Here’s a thought-provoking piece from The Guardian, UK. It ties back to some of my earlier thoughts about ART mistakes. (The most recent string was occasioned by the “wrong embryo” case featured on the Today show not so long ago.)
As the article notes, while uncertainty about paternity has been around forever, uncertainty about maternity is a new problem. Time was a woman gave birth and we knew she was the mother. Now? She may not be legally recognized as the mother of the child (because in a jurisdiction that enforces surrogacy agreements a woman who gives birth is not necessarily a mother). And she may be legally recognized, but she may not be genetically related to the child. In this brave new world, women as well as men may now need to ask “Is this child mine?”
This question–is the child mine-is a fascinating one. To say that this thing or that thing is mine is to claim possession. Children, of course, are not possessions, nor can they be possessed. As it is used in this article (and in the Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean) the question is really one about genetic lineage–was my genetic material used to create this child
Still, though men and women may now ask the same question, it has vastly different overtones. Most typically, when a man wonders if a child is his, he is considering the possibility that the woman who gave birth engaged in sex with someone else. Often, this means he is confronting the possibility that his trust has been betrayed. That’s a serious matter whether the betrayal resulted in pregnancy or not.
By contrast, the women asking “is the child mine?” worry about the possibility that an ART clinic made a mistake. While this is still serious question, it does not carry the same overtones of betrayal. (Perhaps it is also worth noting that only women who have chosen to use ART will ever face this question, while virtually all men could at least consider it.) In sum, the apparently identical question is in significant ways different for men and women.
I do not mean to oversimplify nor to homogenized the women portrayed in The Guardian piece. They are individuals who approach the possibility that mistakes were made differently, as different people are sure to do. Maria concludes “It’s taken me a while to get to this point but he’s ours, whatever. He’s our son. We love him and that’s that.” “He’s our son” is the equivlant of “he’s mine”–she has embraced this language without regard for the genetics. By contrast, Linda says “I love him – I love him to bits – but I feel more and more that he probably isn’t mine.”
I’m not sure what conclusion to draw from all this. There can be no foolproof systems in ART, so mistakes will occur. The mere possibility of mistakes is likely enough to raise concerns in many cases where no doubts are actually warranted. Consider Belinda who was “100% sure there had been a mistake.” She had DNA tests done on her twin boys and discovered “they were ours.” (That italics is in the original, the others above I added.) It seems clear that in this instance it was good to do those tests for Belinda would have continued to be sure they were not her children indefinitely.
Belinda’s story interests me particularly because it suggests there is fallibility on both sides. Not only will ART clinics make mistakes, so will parents. Some will be sure their children are not “theirs” and they will be wrong. Some will assume their children are “theirs” and they will be wrong, too.
I think, too, about parents who are deliberately raising children that they know are not genetically related to them. These might be adoptive parents or they might be parents who have utilized ART with materials from donors. These parents know from the outset that their children do not share genetic material. And yet, in my experience, they are just as ready to claim ownership of their children. They point to point to a kid on the playground and say “that’s my child” or they identify themselves at a PTA coffee as someone who “has” a third-grader” and so on. And well they should, for these are their children and they are the children’s parents.
I suppose this leaves me thinking that our use of the terms “the child is mine” and all its variants is something worth thinking about. What do we really mean when we say it? What does it convey to us and what do we mean to say to others?