There’s been ongoing discussion here (that link is just one example) about the importance of a genetic connection between parent and child. As I have made clear, I am not persuaded that a person who can claim a genetic link with a child should therefore been recognized as a legal parent. Hence, I think a man who provides sperm to a woman need not be the father of that child. Others have strongly disagreed. We’ve had long discussions about it.
Arguably, this isn’t simply a matter of opinion. This is a question where there might be useful evidence to consider and occasional reference has been made to one or another study of some of the questions raised. I read a paper the other day which makes an interesting contribution here. It’s from the American Sociological Review, February 2007 and is by Laura Hamilton, Simon Cheng Brian Powell. (I’ve linked you to the table of contents the article is not on-line. If anyone wants a copy, you can e-mail me.)
The authors wanted to examine the importance of biological ties for parental investment. They begin by offering several different theoretical approaches and consider what outcomes might be expected under each of these theories. Among those considered are those grounded in evolutionary theory, some of which suggest that people are more likely to promote the well-being of genetic kin than of non-genetic kin.
It’s hard to measure commitment of parents to their children directly–what is the unit of commitment? So the authors concentrate on indicators of parental investment. They look at four types of parent resources–economic, cultural, interactional and social capital. And they look at families with two biologically related parents, two adoptive parents, and various single-parent and step-parent families. (The latter are sometimes referred to as “alternative families.) Perhaps most importantly, they control for factors like wealth of the family. (This is critical because adoptive families tend to be higher income families, and so if you didn’t control for this, the fact that they spend more money on kids won’t tell you much.)
The authors find that adoptive families show as much and sometimes greater levels of investment in their kids than do the two genetically-related parent families. I am not going to say that this makes them better families (although do recall that the investments measured are not merely financial ones) but it certainly undermines the contention that in the absence of biological ties, parents invest less in their kids.
It is possible that this investment by adoptive families is the result of efforts to compensate for a social context that favors parents who are biologically related. In other words, it’s precisely because people think biologically related parents are better that adoptive parents put in extra effort. That might have interesting implications which I don’t think are discussed in this study.
Adoptive parents make a considered choice to raise a child in full knowledge that they are not genetically connected to that child. So, too, do parents who use eggs and/or sperm that are not their own. This would be in contrast to men who might play the role of children unaware of their lack of genetic connection. And it might also distinguish people who enter into parentage after the birth of a child, via a relationship with the child’s parent. (I’m thinking here of folks who are essentially step-parents.)
I’m very wary of painting with too broad a brush and I readily admit I have little expertise in the relevant fields. But it seems to me both sensible and admirable to say that people who willingly undertake parenthood, knowing there is no genetic connection, can perform just as well as those who do have a genetic connection.
Perhaps what this suggests is that those undertaking to be parents in the absence of a genetic link should think about it carefully. In most situations (ART and adoption) I think they do.
There is one complication that I see here that I haven’t touched on. If people parent as a couple, then one member of the couple might be the driving force and the other might follow less willingly. But I actually don’t think this is different for couples raising biologically related children. There, too, the choice to have children can be driven by one member of the couple. And then there are all those instances where neither really wanted children, but a child was concieved anyway. All of which leads me to say there’s a lot more complexity here in all cases.