Watch your language

My post from yesterday made me realize I should address the question of language in a more systematic way. I’ve worked hard in my scholarship to be careful with my use of language. In general, I think what we call things matters.

That’s already come up here before. But it especially true of the way we use the word “parent.” Perhaps it is the very importance of the claim to be a parent that leads us to have so many subspecies of parents–adoptive parents, biological parents, natural parents, genetic parents, step-parents and so on.

But if we use terms without reflecting on their meaning, we can make life more complicated than need be. We can muddle our arguments if we’re not careful. So, for example, if I call a a sperm donor a “biological father” or a “genetic father” it makes it more confusing to then ask whether a person in this role is a parent. I’ve already called him a father, so how can he not be a parent? Thus, for clarity, we must choose terms carefully.

In addition, people use language to describe their own worlds and, in the cases I look at, their own families. Their descriptions matter. Lesbians, for example, often raise children in their own families. Often these families have (by design and choice) no father. Well-meaning friends or family interested in the origin of the children may ask “who is the father?” Now of course, somewhere there is a man whose sperm was used. But for many lesbian families this man is not a parent (and hence not a father) and the question fails to comprehend their family structures. And so again, we need more precision in our language. Perhaps the right question is “Did you use a known donor?” Or perhaps it is simply none of our business.

This comes back to what I wrote about yesterday. One can (and perhaps should) have an interesting discussion about whether information about donors should be recorded in medical records and/or available to children. But if the proponents of that view say refer to the donors are father/mothers/parents they are surely going to be met with strenuous objections from people (like me) who will say that donors are not parents. And that tends to side-track the whole discussion.

Or perhaps it isn’t a side track at all. I’m suspect many who use language like “embryo adoption” where you could say “embryo donation” and “biological father” for “sperm donor” do so quite deliberately in an effort to re-frame the issues as they’d like to have them be seen. Which just goes to show that no matter how you see these issues, the language we use the describe them is critical and therefore needs to be chosen and read with care.


2 responses to “Watch your language

  1. Interesting …

    Language is no doubt both a facilitator and a stumbling block, especially when it is taken into account that “parent” is also a verb.

  2. Congratulations on writing such an informative blog. I will add you at my blogroll.

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