Melissa Moschella: Rethinking the moral permissibility of gamete donation

In this article, Moschella’s argues against the dominant philosophical view that there is nothing morally wrong with gamete donation—a view which rests on the following two premises:

  1. Parental obligations are triggered primarily by playing a causal role (as agent cause) in procreation, not by genetic ties.
  2. Parental obligations are transferable—that is, there is no moral wrong being done by the genetic parents as long as they transfer their responsibilities to someone else who can fulfill the child’s needs.

Moschella attempts to disprove both these premises. She shows that genetics—not procreative causation—is the primary cause of parental obligations, and that these obligations are not transferrable, even to competent individuals who are not the genetic parents.

Moschella gives the following definition for genetic parent:

“A is a genetic parent of B if (i) A passes on genetic information to B, (ii) A’s physical genome is passed on to B, and (iii) A’s physical genome was reshuffled once (usually mixed with the genome of a different individual) to constitute B.” (423)

Her first premise assumes an animalist account of human identity. This means that she considers personal identity a biological property of human beings. The main relevant implication of this is that a person has a single, continuous identity from conception to death. That is, “continued existence of the same human organism is a necessary and sufficient condition for continuity of identity.” (424) This is important because it means that a genetic parent’s ties to its child are also continuous.

Next, Moschella argues in favor of her second premise—that forming personal relationships with people causes one to have special obligations—which she calls personal obligations—to those people. By Moschella’s definition, a personal relationship is “a relationship in which the parties relate as unique and irreplaceable individuals, not merely fulfilling a function which anyone with the relevant competencies could fulfill.” (426) She provides the following two examples to explain the difference between personal and non-personal relationships on page 426:

  1. My relationship with a bank teller as such, for instance, is not personal insofar as it is not based on any unique characteristics of that person, and any other equally competent teller (or a well-functioning automatic teller machine) could meet my needs equally well.
  2. My relationship with a friend is personal insofar as it is based on unique personal characteristics proper to that person, which means that there are things that person, and only that person, can ‘‘do’’ for me.

The main point of this distinction is that personal relationships create personal obligations—ones that are not transferrable—while they do also create non-personal obligations. For example, a professor does not have a personal obligation to proctor a test himself. This obligation is transferable to any other competent professor. On the other hand, a professor does have a personal obligation to meet with his advisees. He cannot merely direct them to other qualified and competent professors for advice because that obligation is based on certain unique qualities that only that professor has. Personal relationships give rise to personal obligations because they are based on unique characteristics, so “there are things that person, and only that person, can ‘‘do’’ for me” (426)

Moschella proceeds to argue that there is a personal relationship between a child and its genetic parents, and that this personal relationship comes with certain personal obligations. This relationship is personal because it is based on unique characteristics. The genetic parents are unique in that they are the biological causes of the child. Additionally, the permanence of this relationship makes it an important identity-constituting characteristic for the child because “Not to be related to my genetic parents in this regard is, simply, not to be me—indeed, it is not to exist at all.” (430)

According to Moschella, the presence of a unique personal relationship inherently gives rise to personal obligations, but what is the importance and extent of these obligations? To figure this out, we must think about how children are personally dependent on their genetic parents. In other words, what are the things that only genetic parents can do for a child? Moschella claims that knowing and loving their children as the genetic parents and letting their children know and love them is something that only genetic parents can do. While others may be able to love them, this cannot replace the unique love that comes from the genetic parents.

Why is this unique love so important? Because children do not miss being loved by someone with which they do not have a personal relationship. They do miss being loved by people who they have personal relationships with. Children always have a permanent personal relationship with their genetic parents. Thus, the love of genetic parents is irreplaceable—just as a friend’s love would be irreplaceable—but the personal relationship that makes a genetic parent’s love irreplaceable is non-contingent. In order to be able to provide their children with love and receive love in return, the child and parent must know each other well. Thus, spending a lot of time with the child is essential for fulfilling this obligation.

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, in cases where the parents are not competent enough to raise the child, they may transfer that obligation. However, the obligation of love does not transfer. Instead, the parents must be able to tell the child that they gave him up because of their love for him. Since the obligation is to the child, the circumstances must be such that the child accepts and agrees with this explanation at all points later in his or her life.

