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The Right Not to Be a Genetic Parent?


I. Glenn Cohen


Harvard Law School

2008

Southern California Law Review, Vol. 81, p. 1115, 2008
Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-31

Abstract:     
Should the law recognize an individual's right not to be a genetic parent when genetic parenthood does not carry with it legal or gestational parenthood? If so, should we allow individuals to waive that right in advance, either by contract or a less formal means? How should the law's treatment of gestational and legal parenthood inform these questions? Developments in reproductive technology have brought these questions to the fore, most prominently in the preembryo disposition cases a number of courts have confronted - disputes over the use of stored frozen preembryos that couples have fertilized in the course of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) - but other examples abound.

In this Article, I argue that in analyzing these cases it is essential to unbundle the possible rights not to be a genetic, gestational, and legal parent, and to recognize that the three rights do not stand and fall together. I show that we cannot move from the discourse surrounding the rights not to be a gestational and legal parent to a justification for a right not to be a genetic parent. Instead, I argue that the normative mooring of the right not to be a genetic parent is best understood as a way of protecting individuals from what I call "attributional parenthood," a harm that stems from the social assignment of the status of parent to the provider of genetic material that persists notwithstanding the fact that the legal system has declared him or her a non-parent.

Using this framework, I argue for the recognition of the right not to be a genetic parent. However, I reject the claim, common among courts and commentators, that this right should not be capable of advance waiver. I instead conclude that we should permit advance waiver of the right through contract, with several interventions aimed at improving contractual consent. In preembryo disposition disputes where the parties have not contracted, I argue for a general default rule of non-use, perhaps with a sub-rule permitting use when non-use would mean the impossibility of one party ever having any genetic children.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 82

Keywords: reproductive technology, genetics, family law, tort, normative ethics

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Date posted: April 7, 2008 ; Last revised: March 30, 2010

Suggested Citation

Cohen, I. Glenn, The Right Not to Be a Genetic Parent? (2008). Southern California Law Review, Vol. 81, p. 1115, 2008; Harvard Public Law Working Paper No. 08-31. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1116269

Contact Information

I. Glenn Cohen (Contact Author)
Harvard Law School ( email )
1525 Massachusetts Avenue
Griswold Hall 503
Cambridge, 02138
United States
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