Thursday, January 30, 2014

IVF and Non-Identity, Continued

Iain Brassington, over at the Journal of Medical Ethics blog, has posted a nice response to my post, IVF Babies at Enhanced Risk. But Why, and So What? In that post I raised the question (based on Derek Parfit's non-identity problem) whether an IVF baby born with a disability has any right to complain, since that baby would not exist if it weren't for the IVF which resulted in the disability. This argument seems logical to me, but it also troubles me, because it often seems capable of proving too much. I gave the example of the slave, to whom (in the right circumstances) one might plausibly argue, "You have no right to complain of being a slave, since without the institution of slavery you would never have been born." Another similarly-structured argument might be addressed to animals being bred in awful conditions by agri-business: "You have no right to complain, little piggy, because if it weren't for this horrific factory farm, you wouldn't exist at all." (Of courses, both the slave and the animal would have grounds for complaint if their lives were so wretched as not to be worth living--but that's a high (or a low) bar.

Iain suggests a couple of ways to think about the problem. One involves the idea that the non-identity argument is weakened if it's at least possible that the very same person could have been born without the complained-of injury. The very same person might have been born not a slave. But I think that's fiddling with the hypo. If we're talking about the person who owes his existence to the institution of slavery because, for example, his mother met his father only because they were sold to the same plantation, I don't see what leverage is gained by arguing that it's at least metaphysically possible that the same person could have been born outside the peculiar institution.

More promising, to me, is Iain's suggestion that an IVF baby might have been harmed, but not wronged, by being born, just as the slave of a benevolent master would still be wronged by the institution of slavery, even if she has not been harmed by it. This leaves us with the question, when we debate about the existence of a complaint "from a particular person's point of view," are we talking about complaints of wrongdoing, of harm, or (as in tort) only of harmful wrongdoing?

Finally Iain tries to distinguish the case of the disabled IVF baby from the case of a baby harmed in utero (as when mom drinks, or ingests Thalidomide). The second sort of baby, Iain argues, would clearly have a complaint about the harmful behavior, because the very same baby might have been born unharmed.

But as I said briefly in my comment to Iain's post, I'm not so sure that personal identity is genetic at root. I don't think it's too much to argue that the disabled baby is a different person from the genetically-identical baby that would have been born but for mom's behavior. So the non-identity problem is not solved by reference to continuity of genetic makeup, or even by reference to bodily continuity with the same blastocyst.


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