Doing What Comes Naturally, II

I wanted to tie yesterday’s post back to an earlier one that was also about “natural” parents.   I’m spurred to do this by the hearings on allowing same-sex couple to marry that have recently occurred in both New Hampshire and Maine.  (I won’t link to them here, but you can find tons of stuff on the web.)

In the course of these debates, there’s a lot of discussion about what the purpose of state-sanctioned (as opposed to religious) marriage is.   If marriage is an expression of love and commitment between two people, then it is difficult to justify the exclusion of loving and committed same-sex couples.

One general argument against allowing same-sex couples access to marriage goes something like this:   The main purpose of marriage is to ensure the propagation of the species and the continuation of society.  If this is so, then it “naturally” follows that marriage can only be between one man and one woman, because only a man and a woman can “naturally” reproduce (i.e. without assistance from others).  Further, only these “natural” parents can properly raise up the children to be good citizens of the land.   And certainly a child can only have two parents–it’s just in the nature of things.

I guess the point I want to make here is that starting from a simple observation about biology (humans reproduce sexually using genetic material from one man and one woman) you can construct an entire social structure (here a society based on male/female marriage and child-rearing) and assert the whole thing is simply “natural.”

In our day and age, for many people “natural” is synonymous with “good.”   One has only to look at the panoply of advertising touting “all-natural” products to see this.  All-natural yogurt is good.  And a married man and a woman and their biologically related kids–is the “all-natural” family and hence, unquestionably good.

Consider, too, where the language of nature leaves other families–be the lesbian/gay, single parent, adoptive, or whatever.   These families must be “unnatural.”   (This is especially true of those families that violate gender norms, and in this category I’d put lesbian/gay and single parent families. )   No one could mistake “unnatural” for good.   (I suppose one might also call them “artificial” families, as artificial is the opposite of natural when you are in the grocery store.  But I haven’t seen that usage.)

All of this leaves me very wary of the use of “natural” terminology in the context of parenthood and families.   That’s part of why the Anna Quindlan essay I blogged about yesterday caught my eye.   It isn’t so much the descriptor “natural” that bothers me as it is all the superstructure that has been built upon it.

Finally, it’s worth nothing that we all know that natural isn’t always synonymous with good.   Tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes are all natural.   Countless millions have died of  naturally occurring diseases and infections.   Humankind has spent endless time and energy working to mitigate the effects of nature, and many of us probably owe our survival to these efforts.

3 responses to “Doing What Comes Naturally, II

  1. I don’t think it’s just about love or family arrangement. Domestic licenses should easily replace the word marriage if that were the case. I think there might also be something about society encouraging mothers and fathers to commit to each other and investing in/taking responsibility for their genetic children – involved in the debate some where in all of this as well. No guarantees of course, but a shared meaning. But there are all kinds of sites around the internet where you could debate it.

    • There are a lot of questions packed into what you say and I think it is worth unpacking some of them.

      I guess I’d note at the outset that lots of different people say different things about what the purpose of marriage is. Maybe that means that there is no one answer to the question.

      There are also distinctions to be drawn between the social/cultural institution of marriage, the legal institution of marriage and the religious institution of marriage. That’s not to say thesde aren’t entwined in some ways. But it’s quite possible to be married in the eyes of your chosen religion but not in the eyes of the law, say.

      Beyond all that, sure some people say that the purpose of marriage it to encourage mothers and fathers to commit to each other and their children. Are children, or at least the intention to have children, necessary in order to justify marriage? We do allow people to marry who we know will not have children–or at least will not have genetically related children. Why? Does that mean that marriage isn’t only (or primarily?) about having children?

      And then there’s the genetics question. Is there some reason that we have to treat people with various genetic relationships differently?

      I think at bottom you and I might disagree about the genetics piece. I don’t believe that genetics makes you a parent. Some parents are genetically related to their children and some parents are not. For starters, I wouldn’t treat them differently.

      I know I’ve bounced around here to a lot of different topics, but I think you’ve raised a lot of different issues and many are worthy of some comment.

  2. “Are children, or at least the intention to have children, necessary in order to justify marriage? We do allow people to marry who we know will not have children–or at least will not have genetically related children. Why? Does that mean that marriage isn’t only (or primarily?) about having children? ”

    Two scholars who have been debating this issue, David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch have two equally valid opinions/understanding of these issues.

