The baby business is an ethical chimera, governed on the one hand by the ethics and practices of business, at least to some degree, and yet brought into being to serve the decidedly non-commercial end of creating families (Spar x-5). The baby business is the business of fertility, offering millions of desperate people everything from haploid gametes to adoptions to the ability to correct congenital defects either in utero, or even before implantation (x-xiii). This is the commercial aspect of the business, and it is this that critics find so troubling: after all, the ‘products’ of this business are human beings, whether created in the course of the business (as with IVF) or given a change in status as a result of it (as with adoption) (x-xiv).
There is a pertinent distinction, therefore, between two main aspects of the baby trade: adoption, which entails the placement of babies and children with new homes, and fertility technologies, which entail the creation and/or altering of embryos for the purposes of producing children (Spar 161). The position of children put up for adoption is necessarily different from that of embryos created and/or altered by artificial means, precisely because the former have already been born and are very clearly stakeholders. Whether it may be said that embryos are also stakeholders will be evaluated in the course of this analysis, but clearly any children created as a result of fertility technologies are stakeholders.
The respective positions and needs of the other stakeholders are easily summarized. On the one hand, there are the would-be parents, the consumers who make the market possible. Their desires are decidedly non-commercial in that they want children to raise, but they are willing, for all intents and purposes, to resort to commercial means to acquire said children. On the other hand, there are the suppliers, a category which arguably includes everyone from donors of sperm and eggs to the doctors and specialized technicians responsible for the biomedical side of the business. For donors, the business is an opportunity to dispense gametes in exchange for monetary compensation; as such, their stake is very minor. For the fertility specialists, the business is an opportunity to sell their services: as such, their stake is a livelihood.
The two main ethical approaches to this case from a business standpoint are utilitarian ethics and duty-based ethics (DeGeorge). Utilitarianism is the position that whether an action is right or wrong should be determined on the basis of the amount of utility versus disutility that it produces (Brennan, Canning, and McDowell 106-107). In this context, ‘utility’ is judged in terms of happiness, or well-being: one should consider the respective interests of all of the different stakeholders, and take the action that will maximize benefits to stakeholders (Brennan et al. 107, Carroll and Buchholtz 228). Utilitarianism is used by business all of the time, precisely because it encourages stakeholder analysis, and is extremely flexible, allowing it to be adapted to any number of complex situations (Carroll and Buchholtz 228). The reality is that in business, situations are often quite complex, and will necessarily involve trade-offs (228). A cost-of-living raise for employees, for example, will boost employee morale and may help a company attract, cultivate, and retain the best human capital in its industry, but it will be an increase in expenses. Instead of arguing that the company has a moral duty to give employees the raise, or a moral duty to maximize profits for its shareholders, the utilitarian would approach this situation by evaluating the utility to the employees of the extra pay, coupled with the utility of the expected productivity gains for the organization against the cost of the higher payroll, and any concerns from shareholders. This approach takes into account the interests of all parties and the situational particulars (variables such as prices and wages), and produces solutions that work to maximize overall wellbeing.
On the other hand, there are problems with the utilitarian system. Its critics charge that by reducing questions of morality and ethics to a cost-benefit analysis, utilitarianism enters ethically dangerous territory: after all, in some situations, the utilitarian might overrule or disregard actionable ethical interests of some stakeholders, simply because the utilitarian deems these interests either not substantial enough, or not held by enough stakeholders (Brennan et al. 107; Miller and Jentz 52). Brennan et al. give a good example: a sales executive determines that with one lie, he can secure an order that will keep twenty-five people employed for the next year. The customer will never know and will never be the worse off, and the only conceivable competitor for the same contract “is already operating near full capacity” (107). A purely utilitarian approach would favor lying, but this is explicitly against the ethics championed by most businesses (107).
