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Beyond Best Interests

By I. Glenn Cohen. Full text here.

As Justice Douglas wrote in Skinner v. Oklahoma, procreation is one of the “basic civil rights of man.” Along with marriage it is “fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race” and the state’s interference with it “threatens to have subtle, far-reaching and devastating effects.” And yet the United States and other countries regulate a wide range of reproductive activities, such as forbidding anonymous sperm donation, funding abstinence education, criminalizing brother-sister incest, preventing the sale of sperm, eggs, or surrogacy services, and forbidding single individuals from accessing reproductive technologies. In justifying these and other regulations of reproduction legislatures, courts, and commentators have relied (at least in part) on an idiom that the author calls Best Interests of the Resulting Child (BIRC) as a justification, which focuses on the best interests of the child who will (absent state intervention) result from these forms of reproduction.

The Article completes a project begun in its companion Article Regulating Reproduction: The Problem with Best Interests, 96 MINN. L. REV. 423 (2011), and has the goal of revealing and delving into the secret ambition of best interests (sometimes called child welfare or child-protective) discourse in the regulation of reproduction. The author argues that by discussing best interests in this context, the party proposing reproductive regulation is able to avoid charged and heated political disagreements by offering a palatable idiom on which multiple political theories can converge. After all, who is in favor of allowing harm to society’s most vulnerable? While palatable, however, the author shows that this justification is vacuous and pernicious.

He draws on insights from bioethics, philosophy of identity, and doctrinal rejections of wrongful life tort liability to show why BIRC justifications are vacuous: unless the state’s failure to intervene foists on the child a life not worth living, any attempt to alter whether, when, or with whom an individual reproduces cannot be justified on the basis that harm will come to the resulting child, since but for that intervention the child would not exist.

BIRC reasoning is pernicious because it masks the true justifications that undergird these regulations of reproduction. It offers a way of talking about the regulation of reproduction that avoids confrontation with justifications that are disturbing, controversial, and/or illiberal; approaches that may justify eugenics, mandatory enhancement, or other problematic ideas. His goal in the project is to force that confrontation and to evaluate the plausibility of these substitute justifications once exposed.

In this part of the project, the author focuses on four justifications that might be thought of as substitutes for BIRC. First, Reproductive Externalities, wherein the regulation of reproduction is justified not as the prevention of harm to the resulting child (the BIRC justification) but based on the costs that reproduction imposes on third parties. Second, Wronging while Overall Benefiting, where the fact that harm is done to provide an overall benefit is insufficient to save the act from being wrongful. Third, Legal Moralist approaches, which seek to use the criminal law or other regulatory tools to deter acts that neither harm nor offend, but undermine public morality in order to maintain traditional ways of life. Finally, Virtue Ethics approaches, which focus on encouraging parental virtue as the basis for intervention. He considers the sufficiency of each in turn as a substitute for BIRC and the pattern of reproductive regulation each would permit.

In the end, the author shows that each substitute approach runs into serious problems. While he finds the Reproductive Externalities approach the most promising, he shows that when properly understood even this approach can justify only a much narrower swath of regulation of reproduction than currently exists, such that much of the existing law in this area cannot be justified.