Reproduction and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 16, 2021, from

4. Rights and ownership

AID, IVF and surrogacy, as moral and political issues, revolve around those people who very much want to have a child; hence the question of whether the foetus has the moral status of something that may be killed tends to fade into the background, and passionate feelings about parenthood, families and ‘my (our) child’ come to the foreground. Those who espouse the conservative view on the status of the foetus do indeed object to the current practice of IVF on the ground that it tends to involve producing ‘spare’ embryos, which must either be allowed to die or be frozen and stored; but the various methods of alleviating infertility involve many further problems.

Feminists have found themselves divided over what to say about surrogacy, inclined, on the one hand, to defend the view that a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body surely extends to deciding whether or not to act as a surrogate mother but inclined, on the other, to liken surrogacy to female prostitution, regarding both as practices in which the woman’s body is used in an exploitative and degrading manner, even if she has, in some sense, freely consented.

Anyone who is, for whatever reason, inclined to defend at least some forms of surrogacy, has to consider what should be done when the agreement between the parties concerned breaks down – when, say, the surrogate mother changes her mind, and wants to keep the child, or the commissioning couple change theirs and do not want to take it. Some aim to settle these unhappy questions by arguing that surrogacy is a form of ‘pre-natal adoption’, whereby the commissioning couple acquire parental rights (and duties) to the embryo as soon as fertilization takes place; the surrogate mother cannot abort it, nor claim it, nor can the commissioning couple refuse to take it without this counting as their immorally abandoning it. Others aim to settle them by considering who owned the sperm and ovum involved initially, who can be said to have ‘donated’ or given up their rights to these gametes and who has retained them, whether the surrogate mother acquires a right to the baby by (in a new sense of the phrase) ‘mixing her labour with it’, and hence who ‘owns’ the baby, as though gametes, foetuses and children were like any other possessions. But, like the two most extreme positions on the moral status of the foetus, each of these approaches takes cognizance of only some of the facts relevant to human reproduction, ignoring those emphasized by the other side and leaving some out entirely.

Citing this article:
Hursthouse, Rosalind. Rights and ownership. Reproduction and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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