Prenatal parental designing of children and the problem of acceptance


Seemingly ever improving medical technology and techniques portend the possibility of prenatally enhancing otherwise healthy, normal children—seamlessly enhancing or adding to a child’s natural abilities and characteristics. Though parents normally engage in enhancing children, i.e., child rearing, these technologies present radically new possibilities. This sort of enhancement, I argue, is morally problematic for the parent: the expectations of the enhancing parent necessarily conflict with attitudes of acceptance that moral parenting requires. Attitudes of acceptance necessitate that parents are open to the essentially-individual choices of the child that will determine the kind of person he or she becomes. However, the intentional act of enhancing contradicts this openness by setting expectations on who the child becomes. Because of this, there is strong moral weight against parents’ prenatally enhancing their children.

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  1. 1.

    More recently researchers have reported successful editing of a gene that would otherwise produce heart defects. A team of Chinese researches succeeding 2 years ago, while a team of researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University recently reported success.

  2. 2.

    See, for example, Schwartz (1997) and Juengst (1997).

  3. 3.

    I’ve leaf out a third category: modifications that are neither enhancing or rectifying. For example, I prenatally modify my child to have a different color of hair—perhaps I don’t like blonds, so I modify a child to be brunette. Of course an argument could be made that one haircolor is better than another, so it is an advantage. And if changing a hair color means I, as a parent, will love and attend to the child more than otherwise, then perhaps it’s an advantage in that respect. When I think of enhancement I’m thinking of more objective enhancements, not those that might merely meet my personal preferences as a parent.

  4. 4.

    For a discussion of how enhancement would benefit those who are already advantaged, see, especially chapter nine of Melhman (2003). Markwook (2005) also discusses how prenatal enhancement could lead to undesirable inequality.

  5. 5.

    I’m indebted to an anonymous reviewer for this point.

  6. 6.

    For a discussion of and argument for broad choice in procreation, see, Robertson (1996), especially Chap. 2.

  7. 7.

    The traditional term for the quality I’m articulating is “autonomy,” derived from Immanuel Kant. Because the term plays such a large, diverse, and complex role in Kant’s ethical theory—and has an equally widespread usage in ordinary ethical discussions. I prefer to use the term “moral independence.” For Kant’s articulation “autonomy,” see Kant (1785), especially pp. 40–48.

  8. 8.

    For more on the moral rights of children in a family, see Schoeman (1980). See also Weinberg (2016) for an excellent discussion of this.

  9. 9.

    See Nagel (1970), Chap. 5. He makes the point that we often attribute “desire” only after someone has acted. Indeed, this is the relevant sort of desire that I’m interested in, the kind that is strong enough to compromise an attitude is the kind that actually generates action on the part of the parent.


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Correspondence to David A. Jensen.

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Jensen, D.A. Prenatal parental designing of children and the problem of acceptance. Med Health Care and Philos 21, 529–535 (2018).

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  • Enhancement
  • Autonomy
  • Parenting
  • Genetic modification