Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £29.99 £19.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

A harm-based perspective

Bioethics institute interview
Guido Pennings
Making babies in the 21st Century
There’s the notion of reproductive autonomy, where in fact the question is who decides what kind of composition you give to your family? And so directly related to this specific point, what kind of place a donor should play in your family? So if you choose secrecy, anonymity, then there is no donor. So it is completely out of the picture. When you have a known involved donor, that is someone who is almost part of the family, and then there is everything in between. So your reproductive autonomy would allow parents to decide eventually, I mean, possibly together with the donor in some cases, which kind of position the donor should adopt.
And obviously the policy we had before did not allow this because we imposed anonymity everywhere. And now we stand to have a shift in balance where you now have countries where the same kind of let’s say biased few, have been introduced where again the parents do not have a choice whether or not to involve the donor or not to involve the donor in the family information. So reproductive autonomy is one element. Then there is obviously the issue of the welfare of the child. Now, again, if you look at this as a purely consequentialist issue then this is an empirical question. Is it good for the child or not?
As far as I am concerned there is no evidence whatsoever That this is going to be helpful to the children. Again there is different aspects involved because you have here the combination of secrecy combined with anonymity. So if you do not know that you are from a donor obviously you cannot be unhappy because you are from a donor because you don’t know. So there, there is a bit of a strange mix but a two step process that I mentioned earlier is quite crucial in this whole thing. So issues of the welfare of the child can only play a role when you enter when you assume there is going to be telling the donor by the parents.
So that is for me one of the most crucial points in the whole discussion. It is that we know that some children ask for the identity of the donor, and the problem that we are having as ethicists so to speak, is that this kind of question, so the desire by the children is immediately transformed into a need. And that is my basic concern. I mean, everyone has a number of things that they really would like but it is not because you like something or really want something that this becomes a right to have something. So, and it’s as if there is an explosion of rights everywhere. Everyone seems to have a right to everything.
And so as soon as you go along that line, I expect an argument that tells me when I can transform your question about I would like this to you have a right to this. And according to me, the arguments I have seen, are really not convincing. The argument like ‘you need this for your identity,’ sorry, but this cannot be true because there are literally hundreds of thousands of children out there who know that they are from a donor and who have an identity. So what-, how does this relationship work?
So if someone can come up with a satisfying answer to this kind of thing I might be willing to go along, but now it seems to be based on a sort of intuitive acceptance of ‘oh yes, they really want this so we should give it to them.’ And I don’t think we should. I think we should take this as one of the concerns in the organization of your practice. So that is also why I have no problem whatsoever with identifiable donation if everyone wants it? That is perfectly fine with me. And it might turn out to be also beneficial to the child if the parents agree, if everyone thinks that it is a good idea.
But there is a difference between that kind of position and say they should now only be one option and that is an identifiable donor for the simple reason that there is a multitude of families, a multitude of parents with different kinds of values and perspective on the family. So where is this strong argument that allows us to tell the others “these options are closed? We know what is best for you and your child. And now we are going to impose this on you.” I’m not convinced.

Guido Pennings is a Professor of Bioethics at the University of Ghent, Belgium, and a member of the Task Force on Ethics and Law of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE).

In this interview, he sets out his view that there is not an overwhelming right for children to know their biological heritage.

In explaining the reasons for his views, he explains that his perspective comes from a utilitarian viewpoint, meaning that he places emphasis on the consequences of actions and especially the reduction of harm.

This viewpoint is usually contrasted with a rights-based perspective, as we mentioned in Step 1.2 at the beginning of the course.

Underlying his views, is the principle of reproductive autonomy, which according to Professor Pennings, means we should support women and couples to make their own decisions about their families.

For discussion: Do you agree with Guido Pennings that parents should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to inform the child? In giving your views, please explain your reasons. For example, please say whether your views come from a utilitarian or rights-based perspective.

This article is from the free online

Making Babies in the 21st Century

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now