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Is It Better Never to Have Been Born?

By Michael Cook

Bioethicists are questioning legal judgements that dismiss “wrongful birth” cases by challenging the belief that it is better to be born than not born.

In 2006 a Sydney couple sued doctors for the “wrongful life” of their severely disabled son. The case failed in the High Court, which ruled that it was impossible to measure the merits of existence versus non-existence. Earlier this year the couple returned, this time with a lawsuit based on “wrongful birth”.

Similar cases have cropped up in the United States and Europe as well, but they have almost always failed for similar reasons – being alive is better than not being alive. But is it?

Not every bioethicist thinks so. David Benatar, a South African philosopher, has published a book entitled Better Never to Have Been. His argument is that “although we may not be able to say of the never-existent that never existing is good for them, we can say of the existent that existence is bad for them”.

So what about childbearing? There is a range of views amongst utilitarian bioethicists. Rebecca Bennett of the University of Manchester believes that having children is just another irrational experience like taking recreational drugs or dancing. “In most cases we choose to bring to birth children on the basis of unquantifiable and unpredictable ideas of what they will bring to our lives,” she says.

Matti Häyry, a well-known Finnish bioethicist working in the UK, believes that having children is both irrational and immoral because the children might encounter suffering in the course of their lives, and “it is morally wrong to cause avoidable suffering to other people”.

The latest contribution to this debate comes from a Canadian, Christine Overall. She published a book in February entitled Why Have Children? that is currently making a splash in bioethics circles. Dr Overall is delighted to have two children of her own. But she believes that the reasons most people have them are mistaken.

First of all, most people believe that existence is good for a child. Not necessarily true. As the High Court reminded us, it is impossible to measure the merits of existence versus non-existence. Furthermore, if the existence of one child is good, two must be better, and three even better. Where would you know when to stop?

Another class of reasons are essentially selfish. Some people want to perpetuate their family name. Others want someone to care for them and comfort them in their old age. Many people feel that parenthood will bring them happiness. But Overall says that all of these reasons are wrong-headed. A child cannot be regarded as an instrument for someone else’s happiness. That is clearly immoral.

Overall’s point is not so much that we should stop having children as that we should reflect upon it very, very carefully. Having children should not be something that just happens in a moment of romantic exuberance. Now that men and women have control of their fertility it must be a conscious choice.

But what if everyone decided not to procreate?

Overall is consistent – she can’t see much wrong with that. “I have not found adequate reasons to show that the extinction of the human species – provided it is voluntary – would inevitably be a bad thing,” she writes. “We matter to ourselves, of course, but it is in no way evident that humanity matters to anyone else. If we were to disappear, members of other species would soon forget us and get along without us.”

Perhaps this is the juncture to pose the question of whether Why Have Children? is really a book that belongs in MIT’s Basic Bioethics series. The word “bioethics” incorporates the Greek word for life, bios. In a sense bioethics begins from the premise that life is its foundational principle, the supremely good thing upon which the whole discipline is based.

There is no denying that it is healthy for academics to pose sharp questions. But isn’t a bioethicist who questions the value of human life itself like a physicist who denies the existence of cause and effect or a theologian who denies the existence of God? Without an unconditional commitment to the value of human life, bioethics is in danger of losing its coherence.

Michael Cook is editor of the online bioethics news service, BioEdge.