Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.


Reproduction and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L083-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2020
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

The ethics of reproduction is concerned with outlining and critically analysing the moral pitfalls and opportunities surrounding reproductive decision-making by prospective parents, health care professionals and policy makers.

A central concept in reproductive ethics is the widely recognised right to reproductive freedom. People are free to decide whether, how, and with whom they wish to reproduce, as long as their reproductive decisions do not substantially harm third parties. The most relevant third party, of course, is the future child. Various standards have been advanced to determine the level of welfare that should be safeguarded for that child.

A philosophical problem underlying the discussion about the most appropriate welfare standard is the non-identity problem, which refers to the fact that if the only way in which someone could exist is with a disability caused by the circumstances of their conception, and if they have a life worth living, then they cannot be said to be harmed by their conception. This appears to plead for a very low welfare standard for the future child. Another principle in reproductive ethics, procreative beneficence, however, holds that if one has the choice about which people to bring to life, one should choose for those people who are most likely to have the best quality of life, which directs us towards a higher welfare standard. Generally, a ‘reasonable welfare standard’ is adopted, which does not allow procedures that would lead to significant harm or suffering, although it allows for a limited level of risk.

In debates regarding the ending of embryonic or foetal life, rather than establishing it, a central concept is the moral status of the human embryo or foetus. Whether, and to what extent, abortion or embryo research is acceptable, will in part depend on the moral status accorded to the embryo and foetus. As different people have adopted different criteria to determine this moral status, these issues remain controversial.

Another locus of ongoing controversy can be found at the crossroads of genetics and reproduction as genetic screening is becoming a more central element in modern reproduction (especially prenatally, but also pre-implantation and pre-conception). Genetic screening leads to greater reproductive autonomy and the prevention of suffering, but also to concerns about eugenics and its impact on society. The possibility of germline genome modification is likely to add fuel to the fire in this debate.

Citing this article:
Mertes, Heidi. Reproduction and ethics, 2020, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L083-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.