PSA2016: The 25th Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association

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Kinship was once understood as the cultural elaboration of biological facts, with the assumption that the biological facts were given and universally the same… From one perspective this is surely the case. But which ‘biological facts’ become socially relevant and the value or significance placed on them cannot be assumed. (Edwards 2014, 46)

Ethical discussion often draws on contentious conceptual interpretations of apparently biological facts. (Lewens 2015, 3)

The primary motivation behind assisted reproduction is to have a child genetically related to oneself, to have a child of “one’s own.” But with the increasing number of ways available to “assist” reproduction, bioethicists have started to wonder what it takes to deliver on the promise of genetic parenthood. That a child shares one’s genes is not enough to make it “one’s own.” Instead, we must look at the process which gives rise to genetic similarity in order to determine whether it is reproductive in kind. Heidi Mertes and Guido Pennings (2008) have offered an account of reproduction meant to capture this process and help discriminate between genetic parents and nonparents. However, their account requires gene reshuffling, making it unnecessarily restrictive. I offer an alternative to Mertes and Pennings, using an account of reproduction that follows James Griesemer’s (2000a; 2000b; 2000c) more general, biologically based view. Although Griesemer’s account does a better job of capturing the parent-offspring relation driving the concerns of bioethicists, his account turns out to be overly permissive. Too many things end up qualifying as parents. In an effort to find the right balance, I propose a new account of reproduction, which I call the Overlap, Development and Persistence (ODP) account. The account requires 1) material overlap between parent and offspring, 2) that inherited parts contribute to the development of the offspring’s own reproductive capacities, and 3) that material parts, or their descendants, persist to the next generation. Only when the three conditions are met will the initial material transfer count as an instance of reproduction. Finally, I argue that even though the ODP account doesn’t mention genes, it best captures the meaning of “genetic parenthood.”


Edwards, J. 2014. Undoing Kinship. In Relatedness in Assisted Reproduction, eds. T. Freeman, S. Graham, F. Ebtehaj, and R. Martin, 44-60. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

Lewens, T. 2015. The Biological Foundations of Bioethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mertes, H., and G. Pennings. 2008. Embryonic Stem Cell-Derived Gametes and Genetic Parenthood: A Problematic Relationship. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 17 (1): 7-14.

Griesemer, J. 2000a. Development, Culture, and the Units of Inheritance. Philosophy of Science 67 (Supplement. Proceedings of the 1998 Biennial Meetings of the Philosophy of Science Association. Part II: Symposia Papers): S348–S368.

Griesemer, J. 2000b. Reproduction and the reduction of genetics. In The Concept of the Gene in Development and Evolution: Historical and Epistemological Perspectives, eds. P. Beurton, R. Falk, and H-J. Rheinberger, 240-285. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Greisemer, J. 2000c. The Units of Evolutionary Transition. Selection 1-3, 67-80.

Author Information:

Monika Piotrowska    


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