The potential for new biotechnologies to have far-reaching societal consequences presents a novel challenge to the progressive belief that people have an unrestricted right to make any and all of their own reproductive choices. Previous scientific advances, such as the sonogram, have altered the abortion debate by affecting public opinion about the moral status of the fetus; but these earlier technologies have not substantially weakened the support among progressives for unrestricted reproductive choice. That soon may change.
Current technologies such as pre-implantation genetic diagnosis [PGD] and sperm sorting–and possible future technologies such as cloning and germline modification–will enable parents to make decisions that greatly affect gender balance, disease burdens, genetic diversity and the genes of humans themselves. In order to address these new possibilities adequately, we will need to find a way to regulate some choices while maintaining existing reproductive freedoms.
The shifting parameters of reproductive choice will oblige Americans of all political persuasions–but above all progressives–to revisit some of our most dearly held tenets. Support for reproductive choice is grounded in the notion that the choices themselves are private matters that are the individual’s alone. In On Liberty, for example, a classic foundational work of liberal political theory, John Stuart Mill outlined two types of actions: self-regarding acts, which largely affect only the individuals carrying them out, and other-regarding acts, which substantially affect people in addition to the acting individual. Mill argued that while regulation or prohibition was appropriate for other-regarding acts, it was not for self-regarding acts.
Americans have largely adopted this distinction, regulating choices only when they affect others in the larger community. Nowhere is this clearer than in the debate around abortion, where the fundamental question is whether a person thinks the choice affects others. The extent to which reproductive choices are self-regarding or other-regarding–and thus the extent to which they should be regulated–revolves around one’s view of the moral status of the embryo or fetus.
Most progressives consider abortion and other reproductive choices self-regarding acts, because the fetus or embryo is not seen as a separate person with equal and competing interests. As NARAL Pro-Choice America describes them, reproductive choices should not be regulated, because they are private decisions women make with “their families, their physicians, and their faith.”
Biotechnological innovations, however, are quickly shifting certain reproductive decisions from matters of private choice to ones of public concern, regardless of the moral status of fetuses and embryos. Parents in the twenty-first century will have the ability to control the genetic makeup of their children in ways that were unthinkable fifty years ago. The choices they make will thus significantly affect the structure of society. As progressives, we must acknowledge the new challenges posed by these reproductive technologies and, when necessary, craft policies to limit their potentially harmful impact.