Can One Person 'Force' Another to Have a Child?

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 30, 2021

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine. Should you ever be forced to reproduce against your will? Should somebody be able to use your sperm, your egg, or an embryo that you created and have a child, even if you don't want to have a child using your reproductive materials and you don't give permission to do that?

My view is that it's an important moral principle in reproductive ethics to say we will never force or coerce anybody into having a child against their will. It seems to me a fundamental right, just as we recognize a right to marry and to have children when you want to, with whomever you choose to. The state should try to keep out of the bedroom. I also think the state should say we're going to do everything we can to protect you against unwanted parenting.

One case that brought all of this to the forefront is Sofia Vergara and Nick Loeb, a celebrity couple who were together. They thought about having children. I believe she was older, and they decided to make embryos and freeze them. Subsequently, Vergara decided that she didn't want to be with Loeb anymore and they divorced.

The embryos, however, are still frozen. Nick Loeb said, "I would like to use them to have a child." Vergara said, "No, I don't want to have a child with you, even if it's using this embryo that I did create willingly with you at one time. We're not together anymore and I don't want to be a co-parent with you of any yet-to-be-born child."

I fully supported Vergara in this. You can hear that principle — don't force anyone to become a parent against their will — in play in my own position, thinking she's right and he's wrong. He'll just have to go find someone else to have a child with or to make an embryo with and figure it out. She shouldn't be forced into parenting with him if she doesn't want to do it. She shouldn't be forced to have a child if she says, "I don't want one right now."

The Louisiana court, where all of this was fought out a couple of weeks ago, agreed with Vergara. They said, "You cannot force her to give custody of these embryos over to Nick Loeb. They are as much in her control as they are in his." They unsealed the records of the court case so we could see that this couple had not been amicable for some time. The details of the battle are laid out now, open to journalists or anyone who wants to look.

What I'm really impressed by, though, is the upholding of the principle here. As much as it might make for great daytime television and scandalous programing about who owns the embryos when glamorous celebrities are involved, there's a fundamental ethics principle at issue behind this case.

We shouldn't let people be forced into reproduction as new technologies appear — even cloning — that might let you do that using a cell or biological material to make a person when you aren't even aware of it. I think we ought to set the precedent now.

I'm very pleased at the outcome that the Louisiana court came to, and I think in future we all ought to try to make sure that our reproductive rights — both to have children and to not have children — are fully protected.

I'm Art Caplan at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine, Division of Medical Ethics. Thanks for watching.

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD, is director of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University Langone Medical Center and School of Medicine. He is the author or editor of 35 books and 750 peer-reviewed articles as well as a frequent commentator in the media on bioethical issues.

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