September 16, 2004

Somerville: children have a right to know their genetic heritage

Conservative bioethicist Margaret Somerville (she hates it when you call her that, but that's what she is), has published an OpEd in the Globe & Mail in which she argues that children have an access right to their genetic heritage. My eyes tend to roll to the back of my head when I read Somerville (this case no exception), but I believe that in this case she may be right--but her reasons for so are utterly wrong and offensive.

Somerville, who adamantly denies being homophobic, argues that gays and lesbians make for lousy parents. Says Somerville, "As we learn that men and women parent differently and children need both, whenever possible we must try to ensure that children have both a mother and a father involved in rearing them..."

In the case of lesbian parents, for example, she argues that children should have the right to know who their biological father is. "We have obligations not to create genetic orphans deliberately, obligations not to impose the suffering and loss of identity that result from loss of a sense of connection to those through whom life traveled to us," says Somerville. "It is paradoxical that in an era of sensitivity to individual human rights and intense individualism, we are prepared to wipe out for others one of the important bases on which we found a sense of individual identity, and experience a sense of connection through which we find meaning in life."

I believe Somerville is making a mistake when she says that one finds a sense of "individual identity" and "meaning in life" by knowing one's biological parent. I scarcely believe that adopted children who have never met their biological parents feel quite this lost. Somerville is doing her usual job of re-enforcing heterocentric views and pushing the conservative "traditional family values" agenda.

As for my support of genetic knowledge for offspring, I support it from the perspective of individual health. One of the first things a doctor asks you when working on a diagnosis is: "Does x run in the family?" Obviously, this is for good reason. When it comes to understanding our health and predispositions, one of the best indicators is our genetic makeup. It's through our biological parents that a significant amount of information about ourselves can be known.

Consequently, biological parents should be prepared to forgo anonymity when they have children. To do otherwise could be potentially harmful to the child, whether they raise them or not.

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