The ascription of rights in wrongful life suits
“Wrongful life” is an action brought by a defective child who sues to recover for pecuniary or emotional damages suffered as a result of being conceived or born with deformities. In such cases, plaintiff alleges that the negligence of a responsible third party,1 such as physician, hospital, or medical laboratory, is the proximate cause of plaintiff's being born or conceived and thus being compelled to suffer the debilitating effects of a deformity. The child does not sue to recover for the deformity, but rather it is claimed in such cases that the child's life is itself a wrong to the child; hence, the name “wrongful life”.
The present essay explores how the language of rights enters into wrongful life suits and critically evaluates rights appeals in these cases. Philosophical analysis yields the result that the ascription of rights to plaintiffs in wrongful life suits entails consequences we are unwilling to accept.
The goal of section one is to produce a clear exposition of the position that plaintiffs in wrongful life suits have a right not to be born and to show how this position implicitly assumes that possible persons have a right not to be born. Section two is devoted to the task of assessing the adequacy of the general view that possible persons have rights. In particular, I put forward reasons for doubting that the view in question is one we can plausibly hold. The final section sheds light on the practical ramifications of the analysis by pointing out its impact on future wrongful life debates involving new reproductive technologies.
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