100% Natural

Sorry–ended up taking a couple of days off there.  I’m back now.

My just finished discussion about Utah has made me focus again on language, and in particular, on the use of the term “natural”.   There are several places in which you hear this in a parentage context and they are sometimes contradictory.   It’s worth thinking about.

Sometimes a person is referred to as the “natural parent” of a child.    It’s a trifle archaic, I think, but you do still hear it.   It means (at least as I think about it) a person who is genetically linked to a child.   So the natural mother is, barring use of ART, the woman who gives birth to the child.  The natural father is the man who had sex with the woman resulting in pregnancy.

Put less nicely, it is the parent of an illegitimate child.  I do think the term is almost exclusively used with regard to unmarried parents.   Thus where a married woman gives birth to a child, her husband isn’t referred to as the natural father of the child, even if he is genetically related to the child.  He’s simply “the father.”  Indeed, I went and looked it up in one of the on-line dictionaries and  “natural father” is defined as “the father of an illegitimate child.”

What this suggests to me is that while the man whose activity leads to the production of a child outside of marriage is a father by operation of nature, a man whose wife gives birth to a child is a true father.     (And remember, the husband is the father with or without the genetic link.)   If you are not a legal father (i.e. a man properly married to the wife) then you are a natural father.    Put yet one more way–there are two types of fathers, those created by marriage/law and those created by nature.

The dictionary I referred to above actually doesn’t have an entry for “natural mother” which is interesting all on its own.  Certainly that suggests it is a less commonly used phrase, but again, I think it is essentially a way of referring to a woman who gives birth to a child outside of wedlock, generally a child who then acquires some other set of parents via adoption.  In that context “natural mother” might be akin to “birth mother.”

Now what is most interesting to me is the way this contrasts to other deployments of the term “natural.”    One common usage of natural suggests that you have a particular aptitude or talent for something.   If a person seems to be gifted in playing piano, for example, you might say “she’s a natural”     Used in this way to be “a natural” this-or-that is to be good at this or that.

This  usage of natural that is at odds with the usage of natural in “natural father/mother.”    A natural father is not necessarily a man with a particular gift for parenting.   I’m not saying that by definition a natural father cannot be a good father.   Rather, if a person is referred to as a natural father, the speaker isn’t intending to imply that he’s good at it or that the responsibilities of parentage come to him easily.

I actually do think there are people who are natural parents in the gifted/talented sense of the phrase.   But that’s a statement about their capacity to effectively act as parents, not about their genetic relationship to anyone in particular.   It strikes me that this is another place where the inexactitude of language could plague us.

The second and quite different usage as what cropped up in Utah:  Lesbian and gay couples cannot reproduce naturally.   Which is to say they utilize ART.   There’s more to say here, and I’ll come back to that next time.


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