I’ve had this article open in a tab for a few weeks now, always meaning to comment on it. Today’s the day.
It’s an opinion piece from the Telegraph in the UK. I actually don’t plan to discuss the first point (about birth certificates) at this moment. There’s been substantial discussion here in the past. (You can start to track back on that here or you can just use the handy tag.) The only thing I’ll add now is to say that there are perhaps two intertwined issues here–which people get to be parents automatically upon the birth of a child and what sort of certificate is issued upon the birth of a child. I think it would be helpful to untangle them.
At the moment I am more interested in the second point raised–the one that garners the headline–the statement that the role of the father has been downgraded.
Here’s the background: UK law provides single women and lesbian couples access to ART services. This was the subject of some debate in 2008 when the governing statute was last amended and I wrote about it at that time. The perceived problem then as now was that single women and lesbian couples are interested in creating fatherless families.
I think it’s likely we can all agree that men should be encouraged to undertake parenting responsibilities fully, that they should be supported when they do so, and that their contributions to their families should be recognized. I’d say the same for women, of course. But men and women also need to understand that being a good parent is not an easy job.
I don’t see why the existence of healthy fatherless families would discourage men from participating as parents in their own families. To say that fathers are not necessary is not the same thing as saying that men are necessarily bad parents or inept parents. Perhaps fatherless families will help men see that becoming a parent is not about simply filling the right gender slot, but is instead about choosing to undertake substantial responsibilities, about making a limitless and life-long commitment.
I imagine some men (and some women) if they think about it that way might decide not to become parents. I don’t see that as a tragedy. Better to have people understand that being a parent isn’t a matter of simple biology.
Does every child needs a father? I don’t see that that follows, myself. Of course I know that all children are created from sperm and an egg and that only men can produce sperm. But I don’t think we do men or women or children, for that matter, a service when we assert that a man is a father simply because his sperm fertilized an egg that subsequently developed into the child. To the contrary, if that’s all it means to be a father, then I think we have set the bar way to low. In effect, that will make men think it is awfully easy to be a father.
There’s a deeper point here. If you say every child needs a father, it must be because a male parent provides something (apart from sperm) that no female parent can provide. That is, there is something essentially unique in being a male parent as opposed to a female parent. Put slightly differently, the “every child needs a father” statement is necessarily premised on an assertion that men and women are essentially different in what they bring to parenting. (Again, apart from the sperm/egg difference.) While this is obviously a subject of debate, I don’t agree.