Why there can be no Moral Obligation to Eradicate Disability


Why there can be no Moral Obligation to Eradicate Disability.

Speaker: Prof. Rebecca Bennett, University of Manchester.

1800 Thursday the 17th of November 2016.

JD seminar room 2 (MST/02/003)

The School of Law, QUB.

Free to Attend. All Welcome.

As space is limited, registration is encouraged. Please email us at: contact@nief.org.uk

Click here to download a Flyer for this event [.pdf]


Over the last four decades, and more recently by John Harris and Julian Savulescu [1], a number of arguments have been presented in support of the view that, where we are able to make a choice, we are morally obliged to have the best possible child. On this view, when we are choosing which IVF embryo to implant we have a strong moral obligation to chose the embryo that has the best genetic make-up, and to do otherwise is morally wrong. Such arguments seem to fit with many people’s intuitions about what sort of children they wish to have. It taps into our shared desire to protect our children and, where possible, to give them as many opportunities as we can. Most of us would make choices that ensure our child would not be disabled, and these shared intuitions and preferences seem to support the claims of bioethicists like Harris and Savulescu. Indeed, where there is a choice to be made, the notion that we have a moral imperative to choose to have a child who is free from disability is reflected in the legal framework that governs Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis and IVF in the UK; implanting an embryo that is known to be at risk of physical or mental disability is not permitted and doing so may attract criminal sanctions.

However, before we accept these moral arguments and make use of them as a sound foundation for policy, it is important to explore them in more detail. It is vital that we recognize that this claim is not about choosing the best for our children, but about choosing which children it would be better to bring to birth. Whilst it is uncontroversial to say that we should do the best we can to enhance the welfare of existing people, particularly our own children, the claim that we should take steps to choose which children should be born, not because we worry about these children’s welfare but because we want to make what we consider to be a better society, is highly questionable.

In this presentation I will argue that although the arguments presented by Harris and Savulescu have intuitive appeal, there can be no moral obligation to eradicate disability. As a result decisions about which IVF embryo should be implanted ought to be made by prospective parents without legal interference. I will show that arguments made in support of a moral obligation to choose the best child possible are not only eugenic but also based on intuition rather than reason. As such they are unfounded, unjustified and send a message to society about disability that is damaging to those living with these conditions; a message that I argue we have good reasons to reject rather than uphold.



[1] See: John Harris ‘Should we attempt to eradicate disability?’, Public Understanding of Science July 1995 4: 233-242; Julian Savulescu. ‘Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children’. Bioethics 2001; 15: 413–426.