May 18, 2024

What’s all the fuss about genetic parenthood? 

Some bioethicists question the importance of a genetic relationship between parents and children. What matters, they argue is a supportive family environment, not genes. 

In the Journal of Medical Ethics, a Swedish bioethicist, Daniela Cutas, and a Norwegian colleague, Anna Smajdor, say that assisted reproduction opens door for novel relationships between generations. But disappointingly, the expectation is that people should mimic a conventional nuclear family and parent–child framework. There is very little variety or creativity. For instance, after posthumous sperm donation, a mother or grandmother carries the child so that a genetic relationship will be maintained. But why should genetic and social parenthood have to coincide?

Cutas and Smajdor are realists. In today’s world, it is unlikely that people will shed their attachment to genetic relationships. In the meantime, what they propose is more creativity in the use of surplus IVF embryos. 

“Considering the increasing prevalence of infertility in combination with a scarcity of donated gametes, someone might, for example, choose to use their aunt’s and uncle’s embryos. Or they could wish to have their sibling’s leftover embryos. If people’s preference to have genetically related offspring is important in fertility services, then does it matter what the exact genetic relationship is?”

They examine in more detail the case of a woman whose parents created IVF embryos. If they are still available, why shouldn’t she give birth to her siblings? In some ways, this might be better than a conventional heterosexual relationship:

“First, because the embryos are already created: she does not need to go through ovarian stimulation in order to have eggs collected and fertilised. Second, parent–child relationships are fraught with tensions, some of which come from a long tradition of not fully recognising children’s moral status and seeing them as a part of their parents in a near proprietary manner.”

It seems a shame to waste all those frozen embryos. They conclude with this thought:

“In a world where infertility rates are rising, and the social, medical and health costs of fertility treatment are steep, we suggest that there are grounds for expanding our perspectives on who ought to have access to reproductive materials in storage.”