This exception, however, never applies to gamete donations because genetic parents are creating the child with the intention of giving it up to someone else. In other words, the child is not being created and then given up for its own well-being out of love. Rather, it is created with the specific intention of being given up for ulterior gain—whether it be monetary gain or helping an infertile couple have a child. Additionally, the creation of a child cannot be done for the benefit of that child because there is no child to benefit before its creation. Creation of a child can only be intended as a benefit for someone else—treatment which is incompatible with love. Thus, gamete donation is inherently immoral because it involves genetic parents creating a child without the intention of fulfilling their personal obligation of loving it and allowing it to love them.

13 thoughts on “Melissa Moschella: Rethinking the moral permissibility of gamete donation

  1. Daniel Ramirez

    We all seem to agree that Moschella makes relatively weak theoretical claims. I’m not sure what Moschella is after or whether or not she actually believes what she writes. “The absence of parents’ love is still a significant loss to children because once children begin to understand the facts of how they came into the world, they can miss the specific love of their genetic parents, and the absence of that love can harm them” (435)
    I think Moschella’s argument might be a little harder to criticize if she revisited her definition of “harm”. First of all, there are good reasons to believe that if you want to say anything meaningful about human relationships you have to limit yourself to specific communities. If Moschella position was appropriately informed by leading anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists would we take it seriously? I grant that a person’s genetic relationship to their parents in a community where everyone knows what a genetic relationship will likely have some kind of social repercussions (which would . If Moschella operates using some kind of widely accepted anthropological psychological or sociological literature in the background, then she has no real need to invoke morality to get at what she’s after.

    1. Daniel Ramirez

      to finish the parentheses I started without finishing:
      (which would then be evaluated and pronounced beneficial, usually harmful, good to up to a certain degree, etc. (there are more illuminating ways of evaluating relationships than good and bad, moral or immoral))*

  2. Jeremy Read

    2 Questions/Problems:
    (from page 434 in her discussion of the “personal dependence” of children on their genetic parents.

    1. Moschella argues that the love of genetic offspring is a “special” kind of love, a love “that takes priority over most other kinds of loves”. Here I am sure she is referencing the deep sort of bonding we expect between parents and their children (and the deep love children expect from their genetic parents.) She argues that this “special” love is a good which it is morally wrong to deny. However, her argument seems to have strange implications. She argues that this “special” love requires two things: a. Genetic Relation (GR) and b. Knowledge of GR (KGR).

    Further, and most problematically, she attempts to take a stronger line than Haslanger and resist the notion that the moral good of biological relations is broadly constructed, as she writes: “this unique and important benefit [is] regardless of cultural context”.

    If her argument were true, then this would follow:
    Imagine a world where we have no conception of genetics and no way of reliably determining immediate family relation (other than visible characteristics). In other words, just a few generations ago.

    A mother who’s child was switched at birth (without her knowledge) for another physically similar child, would be completely incapable of feeling the ultimate form of love for her child and her child would lack the important good of being loved as its mother’s true biological offspring.

    This seems incredible.

    Perhaps Moschella could be defended by invoking some sort of “intuitive, unanalyzable”‘ or “natural” mechanism for Genetic Love. But, if we accept Moschella’s conception that Genetic Love requires KGR, then it seems that there must be something going on that is analyzable and knowledge related. As such, she is committed to the idea that a double blinded example would not yield genetic love. Any attempt to resist this commitment would contradict her own stipulation that Genetic Love requires KGR, and would have major implications for her later moral prescriptions (such as that genetic parents should know their offspring).

    2. Moschella argues that children are only capable of receiving the ultimate form of parental love from those who are the cause of their existence (and who care for them adequately). She cashes out causation in genetic terms (because your genetics are determinant of your animal body, which she claims IS your identity). However, as a few of us have pointed out, epigenetics and early care also have profound determining effects on the animal body. Moschella’s argument is against gamete donation. In cases where mothers carry genetically unrelated babies to term, are the causes of identity really as clear as Moschella would like us to think?

    1. Jeremy Read

      I guess one major question that comes out of my first problem with Moschella’s argument for special love (1.) is this:
      What does she mean by “regardless of cultural context”?
      Is this a claim for a necessary feature of human existence, where on any possible conception of human life there is a form of paramount love only fulfilled by the right relationship between progenitor and their genetic offspring?
      Or is it just that she sees this phenomena across all actual cultures?

