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Procreative Beneficence, Obligation, and Eugenics


The argument of Julian Savulescu's 2001 paper, "Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children" is flawed in a number of respects. Savulescu confuses reasons with obligations and equivocates between the claim that parents have some reason to want the best for their children and the more radical claim that they are morally obligated to attempt to produce the best child possible. Savulescu offers a prima facie implausible account of parental obligation, as even the best parents typically fail to do everything they think would be best for their children let alone everything that is in fact best for their children. The profound philosophical difficulties which beset the attempt to formulate a plausible account of the best human life constitute a further independent reason to resile from Savulescu's conclusion. Savulescu's argument also requires parents to become complicit with racist and homophobic (and other forms of) oppression, which is yet another reason to reject it. Removing the equivocation from Savulescu's argument allows us to see that the assertion of an obligation to choose the "best child" has much more in common with the "old" eugenics than Savulescu acknowledges.


  1. Centre for Human Bioethics, Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Australia, & Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne, Australia

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  3. The ISI Web of Science lists 26 citations as of 20 Jan 2008.

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  5. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 415. In fact, the obligation established by procreative beneficence is slightly stronger than this quotation suggests because Savulescu further holds that parents are obligated to use testing technologies and to test for the largest number of conditions possible in order to be able to exercise choice over what sort of child they have (Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 424, and J. Savulescu. In defence of Procreative Beneficence. Journal of Medical Ethics 2007; 33: 284–288 at p. 285).

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  13. Brock, op. cit. note 8, p. 275. Savulescu himself acknowledges at a number of points (Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 417 & p. 423) that it is the impact of our decisions on the well-being of the child that will be born as a result of our decisions that is at issue here.

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  17. The caveat here is intended to acknowledge that parents’ ideas about what’s best for the child may influence what is actually best for the child in so far as the parents’ ideas are likely to impact upon the child’s life during the course of its upbringing.

  18. In a recently published paper, Savulescu seems to suggest that various features of embryos (for instance, the absence of genes for heart disease, cancer, or disability) are “objective goods” when he writes of the “badness” of these disease conditions as providing the reason to avoid them (op. cit. note 5, p. 284). If this is true, it provides a better foundation for the claim that parents are obligated to choose embryos possessing these features. However, equally well, it strengthens the arguments, explored below, that parents should be required to have particular sorts of children and therefore exacerbates the eugenic implications of Savulescu’s position.

  19. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 415.

  20. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, pp. 425-6. The qualification here is intended to allow for the psychologically plausible possibility that in some cases direct criticism will be counter-productive to the goal of getting parents to change their minds.

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  26. Of course, it is hard to know whether such genes exist, but this is equally true of genes postulated for other character traits such as intelligence, memory, or curiosity, which regularly feature in discussions of human enhancement.

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  30. Michael Parker has also recently criticised Savulescu’s account of the obligation of procreative beneficence for neglecting the extent to which judgements about the relative merits of lives are controversial, although without explicitly distinguishing between the different possible basis upon which a life might be judged “best” explored here. Parker similarly concludes that, as a result, the principle of procreative beneficence underdetermines choices between possible children and therefore fails to be action guiding. See Michael Parker. The best possible child. Journal of Medical Ethics 2007; 33: 279–283.

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  36. It is also possible that the case of sex is closer to this case than Savulescu’s more optimistic projection. That is, it is possible that as the proportion of women in society decreases, the life prospects of individual women will actually get worse rather than better, as the relative lack of women in each social role allows sexism to flourish and the demographic domination of men leads to their political and economic hegemony over women.

  37. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 424.

  38. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 413.

  39. Savulescu, op. cit. note 4.

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  42. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 424.

  43. Perversely, reducing the number of members of minorities within the community would reduce the total social cost of programs to mitigate the burden of discrimination at the same time as it would increase the level of discrimination experienced by those members of minority groups who remained.

  44. Buchanan et al., op. cit. note 16, p. 9 & Chapter 2.

  45. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, pp. 424-25.

  46. If we were able to reliably identify a child’s future environment and to identify those genes that would best allow them to flourish in that particular environment, the “best child” might differ across different environments. Indeed, my discussion of the implications of Savulescu’s argument for the choices of parents in racist, sexist, or homophobic societies suggested that the “best” child would differ across societies in response to the prevailing bigotry of the time. This presumes, of course, that we can be confident that the child will in fact grow up in that particular society. However, as Nicholas Agar (op cit. note 25) has argued, not only will it ordinarily be extremely difficult to reliably predict a child’s future environment, it will also be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to identify genes (or combinations of genes) that will benefit a child only in particular, narrowly defined, environments. This means that, for the most part, the genes that make an embryo likely to become the “best child” will be genes that code for traits that would be likely to benefit the child in (and across) a wide range of environments. An embryo with genes for the largest number of these traits to the highest degree may therefore turn out to be likely to produce the “best child” across all the environments it is reasonable to anticipate. In any case, Savulescu is at least committed to the conclusion that there is only one type of child that should be brought into the world in any given environment.

  47. This is not to deny that what counts as best is extremely controversial and likely to be disputed amongst different sets of parents. However, as argued above, Savulescu’s thesis claims that parents must have the (objectively) best child and not merely the child they think is best.

  48. A further complexity here is that this would deny parents any particular genetic relationship with their child. It might be argued that this is unreasonable and that parents should only be expected to choose the best child from amongst embryos of which they were the genetic parents. However, it is unclear whether and why the parents’ desires for genetic offspring should outweigh their obligation to give their child the best life possible.

  49. Savulescu, op. cit. note 2, p. 425; Savulescu, op. cit. note 6.

  50. Brock, op. cit. note 8, p. 275.

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  54. Buchanan et al., op. cit. note 16, pp.170-6.

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Correspondence to Robert Sparrow.

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Sparrow, R. Procreative Beneficence, Obligation, and Eugenics. Life Sci Soc Policy 3, 43 (2007).

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