Philosopher Jake Earl (GRD ’12) questioned the idea that parents have the moral right to raise their own children in the latest installment of the weekly Friday Bioethics Series in the Bioethics Research Library. The Friday event, sponsored by the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, was titled “The Baby Lottery: A Challenge to the Right to Parent Our Own Children.”
Earl, who is currently a doctoral candidate and teaching associate in Georgetown College as well as a graduate fellow for the KIE, delivered his proposal for the Baby Lottery, a system that would randomly redistribute newborns to different parental applicants selected from a waitlist.
“It would work a lot like organ donation,” Earl said. “So, all children born in a certain territory in a place like the United States — it could be a large territory because we have a lot of effective transportation, and we have a lot of infrastructure set up for that — any children born would be removed from their birth parents — so, the people who created them, who gave birth to them in come cases. They’d be cared for in health care, or some sort of other facilities, for a short period of time, during which they would be randomly assigned and then expediently distributed to people who are on a waiting list.”
Earl said parents on the waitlist would have to meet a set of minimum requirements to receive children, such as a steady source of income to support a child and a history free of child abuse.
Earl reasons that the implementation of the Baby Lottery could counter forms of injustice that he sees in modern society, including the unequal distribution of goods such as health care, education, status or wealth, among people of different backgrounds.
Earl also referenced the work of the American philosopher John Rawls. Rawls proposed a theory that he called the “Natural Lottery,” which is the uneven distribution of genetically inherited traits that tend to correlate with a person’s advantages or disadvantages in society. Earl says that his Baby Lottery counters the negative effects of Rawls’ Natural Lottery.
“At the very least, children would then all have an equal shot of being raised in homes that have a chance of outweighing or counterbalancing the disadvantages that they get from the Natural Lottery,” Earl said.
Earl encouraged the audience to question the Baby Lottery on any grounds during the question-and-answer portion of the event.
The only strong objection to the Baby Lottery that Earl found in the course of his extensive research was a claim involving parental moral agency, or the freedom of able parents to execute their right to fulfill their obligations to their children.
“One thing I think is interesting, and seems to me plausible, is that the right to parent one’s child, which is one of many different sorts of parental rights, is ultimately grounded in or justified by obligations that we have toward the child,” Earl said.
In light of this objection, Earl said his argument for the Baby Lottery is not conclusive. Earl added that if parents were to vote the Baby Lottery into law, the system could still be put into place.
“So, the Baby Lottery still isn’t dead yet,” Earl said. “But, I think I’ve identified one way of arguing effectively against it.”
Student reactions to the presentation varied.
“To me, it is very disturbing,” Janelle Spira (NHS ’18) said. “It is an interesting idea, but I don’t think that it could ever be practically implemented.”
“I found myself having a very visceral reaction of opposition to the speaker’s thesis,” Daniel McCorry (MED ’17) said. “But, I found his defense particularly stimulating because I couldn’t quite figure out why I was opposed to it on an emotional level.”
Causing people to consider such new ideas was one of Earl’s goals for the presentation.
“I think that thinking about the Baby Lottery prevents us from being completely complacent about how we understand what justifies our actual system of finding parents for children and what we expect from parents,” Earl said after the program. “In that way, I think it’s more of a thought experiment that helps to bring out what are really the moral grounds for the institution of parenthood and the family.”
According to KIE Head of Academic Programs Laura Bishop (GRD ’98), sparking the type of active discourse that took place during the question-and-answer section of the event is one of the goals of the Friday talk series.
“The whole goal is to have this free and open exchange — supporting your own opinions, listening to other people’s opinions and trying to come to the best judgment that you can or trying to model that for students,” Bishop said.
Bioethics talks occur every Friday in the Bioethics Research Library, located on the first floor of Healy Hall. Senior Research Scholar Robert M. Veatch will discuss the irrationality of doctors’ orders in this week’s installment.