Big Ideas: Placing a proper value on parenting

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

What are the most valuable ‘good things’ in our lives?

Such questions are abstract, the stuff of thousands of years of philosophical thinking and writing, but the answers also bear directly on some important issues of current government policy. For example, many people identify the goods of parenting as among the most important sources of pleasure and value in their lives.

Typically, people also think it is appropriate for government to help bring about or sustain significant goods, ones central to both the good life and the good of the society overall. Such justifications explain why we fund health care and education, for example.


But what about becoming a parent?

If becoming a parent is a source of deep pleasure and value, should the government help adults financially with that project, if and when help is required?

Within Canada, for example, there have been increasing calls for provincial funding of in vitro fertilization (IVF), motivated, in part, by concerns about the high costs of IVF and individuals having to pay so much to become parents. In short, many people believe it is appropriate for governments to fund the project of becoming a biological parent to a child.

But it is seldom noted IVF is only one among many ways to become a parent. Indeed, it is noteworthy that a similar narrative about adoption is conspicuously missing, even though the costs of an adoption are often comparable to those of IVF.

If individuals should not have to pay large amounts to become parents, then why are the costs associated with an adoption of lesser concern than those of assisted reproduction? Why should the government preferentially invest taxpayer dollars in one form of family making rather than another? Should it not invest in both equally (or if that is not possible, in neither)?

To answer these questions, one needs to explore questions about the nature of parental rights. Is the right to reproduce, for example, a positive right that imposes obligations on others? Does it impose duties on prospective parents and on state actors?

Some argue people have a duty to adopt children, rather than create new ones, and that children have a right to be loved or parented. Are these arguments in support of adoption persuasive? And if they are, do they translate into a duty on behalf of the state to make adoption feasible for people who cannot afford the costs associated with it?

Suppose there is a positive right to reproduce that grounds government assistance. Should all would-be parents have access?

Currently, there are few, if any, formal restrictions on who can access assisted reproduction in Canada. (Quebec may soon become an exception; it has recently announced that it will ban the use of IVF for women over the age of 42.) By contrast, people have to demonstrate they have both the skills and the means necessary to parent a child well before any province will allow them to adopt.

Finally, one should ask whether all types of assisted reproduction and adoption might merit government funding. The provinces already fund minimally invasive and relatively inexpensive techniques for assisted reproduction. They also cover most of the costs of public domestic adoptions. In addition, the federal government gives a small subsidy in the form of a tax credit to families that successfully complete private (domestic or international) adoptions.

One could certainly ask whether this situation is fair.



For example, why not fund IVF rather than, or in addition to, assisted reproductive techniques currently funded, many of which have a lower success rate than IVF (and pose a higher risk of multiple pregnancies, compared to IVF with single embryo transfer)? Moreover, if the government were to pay for IVF, which is expensive, then shouldn’t it also offer equivalent support (funding or tax credits) to people who do expensive private adoptions? Our government should surely continue to fund public domestic adoptions – that is, adoptions of children who are wards of the state – because it has a special obligation to these children. But would it be justified in subsidizing private adoptions as well, and would it be morally obligated to do so, if it funded IVF?



These questions are ethically, politically, legally, economically and scientifically complex. Moral and political philosophers at the Rotman Institute are setting out to answer them with the help of social and medical scientists. The philosophers will consider the rights and duties of prospective parents and state actors with respect to paying for parenthood; the social scientists will investigate the relevant social dimensions of adoption and assisted reproduction, such as the extent to which the functioning of these families depends on how they are formed; and the medical scientists will analyze the success rates and health risks associated with different forms of assisted reproduction.



Each of these pieces of information is relevant to determining who should pay for parenthood in Canada. Our objective will be to resolve this issue and develop a model policy for the provinces to consider.

Philosophy professor Carolyn McLeod, cross appointed to Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, is the co-editor of Family-Making: Contemporary Ethical Challenges. Philosophy professor Samantha Brennan is the co-editor of Permissible Progeny. Law professor Andrew Botterell, jointly appointed to Philosophy, is the co-author of multiple articles on parental licensing.