by Travis Rieder, PhD



Who gets to decide if you become a parent? Well, you, we might think, and only you. However, thanks to the rise of reproductive technology that allows potential parents to create and freeze embryos, this question has been raised with a new urgency.


Businessman Nick Loeb recently dragged his ex-fiance Sofía Vergara (of Modern Family fame) into controversy by suing her for possession of their frozen embryos. Now, the legal suit is a legal matter, to be settled by the courts. But let’s be clear about the moral issue: Loeb is in the wrong, and Vergara has no obligation to release the embryos.


Let’s set aside the fact that, through explicit contract, Vergara and Loeb promised that the embryos could only be gestated if both parties consented. That is: let’s set aside the fact that Loeb is attempting to break his promise. Even without an explicit understanding to this effect, is it wrong for one genetic contributor to gestate an embryo against the wishes of the other contributor?


This question raises the issue of parenthood – what it means to be a parent – and what our rights are vis a vis parenthood. Reproductive technologies have allowed us to separate forms of parenthood that would, in previous times, have been indivisible. So ‘genetic parents’, whose sperm and egg contributed to the creation of the embryo, would also have been the social parents, who intended to take home and raise the resulting child. Further, one of those genetic, social parents would necessarily have been the ‘gestational parent’, or the woman in whose womb the child lived for approximately 40 weeks. But gamete donation and purchase, in vitro fertilization, and surrogacy have now made possible all sorts of combinations of types of parents. If the genetic parents are anonymous donors whose gametes were purchased by the social parents, who intend for the resulting embryo to be gestated in the womb of a surrogate mother, who are the ‘real’ parents?


I have written before on my belief that we over-value the genetic relationship, and I still believe that. As a result, I believe that we all might be better off if we saw Loeb and Vergara’s situation as less important. That is: we might be better off if the fact that Loeb and Vergara happened to donate their genetics to the creation of this embryo did not matter. But their genetic donation does mean a lot to them, and as a society, most of us support this concern. What that means is that if Loeb were to obtain these embryos and have them gestated, then at the birth of the child, both we and Vergara would likely say that Vergara had been made a mother. And when she and we said that, we would take it to matter, morally.


And that’s the kicker. Loeb seems to think that he has the right to try to become a parent. And many people agree that there is some sense in which all of us have a right to become a parent. But that does not mean that he or anyone else has a right to a child, or to any particular child. And then here is what I feel really comfortable saying: Vergara does have a right not to become a mother against her wishes. Our parenting rights, then, are asymmetric, as they protect us from being forced to parent, but they do not guarantee us someone else’s help in becoming a parent.


So who gets to decide if you become a parent? You do. And Loeb gets to decide if he becomes a parent. But he doesn’t get to decide to become a parent in a way that makes Vergara a parent. Because she, like the rest of us, gets to decide for herself.

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Travis Rieder

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