19 June

Professor Geeta Nargund and Reproductive Rights

For the most part having children is not about enhancing choice. It is a practical reality that calls for much forgoing of what parents might want to do – whether listening to music, going to the theatre, having a drink and a chat with friends, or just sleeping. As a result a premium has come to be placed on the freedom to decide whether to have children. Increasingly the language used is that of rights, specifically of reproductive rights. As reproductive technologies have developed ‘rights’ of access have mushroomed: from contraception and/or midwifery care, to abortion and/or IVF and even surrogacy.

However, one of the pitfalls of discussing human reproduction in the language of rights is that rights imply not just best practice or general preference for better medical provision, but a radical claim on society at large to make what these rights describe a reality.

Expressions of such radical thinking can be seen in the use of abortion as a ‘form of contraception’ and, at the other end of the scale, in instances of IVF, too, being seen as a right. To date all these services have been available on the NHS in some form or another.

Cue panicked headlines when Professor Geeta Nargund, Head of Reproductive Medicine at St George’s Hospital, London, called for young women (and men) to be taught that it is much easier and healthier to have children in one’s twenties than in one’s late thirties. In itself this should not be news at all, but the fashion for pursuing a career and delaying marriage and children has, understandably, led to a belief that fertility is something we can turn on and off with the help of technology. The fashion for reproductive rights supports such a view and in particular the idea that a deep-seated desire to have, or not to have, children, is sufficient to justify both IVF and abortion.

Rather than as a right it might be more prudent to see human reproduction as an opportunity, and a limited one at that. Like all opportunities it involves work and a cost, but it also brings its own, profound rewards. Parenting naturally reaches far beyond the desires of any individual parent, and must do so if he or she is to treat a child as a complete human being. It must also been seen as distinct from any kind of entitlement. Life is a gift, and if we grasp at it too hard we run the very real risk that it will crumble and expire in our hands.

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