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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.

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

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

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...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.