So Maybe Being A Parent IS All About Sex?

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.


8 responses to “So Maybe Being A Parent IS All About Sex?

  1. Julie, I agree with you that for parental status for a man to hinge upon whether he orgasmed in a woman’s vagina is a rather bizarre way of adjudicating fatherhood. I think it speaks volumes about the way society views men! BTW a previous Catholic encyclical stated clearly that a man is still the father of a child conceived with his sperm without intercourse but stated clearly that conception without intercourse is undignified for the child. Interestingly, Judaism and Islam also considers genetics the basis of fatherhood and not intercourse. The Talmud in fact discusses artificial conception and declares the provider of sperm to be the father.

    • Perhaps I have not been entirely fair in my commentary on the bishops’ letter. I think the Church would likely recognize the genetic provider/husband as father (as would the law). The letter I discuss here is not addressed to the question of who is the father of the child–it is addressed to the morality of ART, including insemination by sperm from the husband. All I really meant to say is that (and here I think we agree) it is curious to draw such dramatic distinctions (be they father/non-father or moral/immoral) on the question of the delivery of the sperm.

  2. As a person who is far from religious, it is probably a little strange that I often find myself in agreement with Catholic teaching on human sexuality. However, the reason for that might be that the Church has some quite developed understanding of human psychology and because of its family-centrist stance it does consider the role of each person including the child. I’ve read the document and I think the bishops are spot on with their discussion about donor gametes. Here is the excerpt from the article: “Specifically, the bishops reject the use of eggs or sperm from “donors” — whom the document says are often paid and should instead be called “vendors”

  3. Julie your posts are a bit confusing because sometimes you differentiate between legal parent and parent, and sometimes you don’t.

    Since legal parent and parent are not the same thing, I would suggest more clarity.

  4. in addition you often use the word “parent” when you actually mean “good parent.” Not either the same thing at all.

    “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. “

    • Quite right about the need for clarity. Sorry. I try but sometimes I do not succeed. You’re also right about the murkiness I’ve created about whether only good parents are parents. I’ll try to figure out how to work this through in the future.

  5. These discussions are always interesting because an important aspect of the analysis, forensic anthropology, is always a bit of a black box. Social gestalt arises from 5 thousand years of interpersonal interactions. Similarly, our perspective on, and definitions of, parentage arise from those same 5 thousand years.

    Is it any wonder then that we are fumbling with the changes foisted upon us by medical advances which are at best only 25 years old?

    • It’s true that advances in technology have pressed us to resolve all sorts of unimagined changes. But even without technology, our ideas of parenthood have changed over time and across cultures.

      For a time, children born outside of a marriage were deemed to be the children of no one. That’s a state of affairs we cannot really grasp today. I think that at some point in imperial China if a concubine gave birth to a son, the son was deemed to be the child of the empress.

      I sometimes wonder whether our understanding of genetics and our ability to simply test for genetic connections has lead to a greater emphasis on this one factor than existed at earlier times.

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