A story in today’s Daily Telegraph goes into some detail about scientific work towards creating artificial gametes. Understanding the processes by which gametes (that’s egg and sperm cells) are produced has clear implications for infertility research. But as the article describes, at the outer edge this research also suggests the possibility that egg and sperm cells could be produced by either men or women and that these cells could be produced from ordinary cells in our body.
The Telegraph chooses an eye-catching headline for the story: “Does lab sperm mean the end of fathers?” (It’s actually not a particularly well chosen headline, since the article suggests that it would be easier for the cells of men to be altered to serve as eggs than for the cells of women to be altered to serve as sperm.) The answer–also in the headline is “Not in my lifetime.”
But to my mind all of this misses the point. As long as men raise children (and I acknowledge the fuzziness about what that means) and as long as we have gendered parenting (ditto about the fuzziness) there will be fathers. What makes a man a father, in my view, is not the genetic connection, but rather the performance of a role in a child’s life.
I’ve covered this frequently in the blog. Adoptive fathers are fathers, though they share no genetic link with their child. (Same for adoptive mothers, of course.) If a married heterosexual couple resort to assisted insemination using donor sperm then the donor is not the father but the husband is. Indeed, even if a man marries a woman already pregnant after intercourse with another man, the husband is generally entitled to be considered the father, not the other man.
The reverse is equally true. Finding the man who is the source of the sperm is hardly the same as finding a child a father. I’ll agree that the man who is the source of the sperm might be interesting to the child conceived with that sperm, but being interesting doesn’t make you a father. Thus, the sperm donor is not a father–at least, not by virtue of being the sperm donor.
I suppose my point here is simply that the unthinking equation of genetics with parenthood is not particularly useful. It can create alarm or anxiety where none is warranted, as must be the case here.