Adoptive Parents and the Genetic Link

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.       





7 responses to “Adoptive Parents and the Genetic Link

  1. Hello Julie – I like this post, and your treatment of social science research in general on the blog. Very nice. I just started up a blog at, and will add yours to the blogroll there (I’m sorry to say I unintentionally chose the same WordPress template as you). I look forward to following you here. -PNC

  2. Biological parenthood is often an accident. Adoption is always a choice, and one bought at a high price when you consider all the time and energy one must invest in the process of effectuating it. One can hope and presume that most biological parents love their children anyway, but the number who have them without any conscious choice beyond the decision to have sex (which, let’s face it, most of them would be doing anyway) necessarily means that the median biological parent will be less naturally committed than the median adoptive parent.

    I am thus rather unsurprised that adoptive parents display at least as much active involvement with their kids as biological parents do, on average.

    • I agree that the result seems reasonable. It also makes very clear that you have to do your very best to compare apples to apples and not apples to an assorted fruit basket. The dynamic in a step-parent family might be somewhat different. And a step-parent family might be different from a family where donor sperm was (intentionally) used.

  3. As much as I HATE adoption and ART – those folks REALLY want kids and I can definately see how they would be more grateful to be having the responsibility of raising children than people that come by it genetically. They probably do invest more. Now if we could just get them and the legal system to be honest and stop calling them/selves Parents or mothers and fathers we’d be on to something pretty acceptable.

    • There is actually some literature that confirms that adoptive parents invest more in their kids–and that is investment measured in time and attention, not simply dollars. I think what adoptive parents probably want is to be fully recognized as the people responsible for and to their kids. The commonly used term for that is “parent,” I think. While I see your point about having “progenitors” and “caretakers” (or something like that) it’s hard to attain that since we’re not working from a blank slate. The title people want for the moment is “parent.”

      Perhaps you and I are thinking in similar terms, though my ambitions are more modest. I’d continue to call the caretakers “parents” but go with something akin to “progenitor” for the other folks. It’s rather a half-way measure.

      I’m also less willing to generalize about adoption and ART in the same breath. While there are some similarities (adoptive parents and some ART parents raise children not genetically related to them) there are also some obvious differences (I think adoption dates back to the Romans if not earlier, and still has a substantial non-profit component while ART (if you ignore handmaids) is relatively new and is much more clearly an industry. Even if I do not agree with, I do understand why people hate ART. (Although would that be all ART, really?) Why hate adoption? I know loving adoptive parents who raise their kids with honesty and integrity, some with (limited) involvement of the original parents. What’s wrong with that?

  4. It is not wrong to raise a child who would otherwise have no home. But the fact is, the primary reason for adoption is poverty.

    When I was in Africa, a couple asked me to adopt their kid. I wasn’t sure if they were joking or not.

    With half of the money that they spend on adoption the adoptive parents could support a third world family in a manner that the kid would not need to be adopted. They could also offer to provide it with a US education, without removing entirely from their folks, and that way they would have a relationship with a kid, possibly a lifelong one, who would, and should be incredibly grateful to them.

    Then again, if they do not have that relationship, they might end up feeling used and exploited, and many third world folks can be with westerners- treating them like walking moneybags and not people.

    In any case it is not adoption that is so objectionable, in cases where it is truly necessary. It is that so few efforts are put toward decreasing the necessity. Why? because there are so many people who want to adopt. On a macro level then, without badmouthing and particular set of adoptive parents, policy is geared towards adopters needs and not the the children’s needs .

    In fact, both Obama AND Mccain were on the same page on this in the presidential debates- they talked about INCREASING opportunities for adoption.

    • I agree that some adoptions are necessitated because of poverty and that a better solution (in a perfect world) would be to alleviate poverty. I’m not particularly persuaded that the reason we do not eradicate poverty is that the community of people who’d like to adopt is particularly powerful. Surely our collective failure to alleviate poverty, at home in the US as well as abroad, is far more complicated than that. But even if in a perfect world there would be fewer, perhaps even very few, children available to adoption, that’s hardly the world we live in.

      It strikes me that, especially in the view of those who assert the parenthood is essentially genetically determined, adoptive parents make an extraordinary commitment to their children. While not all are successful, the vast majority are, and I think the world is a better place for that.

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