      Second question which comes from my first problem (1.) is this:
      Does genetic love really require KNOWLEDGE of genetic relation, or just BELIEF?

  3. Timothy Patricia

    Reading Moschella’s article, I keep trying to think of some cases exceptional to her rules. I’m hesitant to assign wrongness, goodness, badness, etc. regarding this subject matter because there doesn’t seem to be any clear moral obligation that comes with being genetically tied to a person.

    Consider a husband and wife who have a child and are capable of raising the child sufficiently, but only sufficiently in the sense that the child is provided with a very basic level of comfort and care. Let’s say that the family is poor, lives in a unsafe neighborhood, and that the parents, although loving, are unable to spend much time tending to the child. Now is it wrong for those parents to send the child away to a better situation? Basically, I’m asking you to imagine Will Smith moving from Philly to Bel Air to reign as the Fresh Prince. Was it morally impermissible of his parents to send him to live with his aunt and uncle in a far better situation in Bel Air? I don’t see why it would be wrong for parents, even though they are capable of raising the child, to send him or her to an exponentially better situation — even if it means they will be relatively absent for the child rearing process.

  4. Jingyi Wu

    I’ve had several BS and WTF moments throughout the reading:

    I’m not at all convinced that Amy has a special obligation to Clare solely because Amy is the only person whom Clare tells everything. Moschella justifies Amy’s special obligation by Clare’s closeness and the importance of Clare’s needs. “[it] is important to point out that it is the closeness of Person B to Person A and the importance of Person B’s needs that determine the weight of Person A’s special obligations to Person B” (428).
    This looks BS to me. First, what about Amy’s feelings? It is perfectly reasonable to imagine a situation in which Clare confides everything to Amy, but Amy does not feel that Clare’s trust in her results in any kind of obligation or closeness. Clare might just be annoying and want some sort of catharsis. I can certainly think of several similar occasions. If Amy does not want to be involved, why is she obliged to help Clare?
    Second, the relationship between Amy and Clare does not necessarily have to be personal. What if Amy is a clinical psychologist and Clare happens to be her patient and tells her everything. Then Amy is obliged to attend to Clare’s wellbeing, but their relationship is not at all personal.
    If Moschella cannot address to the objections above, then the proposition “it is the closeness of Person B to Person A and the importance of Person B’s needs that determine the weight of Person A’s special obligations to Person B” (428) does not hold. Then, it becomes a questionable move when later Moschella says that the child’s closeness to her/his genetic parents justify the genetic parents’ special obligation.

    My greatest struggle would be why the uniqueness of genetic parents leads to the parents’ indispensable obligation to be at the child’s growing up. I can totally think of other things uniquely related to a child but these things do not necessarily need to be there in child’s growing up. For example, the place where the child was born or where the family’s from, the child’s native language, the child’s biological sex, etc. Why are the genetic parents (or the genetic codes) so unique that their absence would entail incompleteness of the child’s identity?! An ethnically Chinese child may be raised in the US. As the child grows up and inquires about China, does this immediately show that the child’s cultural identity is not complete because she/he is not raised in an ethnically immersed environment? My answer would be no. Therefore, by parallel, I take Moschella’s claim that “the absence of parents’ love is still a significant loss to children because once children begin to understand the facts of how they came into the world, they can miss the specific love of their genetic parents, and the absence of that love can harm them” (435) to be unsound.

  5. Kyle Kysela

    Elaborating on themes mentioned in my reply to Leo’s post below, I have to wonder about the implications of Moschella’s supposed inherent moral obligation to those who share one’s genetic material. If there is an essential component to the formation of personal identity that is constituted by one’s relationship with genetic relatives—and the fulfillment of this component holds moral weight—then does that obligation extend beyond one’s parents to one’s siblings, one’s cousins, one’s race? To be honest and up-front about things, I don’t believe genetic or biological ties hold any moral weight whatsoever and these recent articles have done absolutely nothing to change my mind about the subject. I think they rest on a whole range of dangerous and spurious assumptions about morality, social categories, and personal identity.

