Pre-Implantation And Pre-Natal Selection Of Offspring: Can There Be A Duty To Select Against Disability?

  • Nicola Williams

Student thesis: Phd


The question of whether there might be a moral obligation to select against disability in our offspring has received considerable attention and attracted great controversy within both the philosophical community and beyond over the last couple of decades. Within this thesis I examine this question, taking as a basis for discussion the view that prospective parents should be formally free to choose whether or not to select against disability in their offspring in the absence of adequate justifying reasons to the contrary. I then move on to examine and outline arguments that suggest variously and for a plethora of different reasons that selection against disability should be condemned morally or required.After this is done and it is noted that the sheer volume of different positions and arguments requires a more specific focus I, in my thesis articles take what I view to be the strongest of moral reasons, person-affecting reasons, and look to the question of whether it is possible ground a moral obligation to select against disability in our offspring in the person affecting harms that our reproductive choices might produce. In the first paper I ask whether the non- identity problem really poses such an insurmountable obstacle to the claim that to select against disability may harm those that are created as a result of our selection choices. This leads to the conclusion that on certain accounts of personal identity over time and trans-world identity it is possible to determine harm in a number of previously non-identity cases of which the selection against disability case is one. In the second paper I broaden my focus slightly by looking to the possible harms that our procreative choices might impose on others than the children we may create: ourselves, our existing dependents and existing members of society. In doing this it is shown that our reproductive choices do, at least in societies with advanced social and medical welfare systems, have the potential to impose significant burdens on others. However, whilst this is so, it is also demonstrated that this is not necessarily a decisive reason to condemn a reproductive choice to select for or to fail to select against disability in our offspring. In my final paper I take a slightly different approach, focusing less on the question of whether there should be a moral obligation to select against disability in our offspring and more on the question of whether there should exist a legal imperative to do so. Taking as a basis a liberal approach to the moral limits of law I suggest that impingements on individual liberty may only be justified when it can be shown that our reproductive choices cause significant harms or offence to others, I ask whether the recent insertion into English and Welsh Law of a prohibition on selection for disability can be justified. In line with the findings of the previous two papers which are far from conclusive and by examining the reasons given in legal and policy documents in England and Wales relating to this prohibition I suggest that as it stands such a prohibition cannot be justified.This ultimately leads to a rather unsatisfying - but perhaps inevitable, in light of the messy nature of reproduction - conclusion: It is possible to discuss the ethics of selection against and for disability on person-affecting accounts of morality and to discuss the matter in this way offers sensitive and sensible prescriptions. However, such discussions turn out to be, in virtue of the many competing claims of those affected by reproductive decisions and policy, far more complex than might be assumed and do not fit neatly with the commonly held moral intuition that it is always morally preferable to select against disability in our offspring.
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorRebecca Bennett (Supervisor) & Iain Brassington (Supervisor)


  • Selection Against Disability
  • Selective Reproduction
  • Disability
  • Medical Jurisprudence
  • Bioethics
  • Ethics
  • Pre-Natal Harm
  • The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008
  • The Non-Identity Problem
  • Reproductive Ethics
  • Assisted Reproductive Technology

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