Under the laws of many states (including Washington) and in the Uniform Parentage Act the parental status of some men turns on the precise means by which the crucial sperm entered the mother’s body: If sperm is introduced via intercourse than the man is a father while if it is introduced any other way, he is not. I have commented in the past that this seems a very odd place to draw a line.
People of differing views might well share this opinion. If you think genetics is the crucial determinant of parental status, then the man is a father no matter how the sperm is delivered. If you think intent is critical, then the man may or may not be a father–engaging in intercourse is no guarantee of intent to parent. If you tend towards function (as I typically do) then the man may or may not be a father, but it has little to do with the actual delivery of the sperm. And so on through the tests I’ve discussed.
Even when I might disagree in substance (as I do with the genetics-is-fatherhood stance) I find it sensible that sex/no sex is not where a line is drawn. It’s very hard for me to understand why whether or not you had sex should determine whether or not you are a legally-recognized father.
This morning I happened across this article from the Catholic News Service. It discusses a document that will be before the US Bishops who will be meeting in November. It seems that the Catholic Church, like the drafters of the UPA, thinks that the presence or absence of sex in conception is important.
To be clear, the bishops are offering a view on the morality of various ART practices. (This is quite timely as use of ART is growing more common.) The bishops are not focused on the precise question I want to consider–what makes a person (and in this instance more specifically a man) a father. But they clearly draw the sex/no sex line.
In their view, conception is only proper if it accompanies “the marital act,” which I understand to be heterosexual intercourse between husband and wife. “Children deserve to be begotten.” it says. Thus, even where a wife is inseminated with a husbands sperm or when an embryo created with a husband’s sperm and a wife’s egg is transferred into the wife’s uterus, the creation of a child is morally problematic. The sperm must be delivered via intercourse.
For me, there is something deeply troubling about the statement’s insistence on the primary importance of sex, and a specific sexual practice at that. Being a parent is an extraordinary thing. It involves a life-long commitment, the devotion of incredible resources, and a willingness to defer one’s own immediate needs for those of a child’s. By contrast, whether you engaged in a particular sexual practice at a particular time seems to me trivial.
I do not mean to suggest that morality has no role in the discussion of ART or parenthood more generally. It’s the linkage of sexual conduct with parenthood that stymies me, really. In the end, I think this ties back to an invocation of nature–the natural rule that only a man and a woman can conceive a child and then only through intercourse. I’ve said before that I’m skeptical about invocations of nature, and I am no less skeptical here.