    On that subject, I wonder if an argument for Moschella’s conclusion could be made without depending on an almost certainly fallacious account of personal identity as continuous and discrete. I remain doubtful about such an endeavor.

  6. Robert LaCroix

    On page 430, Moschella argues that a child’s total dependence on its parents for care in the earliest stages of life gives us reason to say that the parent-child bond is the closest and strongest of human relations. I would question whether children really are dependent on their genetic parents specifically for care in the early stages of their lives. In the modern United States, it’s true, parents tend to be the first people to take care of a child, but this need not be the case. For instance, for a large swath of European history, noble women would hire wet-nurses to suckle their children, and the wet-nurse would essentially take on the role of mother for the early stages of the child’s life. This suggests that genetic parents do not have the unique capability to provide care to tiny infants that Moschella claims they do.

    To take a more modern example, baby formula can be provide the nutrition that a child used to need to get from its mother (or wet-nurse), meaning that just about anyone could provide essential care to a young infant.

    Is there, then, any sort of care that genetic parents can provide that no one else can? Moschella seems to claim that genetic parental love is this sort of care. Certainly there is no direct replacement, but it seems like a non-genetic parent could be close enough.

  7. Max Riddle

    Moschella claims that loving feelings are not obligatory but loving action or “care” is. To me, loving feelings seem to be the only unique part of a parent’s love for their child. If they only have an obligation to “act” lovingly then feasibly anyone capable of these same actions is fully capable of fulfilling the obligation of a genetic parent—in this case the recipient of a gamete donation. What loving action is a biological parent uniquely capable of? If there are no such actions then is there really a difference between the love of a genetic parent and the love of a non-biological parent?

    Additionally, It seems that the importance of genetic similarity has nothing to do with an inherent quality of genetic material itself but is important only in the child’s perception. The harm suffered by a child who is not raised by their genetic parents is that they feel they do not have the love of their genetic parents, but this is not a comment about the importance of shared genetic material as much as it is a comment on the importance placed on biological relationships in society. Is Moschella’s view biased towards the schema of the nuclear family discussed by Haslanger?

  8. Leo DesBois

    In the footnotes on pages 433 and 435, Moschella cites empirical evidence indicating that children raised away from their biological parents face higher risks of psychological trauma and poor outcomes. However, on page 433 she qualifies this evidence as “inherently limited” because “it only shows that by and large and in general children do best when their genetic parents raise them, and it can only establish correlation, not causation.” These limitations seem to motivate Moschella’s attempt to develop a deontological, rather than consequentialist, theory of the moral wrong of gamete donation. If she can show that gamete donors violate an important, non-transferable obligation to their genetic offspring, then she need not rely on empirical evidence in support of her moral claim.

    Given this strategy, I was surprised when consequentialist considerations resurfaced in the Conclusion. On page 438, Moschella writes that “the seriousness of the injustice depends on the seriousness of the harm that will foreseeably result from one’s failure to fulfill the obligation in question…” But if the injustice consists in breaking an obligation, the consequences of this action – whether beneficial or harmful – are beside the point. Is Moschella sloppily conflating two different frameworks of moral evaluation? Can she both reject empirical evidence and judge gamete donation by the seriousness of the harm it will cause?

    1. Kyle Kysela

      I agree with Leo that there seems to be a conflation of consequentialist and deontological moral theories in Moschella’s paper.

      In fact, I think part of her motivation for turning to deontological theories is the difficulty of proving that there is some harm inherent in the separation of children from their biological parents. The difficulty with the correlation/causation problem, however, is even more difficult than it initially seems. I believe that in order to show that there is some inherent harm in donating gametes, Moschella would have to show that children raised by non-biological parents experience some discernible detriment whether or not they are even aware that their parents are not genetically related to them. The are confounding variables contributing to the current welfare of these donation-origin children. The detriment to well-being found in the studies she cites could just as well have come from social attitudes toward gamete donation and the children who result from it, in which case the moral hazard could be avoided by simply hiding the fact of its origins from the child or, better yet, somehow hiding that fact from both parties. I agree wholeheartedly with Max’s assessment that “the importance of genetic similarity has nothing to do with an inherent quality of genetic material itself but is important only in the child’s perception,” which presents some problems for Moschella’s account and the moral imperative she tries to advance.

