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Philosophy department explores ethics of “Savior Siblings”

By Rebekah Cansler


Published: Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010

Is it right for parents to create a child to be a donor for their other children who may have problems? Thursday evening, the department of philosophy hosted their last “Great Conversations Lecture” of the semester on the topic of “savior siblings.” Professor Terrance McConnell, who has written many books on the subjects of medicine and ethics, spoke to faculty and students filling the Faculty Center.

McConnell began the discussion stating that before one could decide whether savior siblings are fine to create, one first had to establish who was the person responsible to decide.

Parents make the decisions for their children when they are young on the idea that children are not yet competent to decide for themselves. Parents use what McConnell calls the “Best Interest Principle” when deciding for their children.

According to McConnell, parents cannot always use the best interest principle because they must sometimes chose which child will be receiving the least amount of harm. Therefore the principle used should be called the “Acceptable Interest Principle” not the “Best Interest Principle.” For instance, if a child is asked to give blood to their sibling and it causes no harm to the donor, then it is acceptable to ask since the child giving blood will not be harmed beyond a certain degree.

So do parents have the right to create another child by in vitro fertilization (IVF) and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD)? Children born by these methods can potentially have the right characteristics for a sick sibling-one with cancer, for instance, that would need bone marrow. Doctors can construct the baby’s genetic characteristics based on the parents, choosing the good ones and leaving the bad, therefore becoming the perfect match as a donor for their sibling.

There is controversy surrounding these methods, but there are also benefits. Parents with a high risk of a certain disease, a 75 percent chance being carried on to their child, can have a PGD. The doctors can choose the sperm and egg not carrying the disease, giving the parents a healthy child. Also, parents with certain handicaps, such as deafness, can choose for their children to be like them through PGD.

An example of such procedure includes Adam Nash, a product of PGD, was born to be a donor for his sister, Ashley Nash, who has cancer. Also, Jodi Picoult’s book, My Sister’s Keeper, is based off a true story where a sibling must be a bone marrow donor for her sister.

The lecture turned toward more problems of the “Acceptable Interest Policy.” After an English couple had twins conjoined at the hip, it was determined that one twin, Jody, was healthy and had a good heart. The other twin, Mary, had a very weak heart and if the two stayed joined, they would both die. If they were separated, Mary would die but Jody would live.

“What is the best interest principle there?” McConnell asked the room.

There are many people who disapprove of IVF and PGD, saying the children born by these methods are objects, not humans. They have no rights. But is that true? McConnell made the point that once these “savior siblings” were created they were beings with rights just like the rest of us.

People also argue that there is psychological harm to the savior sibling because they know they were only born to save the other sibling.

The lecture left the audience asking questions. Does it matter once someone is born how they came to be? Is the idea of savior siblings ethical? Does anyone really have the right to intervene?

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