    But I am not so much concerned with the marriage debate as I am in moral/ethical issues surrounding children/people conceived via egg/sperm ‘donor/vendor’ conception and surrogacy to be known/be known by and allowed to form a meaningful relationship with their bio/genetic kin. Not all will want this, perhaps because they don’t want to rock the boat, are confused, have family loyalties, feel they need to advocate for their parent/family lifestyle or just don’t know about their conception method.

    It will be different for everyone but I do feel that the children/people conceived from these arrangements have the right to know the identity of their bio-genetic father/mother/kin (from birth) and should not be created in a way (through law/ institutions/ professionals/ industries) that intentionally denies them the ability to form meaningful relationships with half/all of their bio/genetic families (if they chose). This is a human dignity issue more than a “rights” issue.

    I wrote a bit about my concerns which might help to put my POV in better perspective:

    Do we have a responsibility for our own sperm or egg when combined to create anew life? (I don’t mean embryonic life, I mean independent, out of the womb life…although this is another contentious issue).

    As a society, we have already opened a huge Pandora’s box. Reproductive technologies have already opened the door to donor/vendor sperm/egg (sperm/egg banking) and traditional surrogacy. Under the banner of reproductive freedom, the industry seems to be operating without any restraint or regulation. This has given the impression that that it is fine, under these circumstances, to intentionality negate responsibility for our reproductive gametes.

    The de-stigmatization/normalizing of donor/egg/womb vending, is changing society. If society continues to condone this, it essentially turns procreation and children into commodities through the selling/donating and negating of responsibility of some individuals sperm and eggs, in order to fill the needs and wants of commissioning parent(s). Given these back door changes, how can we as a society say that “motherhood” or “fatherhood” has any meaning beyond the parenting needs of adults? How can we say that we have a responsibility for our own sperm and egg when combined to create a new life?

    How does society promote this responsibility and responsible choices? What about the “children”? (or the adults we turn into) What about those of us who do care, deeply, about where and who (all of them) we come from and/or those of us who feel a loss in never being acknowledged or able to have ameaningful relation with these people? This doesn’t just affect us, the donor conceived, it effects our children, our ‘donor’ parent’s social children and parents (our biologicalgrandparents). It affects our society and our culture.

    It seems as if it has now come to a point wherewe can no longer say that “biological/genetic mothers”, “biological/genetic fathers” or “biological/genetic family” matter to children. Wouldn’t it be discriminating to say so? Does our current political correctness only allow us to support the wants/needs of adults? In the case of adoption, although it has many ethical problems of its own, as an institution is meant to remedy, what society agrees, is a tragic situation or at the very least, a loss, for the child, when the child can not be loved/nurtured by his/her bio/genetic parents.

    But with sperm/egg/womb donating/vending, how can we say that even adoption is a loss for the “child”? Perhaps for the “birth mother” but only if she feels or acknowledges a loss. Otherwise we could just consider it a surrogacy arrangement. If biology doesn’t matter and the child was loved and wanted by his (adoptive) parents, where is the tragedy or loss for the “child”?

    So why not just sell your eggs and womb? How can you argue against it? And how can anyone now say that we have a responsibility for our own sperm and egg when they combine to create a new life? America is a great land of opportunity but with our individualist/rights oriented, pursuit of happiness goals combined with the free market and political correctness mandate, I believe we are becoming a society without any shared values; or at least anythat we can speak of.

    Banning anonymous ‘donors-vendors’ and ‘surrogates’ only gives us information but it doesn’t promote responsibility beyond that information.

    More food for thought….
    Just thinking, if the ‘donor/vendor’ conceived don’t have any legal entitlement to support from their ‘donor/vendor’ genetic fathers, even if they might desperately need the money for shelter, food, education etc., WHY should any child be entitled to child support from their non-parenting-non-consenting genetic parent when they had NO intention of creating a child and were only out for sexual fulfillment? Why do ANY children have these rights? Isn’t parenting and responsibility only an adult CHOICE?

    If the child (or adult they turn into) had any issue with it, we could use the same logic/argument used against the ‘donor/vendor’, ‘surrogate’ conceived or adoptees who speak against the intentional separation from meaningful connection, responsibility for their welfare, feelings and interests (through societal norms /free market industry and/or dehumanizing science): “you should just be grateful to be alive and that your mother didn’t chose to abort you.”, “How could you say these things? Aren’t you ashamed that you might hurt your mother/parent(s) feelings?”, or more honestly, “You’re opinion is a threat to our reproductive choice.”

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