A Moment’s Pause

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(Note that this is cross-posted from my regular blog.   So references are to earlier postings on that site.   The links will take you there as needed.)

This post is the electronic equivalent of a deep breath before plunging into the water. For the last few days I’ve been working at framing a question. Essentially I’ve asked whether a man who participates in an isolated incident of casual sex should be considered the father of any resulting child. I want to explore what happens if we say “no.” I want to suggest that might be the best answer.

This is a specific instance of a broader and more significant proposition–that we should abandon genetic linkage as a factor in determining parentage. Perhaps the fact that one is the source of egg or sperm should not figure into consideration of whether one is a parent.

While this seems a radical proposition, it’s worth noting that we’ve already traveled part of the way down this road. For centuries, a husband was recognized as the father of his wife’s child. Today, in the face of certainty that he is not genetically related to the child, the husband may be able to defeat the competing claim of the man who is the source of the sperm. Additionally many statutes define egg donors and sperm donors as “not parents.” (This is a common provision of statutes designed to promote and protect ART.) In both instances, the genetic link is irrelevant to determining who the parents of the child are. It is clear that law can and does manipulate determination of parental status to suit a variety of social purposes. Legal parenthood isn’t naturally determined: it’s a social/legal construct.

Despite this opening, we generally assume that genetic connection is the place where inquiries as to who is a parent should start. This will tell us the “real” parents, and then we can consider other factors as well.

But uncritically adopting the genetic connection as a starting point builds in a particular bias, one that might be of some concern to feminists. For men and women contribute equal amounts of genetic material when a child is created. Thus, if you start with the genetic link, you start with a vision of equally invested and equally entitled parents, one male and one female.

While this vision feeds nicely into an appealing cultural ideal of gender equality, it obscures a more complex reality. To state the obvious, only one of those two parents directly experiences pregnancy and childbirth. (That would be the woman, by the way.) But the only way to sustain the initial ideal of the equally invested, equally entitled parents in the face of this completely unequally distributed obligation is to discount the value of this contribution.

There’s nothing wrong with the ideal of equally invested, equally entitled parents. But I think we need to wonder whether contributing some strands of DNA is all that is necessary to attain that investment. That’s the larger frame for my picture.

-Julie Shapiro (cross-posted on Related Topics)

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