Procreative rights and procreative duties

David Archard*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Having Children: Philosophical and Legal Reflections on Parenthood co-edited by Onora O’Neill and William Ruddick was published in 1979 (O’Neill and Ruddick 1979). It was one of the first serious works of English-speaking philosophy to address the ethics of procreation, of child care, and of the formation of families. Along with the collection edited by Aiken and LaFollette, Whose Child? Children’s Rights, Parental Authority and State Power (Aiken and LaFollette 1980), Having Children played an important role in identifying the status of parenthood and of the child as proper topics for normative philosophy. Their publication can also be seen as contributing to the impressive corpus of philosophical writing devoted to matters of applied or practical significance which dates from the 1970s and 1980s. O’Neill has expressed reservations about a simple-minded view of ‘applied’ philosophy, and has sought to clarify the proper role that normative philosophy can play in informing public policy (O’Neill 2009). Nevertheless, she has herself produced important and influential work in subject areas relevant to the formulation of law and policy. The pieces devoted to reproductive autonomy and children’s rights (O’Neill 1988) are exemplary in this regard. They represent a small part of her life work. However, they have helped significantly to shape subsequent philosophical treatment of their subject matter. No-one writing as a philosopher about the rights of the child or about the moral responsibilities of a procreator can ignore these pieces. O’Neill’s contribution to the edited collection is ‘Begetting, Bearing, and Rearing’ (O’Neill 1979). In it she addresses themes to which she returns thirty years later in Chapter 3 of her Autonomy and Trust (O’Neill 2008). In both places she is concerned to deny that there is an unrestricted right to procreate; instead she insists upon a duty or responsibility to create new persons only if adequate provision can be made for their care. Such a claim stands in stark contrast to a prevailing orthodoxy in bioethics which maintains, in simple terms, that no wrong is done in procreating so long as any child created enjoys a life that is at least (but not necessarily any much) better than non-existence. I have considerable sympathy with the view she defends. However, I also recognise the real problems in defending it. In what follows I want to set out the view she defends, indicate the problems in defending it against the orthodox position, and suggest in what ways the debate might be further advanced. I think it fair to say that her view can be defended independently of any of those other broader philosophical commitments that O’Neill endorses. I have chiefly in mind her subscription to a suitably interpreted Kant. Nevertheless, her unwillingness to accept that there is a right to procreate, or at least any unrestricted right to procreate, echoes a familiar theme in her work, namely a preference in the overall configuration of moral discourse for the language of duties over that of rights. O’Neill opens her 1979 chapter by citing disapprovingly the behaviour of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his mistress, Thérèse. Rousseau and Thérèse produced five infants and left them all at the gates of the local foundling hospital. The example chosen is felicitous since its target is a celebrated Enlightenment philosopher whose behaviour, openly admitted by its author, is exposed as deeply dishonourable. We are to understand that Rousseau acted very badly, and that his bad example is intended to illustrate O’Neill’s claim that individuals do not have an unrestricted right to procreate; rather they have a right to procreate that is constrained by a duty to ensure that those they bring into existence can be expected to enjoy at least a minimally adequate standard of upbringing. It is this claim that I will spend time evaluating. However, it helps in the first instance to say something more, albeit briefly, about Rousseau’s bad behaviour in order to be absolutely clear why it was so bad, something I have explored further elsewhere (Archard 2010).

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationReading Onora O’Neill
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781135017620
ISBN (Print)9780415675901
Publication statusPublished - 01 Jan 2013

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2013 David Archard, Monique Deveaux, Neil Manson, and Daniel Weinstock for selection and editorial matter.

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)


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