Why, then, should the sales executive not lie to the customer? And why might it be wrong to commercialize children? The answer lies with another system of ethics, duty-based ethics (Brennan et al. 107). Duty-based ethics are also called deontological ethics, and they are a seminal feature of traditional religious belief. In secular philosophy, they are associated most famously with Immanuel Kant, who argued that human beings should be treated as ends in and of themselves (Brennan et al. 107, Miller and Jentz 51). Kant’s categorical imperative, the central duty of his ethical system, was to respect the inherent dignity of persons: people have certain inalienable rights, which must under no circumstances be violated, ever (Miller and Jentz 51-52, Weiss 107). For Kant, it was a moral imperative to respect the dignity of others, and he reformulated the Biblical Golden Rule into his principle of universalism, which states that “a person should choose to act if and only if she or he would be willing to have every person on earth, in that same situation, act exactly that way” (107). When faced with an ethical dilemma, the categorical imperative of respecting the dignity of persons requires one to treat all stakeholders as ends in and of themselves, not simply means to some end (107).
I argue that the baby business is necessarily an ethical chimera, because of the two decidedly different types of interests it must accommodate: first, the purely non-commercial, familial interests of the parents, the children put up for adoption, and any children created as a result of the fertility technologies, and second, the purely commercial interests of the donors who furnish the raw materials of reproduction, and the specialists who furnish the fertility services. As Spar points out, this market is driven by “a deep and persistent demand for reproduction, a demand that often goes far beyond what nature alone can provide” (196). This is the entire raison d’être of the trade: the desire to be parents (196). As Spar observes, this is generally regarded as a good thing, at least when the individuals in question are responsible and able to care for children; the only thing that differs is the way in which the children are acquired (196).
What, then, is wrong with a couple paying fertility specialists to help them create a child of their own, possibly with donated gametes of at least one type? The only stakeholders for whom the ends are commercial are donors, surrogate mothers, and fertility specialists: people who provide services in exchange for compensation (Spar 196-198). Utilitarian ethics should prevail here: specialists, donors and surrogates derive utility from providing their services, parents derive utility from receiving them, and any children created derive utility from having loving homes. For the couple and for any child created out of such a process, on the other hand, the ends are non-commercial; as such, their essential human dignity is still being respected, thereby satisfying deontological, duty-based ethics. A likely objection to this is that children are still being commercialized, and thus treated as a means to an end, and not ends in and of themselves. This is easily refuted as nonsense, however, when one considers that specialists and donors are supplying goods and services which should command remuneration. Parents already pay other people to educate their children, to watch them in daycare centers, and to produce food and clothing for them in the retail setting (196-198).
On the other hand, what about adoption? A variety of characteristics determine the essential ‘market value’ of a child: adoption fees may be reduced for deformity, for example (Spar 160). Ought children to be bought and sold in such a fashion? This is a thorny ethical issue, but two facts stand out: children are people whose human dignity should be respected, and children are dependents who incur large costs for caregivers. Following Kant, I argue that we should not commercialize children: the adoption industry must not be run for profit. On the other hand, raising children is costly, so orphanages need some way of recouping their costs: either from government funding, paid for by taxpayers, or from prospective adopting parents or private third parties (charitable donors). Who pays should be subject to a utilitarian analysis; in poorer countries, taxpayer funds may not be available, and international adoption fees may be necessary to keep orphanages running. Again, though, we must ensure that children’s lives are not merely reduced to market prices. A likely objection is that this is inconsistent with the above position about IVF, but the difference here is that the children have already been born. Selling a child is quite a different proposition than selling fertility services to create embryos which may then be implanted and finally become children.
The differing interests of the different stakeholders in the baby business necessarily complicate the bioethics and business ethics of this industry. For people desperate to become parents, a commercial transaction for services rendered is a worthwhile means to a decidedly non-commercial end. Two key recommendations follow: one, the establishment of a permissive regulatory framework with a system of property rights, and two, continued oversight of the adoption industry to ensure it is not being exploited for profit at children’s expense.
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Miller, Roger L., and Gaylord A. Jentz. Business Law Today: The Essentials. 9th ed. Mason, OH: Thomson Higher Education, 2009. Print.
Spar, Debora L. The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2006. Print.
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