The Ethics of Human Rights (70): A Human Right to Non-Existence?

Can people have a human right not to exist? This potential right has to be distinguished from the right to die or the right to end your life. In fact, what I’m talking about here is a right not to be born. Can a potential or prospective person have a right that forces her potential parents not to act in such a way that she comes into existence?

It’s common to hear people claim that, in some circumstances, it’s in a person’s interest for her parents to not act in such a way that leads to her conception and birth. And when there’s an interest there’s possibly a right as well. The specific circumstances people often refer to are, for example, the likelihood of genetic defects in the parents that would lead to a life of suffering for the potential child. Indeed, it’s uncontroversial that we can cause harm to a child by bringing about her existence, and when there is harm, there’s often also a right to be protected against such harm.

Less common these days is for people to argue that those who are “burdened” in non-genetic ways – such as the poor – should also not procreate owing to the risk that their children would find themselves leading similarly dismal lives.

So, if prospective parents are in a position to know or to be told that their potential children will lead a life not worth living because of genetic reasons, should they respect the so-called right to non-existence of these potential children? This right – if it exists – imposes a duty on prospective parents not to beget miserable children.

(A short parenthesis: suppose there is such a right not to exist, does that right not imply the existence of the “mirror-right”, namely a right of prospective children to exist when their lives will be very rewarding? In other words, do people have a duty to procreate in some circumstances? Most human rights imply their mirror-right: the right to free association implies the right to leave associations or to not associate at all; the right to free speech implies the right to remain silent; freedom of religion implies freedom from religion etc.

However, the presence of a mirror-right doesn’t always seem to be a necessary corollary of a right. The right to a free trial or the right to be free from discrimination don’t seem to imply any mirror-rights. If we assume, temporarily, that there is a right not to exist, we don’t need to assume that the mirror-right should also exist, if only because there are some serious problems with the possible right to exist, as I’ve argued elsewhere).

Back to the main point of the argument. If you want to defend the right to non-existence you have to distinguish between two cases:

  1. a right to non-existence belonging to a possible future child, and
  2. a right to non-existence belonging to a future child.

Case 1 is a right of potential children before conception, and this right would – if we agree that it exists – justify (forced) sterilization and such. Which is already one indication that such a right does not or should not exist. Case 2 is a right of a fetus not to be born, and is a right that would justify some types of abortion.

If we accept the right to non-existence in case 1, we won’t impose harm on children – because they never leave the stage of potential being – but we may impose harm on parents’ procreation rights, privacy rights, physical integrity rights etc. If we accept the right in case 2, we will impose harm on parents if we have to force them to have an abortion in order to protect the fetus’ right to non-existence.

In either case, however, we are dealing with “people” who can’t possibly claim their right to non-existence for themselves, either because they don’t (yet) exist, or because they exist in a form in which they can claim rights. Hence, when we act to realize the right to non-existence, we always act on behalf of the wellbeing of others, potential others even. Given the many problems linked to paternalism, the burden of proof must be very high before we engage in such actions. For instance, it should be abundantly clear that “a life of unbearable suffering” will indeed be unbearable: a life of poverty and illiteracy would still be valuable enough and would not trigger the right to non-existence of the potential children of the poor and illiterate. Hence it would also fail to trigger paternalistic actions such as forced sterilization or forced abortion. On the other hand, a life of constant physical pain brought about by genetic facts could perhaps be of sufficiently low value to trigger the right and the corresponding paternalistic actions, although I personally find it repugnant to consider forced abortion or forced sterilization.

Also, the fact that the bearers of the right in question can’t possibly claim it themselves – either because they’re still a fetus or because they are as yet potential human beings (some, by the way, would claim that a fetus is also no more than a potential human being) – could indicate that it’s impossible to talk about a right in this case. However, some children and comatose patients also can’t claim their rights, but that’s no reason to state that they don’t have any. Maybe it would be better to frame the issue, not in terms of rights, but in terms of the duties that parents have when considering a decision to procreate. And yes, there can be duties without corresponding rights: if I have a duty to respect my promises given to you, you don’t have a corresponding human right to have these promises respected.


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