective decision, then the right to terminate the pregnancy must also be a collective act, requiring the permission of both parents because removing the child from the natural environment of the uterus would present a harm to the developing embryo/fetus. So while the embryo/fetus would not die, this would be allowing the mother to harm the child against the father's wishes.

3) The child is not violating the right; the perpetrator of the act has violated your rights and must be punished for it. The child is doing nothing wrong by merely existing. The harm of violating the right to genetic privacy has already been done. The DNA has already been used to produce an embryo from the parents' DNA, and even after you kill the child, that won't undo the conception. There will still be a dead human being with the combined DNA of the parents. Only now a child has been punished for these circumstances beyond his control.

So again, his conclusion doesn't follow. The fact that their right to genetic privacy has been violated does not justify a "right to the death of the fetus" because the harm has already been done, and because this would allow killing a person at any age, not just while in the womb. Also, there is simply no causal link between the violation of the parents' genetic privacy and the right to the death of the fetus as killing the fetus will not remove her genetic code or undo the conception.

Argument #3: The right to property

Rasanen's third argument is formulated as follows:

1. The fetus is property of the genetic parents.
2. People can destroy their property.
3. Therefore, genetic parents can destroy their fetus.

Now this is the most barbaric of the three arguments. I can cite numerous examples where human beings were considered property in world history, with disastrous results. This is simply dehumanizing and not an argument that a person concerned with ethics ought to be making. An embryo/fetus is a human being at an early stage of development. Even if the fetus is not a person, there is no justification for considering it of such low status as to be simply a piece of property. So this argument is unsound because premise one is simply not true (and oddly enough, this is the only one of his three arguments that is actually logically valid).

However, aside from the previous paragraph, this is also an instance in which Rasanen just didn't seem to be paying close attention to what he was arguing. The only justification he gives for the two premises is that common intuition supports them (for example, many people have an intuition that a couple who uses IVF to get pregnant can destroy the excess embryos if they wish, and no one can use them against the couple's consent). This is despite the fact that many people have strong intuition in the opposite direction, such as myself and most pro-life people, that a couple who conceives through IVF does not have the moral right to destroy the excess embryos (to say nothing of whether or not it is even ethical to conceive them artificially in the first place, but that's irrelevant to the present discussion). This is, frankly, shocking since in his discussion of the "right not to become a biological parent" he chides two abortion-choice philosophers, Eric Mathison and Jeremy Davis, for arguing that intuitions against the claim that gamete donors and surrogate mothers have rights toward the child means that there are no such rights, and thus there are no ethical problems with those practices. He scolds them because of the numerous philosophers who argue that they do, indeed, have rights toward the child, so intuition, alone, cannot justify their argument. So Rasanen is making the same kind of argument, that common intuition, alone, justifies that the fetus is the property of the genetic parents despite the fact that numerous philosophers have argued that human personhood is established during fertilization.

In fact, to make matters even worse, he concedes that older children are not property because they are persons, and persons cannot be property. But he doesn't justify his position that early fetuses are not persons. Despite conceding that if the early fetus is a person, it might change the outcome of the debate, he makes no attempt to justify his position, instead stating that it is outside the scope of his article. Under ordinary circumstances, I would agree. But since his third point literally rises or falls on whether or not the early fetus is a person, it is well within the scope of his article to address it. In fact, it is mandatory, if he expects his arguments to convince anyone.

Post Script

Rasanen finishes up with a discussion about what happens, in his view, when biological parents disagree over the fate of the fetus. I have already argued that all rights are reducible to individual rights, so there may not be any such things as collective rights, but even if there are, they certainly could not infringe on the individual rights of a human being, especially if that infringement is a greater harm than being prevented from acting. So I need not comment on this section, as I believe the discussion in this section of his paper to be without merit or meaning.

But something needs to be said. Apart from the lack of awareness of what he's writing in his own article, one of Rasanen's supporting points is that "when a man and woman are having sex, they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity." This is quoted verbatim from his article. He is meaning this to show that we should accept the status quo -- the fetus is alive, and killing it would change the status quo. So we should protect the life of the fetus if the genetic parents are in disagreement. But the problem is that Rasanen's statement basically negates the whole abortion debate. I agree wholeheartedly that when a man and woman are having sex, they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity. But this includes conceiving a child! When a man and woman have sex, which results in the conception of an embryo, they now bear a responsibility to care for this embryo because they engaged in an act which leads to the creation of a naturally needy child. So they implicitly accept the possible consequences of their activity.

It gets worse for Rasanen, and this one I'm going to quote at length: cases where genetic parents disagree, I believe we should follow what can be called the status quo approach. According to this approach, change needs a stronger justification than keeping things as they are. 
As long as there is no intervention to the pregnancy, the fetus will naturally develop inside the woman's womb. This means that there is no change to the status quo and the fetus' naturally probable potential to develop into an infant would be actualized. Following the status quo approach would mean that when one parent wants the death of the fetus and the other does not, the fetus should not be killed or left to die. Therefore, when, for example, a pregnant woman wants the fetus to die, but the father wants it to live, the fetus should be detached and implanted into an artificial womb where the fetus would continue its development into an infant. Thus the status quo should be understood from the point of view of the fetus: an already developing fetus would continue its development in a womb -- albeit an artificial one.
Did you catch that? There are several things wrong with his statements here. First, there's a fairly obvious one. Rasanen is essentially arguing that a woman should be forced to have an operation (i.e. "detach the fetus") against her desires. This is unethical medical practice. Second, if the fetus is not a person and is merely property of the genetic parents, then on what grounds should we understand the status quo from the point of view of the fetus? I have never asked my car whether it prefers 10W-30 or 5W-30 motor oil. I've never asked it whether it would be willing to give me a lift to the store or if it would prefer to stay at home, or even acted in such a way, from its perspective. It's my property; it has no say in the matter. In fact, it has a specific purpose that I own it for. When it can no longer fulfill that function, I sell it off for parts. Third, if the fetus is merely property and is not a person, then on what grounds should we accept the status quo argument? Why not allow the mother to kill the fetus against the father's wishes? He could, after all, find someone else to have children with. If the fetus is merely property, it isn't being harmed by being killed. I'm not harming my wall when I take a sledgehammer to it. The status quo argument implicitly assumes personhood of the fetus. But fourth, if changing the status quo requires a stronger argument than keeping it the same, it's not obvious why the woman should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy at all, especially if the pregnancy is a normal, healthy pregnancy. If the status quo should be understood from the point of view of the fetus, and it takes a stronger argument to change it than keep it the same, there is no reason why a woman in an average pregnancy should be allowed to terminate the pregnancy (and note: I'm not saying that pregnancies are easy, I'm simply saying that barring cases in which the pregnancy presents a danger to the life or serious health of the woman, the status quo argument would not justify terminating the pregnancy).


I have examined four arguments by Rasanen (the right not to become a parent, the right to genetic privacy, the fetus as property, and the status quo argument) and shown them all to be flawed for various reasons, either because they are logically invalid and unsound, simply logically unsound, or they actually argue against his position rather than for it. For these reasons, Rasanen's arguments cannot be seen as weighing in favor of a right to the death of the fetus, even if we grant a right terminate the pregnancy but keep the fetus alive.

[1] All quotations and paraphrases from Joona Rasanen, unless otherwise noted, are from his article "Ectogenesis, abortion, and a right to the death of the fetus," Bioethics, 2017, 31:697-702, DOI: 10.1111/bioe.12404.

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