I was fortunate to be at a conference on Motherhood at Denver University this past weekend. Better still, I was on a panel with Wendy Kramer, founder of The Donor Sibling Registry. Bright and early Saturday AM we had a lively discussion about some of the issues around donor insemination.
The discussion got me thinking about the way we’ve structured legal relationships with children. It’s a pretty stark binary. There are parents (most often two) and then there is everyone else. Legal parents have rights and obligations with regard to the child. Virtually no one else in the world does. For the most part, relationships like grandparent, aunt or uncle, even sibling, a legally irrelevant. Everyone who is not a parent is in the same category, whether it is the piano tuner or the grandfather.
Further, the law protects the rights of parents to organize their family life as they wish. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing–if parents don’t want their kid to watch television I don’t think the neighbors down the block or their siblings or even their parents should have any legal right to interfere with that decision. But taken with the parent/non-parent categorization above, it makes for some pretty stark choices.
When you think about a man who provides sperm (and I really will try to more about language–if he is paid, “donor” is not accurate) he must be either a parent (with all accompanying rights and obligations) or a non-parent (with no rights or obligations.) I wonder if the starkness of this choice, which is essentially all or nothing, is part of what creates such fierce debate around this question.
Although I’m not persuaded this is a good idea, I think it’s at least worth examining. Suppose we created a legal category for gamete providers who were not going to be parents? (I know you could raise questions about gamete providers who change their minds, say, as well as other circumstances, but I would like to set those aside for now.)
Gamete providers would be have a protected legal relationship with the child. This might provide a basis for the imposition of some obligations (perhaps to promptly notify someone if some new health-related information becomes known to them and to keep the child’s family apprised of their whereabouts) and perhaps they’d have rights. (I’d have to think about what these might be.)
Critically, gamete providers would not be legal parents. Neither would the be able to interfere with the main rights of the legal parents. Gamete providers would have no right to participate in the major decisions about the child’s life, although parents might include them in the process if the parents wished to. They would have no right to object if the child’s parent(s) wanted to move to another location. They would have no right to communicate with or spend time with the child.
I realize, of course, that for people who assert that the existence of the biological link should make a person a full legal parent this will be unacceptable. But in all likelihood, nothing that satisfies me will satisfy them and vice versa. Some of us may just need to agree to disagree.
What struck me at the conference, more than once, is the complexity and richness of family life, the many ways families are formed, the way they may change over time. This vibrancy suggests that perhaps the law needs to be a little more nuanced, a bit more imaginative than a simple parent/not-parent binary allows. At least for now, I think it is something worth thinking about.