  9. Gioia Pappalardo

    I also have some doubts about animalism (although I also don’t buy the psychological account of identity – I tend to side more with Parfit). Not only do the cells/molecules of our body die and change over a lifetime, the boundary between ourselves as an organism, a biological system, and the environment is not definite – such as in cases of deep symbiosis. For example, most of the DNA in our body is not human, but belongs to bacteria that live within us and are absolutely necessary to our survival. A more extreme example is mitochondria. In a fairly common theory (at least this was true a few years ago), mitochondria were originally a completely different organism from what would eventually become the rest of a cell. The two organisms became more and more symbiotically related, though even now out mitochondria have some of their own rogue DNA apart from the nucleus of the cell. In both cases, exactly when two fairly distinct biological systems become a single one is unclear. How much numerical identity/entity does Moschella need? Is this just the “too many organisms” problem she mentions at the bottom of Pg425? Does the explanation of them being “also individual organisms with an inherent active disposition to complete independence” apply in this case, when they are actually in increased dependency over time/evolution?

    A weird thought experiment/question. Pretend the bacteria (or mitochondria or some imaginary thing in a deep, inseparable symbiosis w/ a human) has some basic level of consciousness, at least enough to give them some basic moral responsibility. Would these ‘parents’ (they would seem to fit her qualifications for genetic parent) also have some moral obligation to the child, given that the bacteria and human sides could not survive without the other.

    Also, I had been thinking of twins when she gave her 3-point definition of genetic parent. A genetic parent must 1) pass their genetic information and 2) their physical genome, which was 3) reshuffled at some point (ie mixed with the genome of another individual) to the child (423). This ensures that “the children of one’s identical twin are not one’s own genetic children” (424). First, it is possible to strengthen the twin argument against this. Pretend that two sets of identical twins donate their gametes, so that the same genetic information ends up in each embryo (meets criteria 1&3).

    I would then have to question the importance of criteria 2. For one, the actual physical cells/molecules of the passed genes will probably be quickly pulled apart/changed/eventually not exist. Furthermore, epigenetic changes will also greatly affect what genes are actually expressed. All that will be left is the genetic information. If parents had a genetically related child, but that child’s entire genetic makeup was created in a laboratory (but say it’s an exact duplicate of what their child would be through natural conception), would Moschella be willing to say that there was no genetic/parental relation or obligation between parent and child? If not, why is criteria 2 so important?

  10. Jack George

    I found the presentation of Animalism, something I’ll admit to having known nothing about, to be fascinating:

    “We think that assault is a more serious crime than vandalism (more serious in kind, not just in degree) because it is a crime against oneself, not just one’s property, and that rape is a personal violation, even if the victim is unconscious and never finds out about it later. The best explanation for these judgments is that I and my organism are the same thing.”

    However, this made me wonder about the limitations of such a concept. If I am my body — surely I am no more than a mind-dependent perception of my body, since all the cells within my body will eventually die and be replaced, other than my cerebral cortex. Animalism is thus a combination of genetic material and a brain cells combined with an ongoing and ever-changing set of psychological circumstances. Identity, beliefs, dreams the other important things are far more ephemeral and fickle. But just because the psychological account of identity is not as essential as the animalist one, does not mean that the latter is sufficient for a good life. Indeed Moschella recognizes this “it is rare for a human relationship to be merely
    That said she acknowledges that “when genetic parents cannot or will not raise their children, others can step in and do an excellent job, even an all-things-considered better job than the genetic parents
    would have done.” Thus ascertaining that biological relationships are perhaps not the most important aspect of a child’s development. But we don’t see what those other ‘goods’ could be and indeed how they compare to biological ties in an “all-things-considered” scenario. But this is the same problem as last week.
    Thus Maschiello would not be against adoption but rather solely against gamete donation. My question is this, in a scenario where all children who have put up for adoption have been adopted and gamete donation is rendered illegal, what is to be done about the person who wants a child but for whatever reason cannot procreate naturally? In other words, what about potential parents’ desires? Why is the good-life of the future child prioritized over that of the potential parent? Maschiello goes a long way to presenting ‘love’ as an entity to be respected, but what about the unfulfilled potential of love from single/infertile potential parents?

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