The fallacy of the Principle of Procreative Beneficence

Bioethics. 2009 Jun;23(5):265-73. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8519.2008.00655.x. Epub 2008 May 9.


The claim that we have a moral obligation, where a choice can be made, to bring to birth the 'best' child possible, has been highly controversial for a number of decades. More recently Savulescu has labelled this claim the Principle of Procreative Beneficence. It has been argued that this Principle is problematic in both its reasoning and its implications, most notably in that it places lower moral value on the disabled. Relentless criticism of this proposed moral obligation, however, has been unable, thus far, to discredit this Principle convincingly and as a result its influence shows no sign of abating. I will argue that while criticisms of the implications and detail of the reasoning behind it are well founded, they are unlikely to produce an argument that will ultimately discredit the obligation that the Principle of Procreative Beneficence represents. I believe that what is needed finally and convincingly to reveal the fallacy of this Principle is a critique of its ultimate theoretical foundation, the notion of impersonal harm. In this paper I argue that while the notion of impersonal harm is intuitively very appealing, its plausibility is based entirely on this intuitive appeal and not on sound moral reasoning. I show that there is another plausible explanation for our intuitive response and I believe that this, in conjunction with the other theoretical criticisms that I and others have levelled at this Principle, shows that the Principle of Procreative Beneficence should be rejected.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Beneficence*
  • Child
  • Choice Behavior / ethics
  • Disabled Children*
  • Dissent and Disputes
  • Ethical Analysis
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Eugenics
  • Fertilization in Vitro / ethics
  • Genetic Testing / ethics
  • Health Policy
  • Humans
  • Intuition / ethics
  • Logic
  • Moral Obligations*
  • Personal Autonomy
  • Reproduction / ethics*
  • Risk-Taking
  • Value of Life
  • Wrongful Life / ethics