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Saviour Siblings: There Are Many Reasons to Have A Child

2008 April 4
by Paul Vallely

Why do we have children? To fulfil a biological need. To make a relationship complete. To carry on the family name. To provide a playmate for an existing child. To bring a daughter into a family full of boys. To bind together a shaky marriage. To find someone to love. To ensure we have someone to look after us in our old age. To provide more hands on the farm or a successor for the family firm. To move up the waiting list to get a council flat. To increase our income from state benefits. Because we forgot the contraception.

Most people could add considerably to that list, for the answer is both multifaceted and varying. We might add one more – the idea that another one reason for having a child is so that their umbilical cord, of blood or bone marrow can be used to save the life of an existing child who has a life-threatening illness?

The proposal to enshrine the principle of such “saviour siblings” in British law is another of the controversial elements of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which MPs will be voting on in coming weeks. Unease centres on three areas.

Philosophically it involves looking at the saviour sibling as a mere instrument or means to and end rather than as a child created for its own sake. Physically or psychologically the business of donation might harm the second child. Theologically it raises, again, the question of when human life begins, since it can only be done by creating a number of embryos and discarding those that are not suitable – either because they are found to have the same family gene which caused the elder sibling’s disease or because they turn out not to have the gene which would make them match as a potential donor.

The philosophical objection seems flawed because there are so many overlapping reasons in nature, some admirable, some distinctly dodgy, for having a child. Few babies are conceived only for a single one of the reasons in our opening list. The argument that saviour siblings treat the offspring to be born as a commodity would only hold if the child were merely treated as a tissue farm and then killed or given away once it had served its therapeutic purpose for its elder brother or sister.

If a child is to be loved this is no more instrumental than attempting to conceive a child as a playmate for an existing child, which is seen as reasonable. What applies here is a similar dual purpose argument as Thomas Aquinas outlined in his principle of double effect, which offers moral justification for killing someone in self-defence or as an unavoidable side-effect of drugs given to manage unbearable terminal pain. It is an complementarity which the Church recognises in other areas, such as in acknowledging that sex is not simply about procreation but also about loving bonding of a married couple.

Concerns about physical or psychological harm to the new child are very proper. But these do not require an outright ban but merely pragmatic regulation. The rule the authorities have already established seem perfectly adequate. Embryo selection can only be done where there is a risk that the second child could carry the same hereditary disease, so the process involves the good of the second child as well as the first. It can only be done where a sibling is the beneficiary, not a parent. Embryos cannot be genetically modified to provide a tissue match. Monitoring of the continuing wellbeing of the saviour is required. No treatment can be pursued which would seriously harm the saviour.

So the only substantial argument against saviour siblings is the argument that all embryo selection to avoid hereditary diseases is wrong. I shall look at that next week.

From the Church Times

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