They all want to be left holding the baby

Everyone demands their 'rights' in modern battles over reproduction. But conflicting demands are leading us into an ethical minefield
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The Independent Online
"We all have the right to have children - it doesn't matter who we are or what we are - and I want to be able to partake in that right." So speaks Russell Conlon, who with his partner Stephen is now looking for a lesbian couple to have a baby for them.

Reproduction seems to inspire much talk of rights. Take the case of James Kelly, who yesterday gave up his legal battle to stop his estranged wife Lynne Kelly having an abortion. Here we have the woman's right to choose, the right of the foetus to life, and now the right of the father to participate in the decision. With the last news outburst of surrogacy we had the Dutch couple Clemens and Sonja Peters insisting on their right to buy a baby for pounds 12,000 in expenses from surrogate Karen Roche. And then there was Ms Roche's right to change her mind - not once but several times, announcing she had had abortion, then she hadn't, then she had decided to keep the baby for herself, then she had decided to offer it to yet another couple.

There is something decidedly modern about all these conflicting rights. The tyranny of the single truth bedevils political debate in our single- issue age. But it is technology which is at the core of the new sexual problems. Twenty years ago adoption was the only solution to infertility. Now medicine has opened up a whole range of options from super-ovulatory drugs and pregnancy-promoting chemicals to artificial insemination, in vitro fertilisation and surrogacy. It has also brought increasingly sophisticated techniques of abortion.

Changes in social mores have accompanied the process. Russell Conlon was told that he and his partner were rejected as foster parents and refused a child for adoption because they are both registered as disabled and living on state benefit. He insists that the reason was that they are gay.

If so, there are many who would applaud the decision. "God help us. What is the world coming to?" said the Tory MP Nicholas Winterton. "To seek to bring up a child in that situation would be unnatural and totally wrong."

But there are many others who would agree with Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of ethics at the British Medical Association, who suggests: "Children do well in any stable loving family - and that can include a single parent or two of the same sex".

Clearly this area is an ethical minefield. There are issues of consistency: can it be right that infertility treatment is available under one health authority while it is denied to those who live across the street in another? There are issues of public spending priority: should such treatment be available on the NHS at all? There are issues of principle: are some kinds of treatment, such as those which involve the discarding of fertilised embryos, ethically unacceptable?

"Because there's a medical solution to infertility, people assume it must be a medical problem," says Dr Nathanson. But is infertility due to a gay lifestyle a health care issue? And why is it right for society to discriminate when selecting parents for adoption when it makes no claims to regulate parenthood by natural means?

There are those who argue that such discrimination is not just morally permissible, it's obligatory. "There is no right to adopt a child," argues Will Cartwright, a philosopher at the University of Essex who specialises in ethics and adoption. "Rather there is a responsibility on behalf of society to find the best home for a child." All of which rather goes against the tone of many contemporary arguments which begin and end with the speaker and his or her needs.

There are other objections. "The law doesn't recognise rights in these areas," says Pat Walsh, director of the Centre for Medical Ethics at King's College, London. "It speaks only of the best interests of the patient." Nor are rights a useful moral tool, according to Ted Honderich, Grote Professor of Philosophy and Logic at University College, London. "Talk of rights is effectively question-begging," he says: a 'right' is often just a moral judgement in disguise. "It's a statement which pretends to take the argument on more than it does."

Surrogacy is intrinsically problematic. "When you take reproduction out of its natural context it's bound to throw up problems," says Pat Walsh. "Of course it's a slippery concept - what's natural, what's normal - but it is a notion which still has some use."

Reservations are both theoretical and practical: the Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, warned yesterday about the dangers of removing elements from the matrix of sexuality, while Britain's first surrogate mother, Mary Stewart, expressed regret that she ever had someone else's baby and said it had "affected my life in a big way". "We do need someone gathering data on this," admits Dr Nathanson.

The issue is a Pandora's Box. Government ministers have expressed reluctance to enter into major legislation on surrogacy, though they will consider tightening the law if rules on payment of expenses are being over-stretched.

But there are arguments for making the law more restrictive, as in Holland, or more contractual, as in the United States. "Once you get into the business of assisting people to have children the ethics become rather different," says Pat Walsh.

Will Cartwright agrees. A couple who have a child in the normal way might be said to have a 'right' to children in the sense that, if the state intervened and said they couldn't, the rest of us would find that unacceptable. "But once you get into IVF a couple are asking for assistance from others, and those others have the right to ask whether they want to co-operate, and on what terms." So there is a potent argument for higher standards to apply in deciding who should be a surrogate and who should be allowed to enter into arrangements with surrogates.

There is another option. "There are still considerable social pressures for people to have children," says Vivienne Nathanson. "Perhaps we need to lessen them." Childlessness could become a choice rather than a curse. But then denial is contrary to the spirit of the age.