Adoption: No Refunds, No Exchanges

This terribly sad story has been all over the media the past few days.    Torry Ann Hanson, who lives in Tennessee, adopted a seven-year-old Russian boy.   (She called him “Justin” while his Russian name was “Artyom.”) 

Apparently it was not a successful relationship.   Asserting that she had been lied to and misled, Hanson decided to return the boy to Russia.   Her mother, Nancy Hanson, travelled with the boy as far as Washington.   She then put him on a direct flight to Moscow with a note that said: 

 After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.

It seems to me behavior like this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of adoption and perhaps also suggests some systemic flaws.   When an adoption is completed (and I’m going to assume one was) you become a child’s legal parent.  

Being a legal parent is essentially a permanent position.   It doesn’t expire and you don’t just get to quit.   While you might farm-out various tasks (education, babysitting and so on) you remain, forever, the child’s parent.  

Of course not all parents are up to the job.   Remember last year, when for a short period of time, Nebraska allowed parents to drop kids off a ERs?    (There’s a bunch of posts back there about this if you do not remember it.)   Nebraska changed its law pretty quickly, because it didn’t square with one of our fundamental understandings about parenthood. 

Now I worry particularly about a case like this one, which is bound to get tons of press, because of the damage it will do to all the really terrific adoptive parent who totally get it.    Instances like this become fodder for those who will assert that the biological bond is somehow better or stronger or more genuine than the bond between adoptive parent and child.  

Yet just as the stories of genetically related parents who abandon their children in dumpsters do not prove the inferiority of genetic relationships, so stories like this do not offer us lessons about the commitment of adoptive parents generally. 

At the same time, it is clear to me that something went terribly wrong here.   Somehow Hanson went through the adoption process without comprehending the essential permanence of adoption.   Surely that is unacceptable.    

I’m reluctant to rush to judgment because I have so few facts, but I’m inclined to think that someone who would do what was done here is probably not well-suited to parenthood.   I do understand children can be exceptionally difficult and circumstances can conspire to compound the difficulty.    Parents can need (and when the do need, should demand) assistance coping with the challenges they face.  But parents cannot just quit.   Until a person understands that, I’m not sure they should be allowed to become a parent.  

It appears to me, too, that this was a single-parent adoption.  (I’m not sure about that, but no second parent is mentioned.)   If this is the case, then I should echo the concern I just expressed–because this single-mother performed poorly, it does not mean that single mothers cannot be terrific parents.   It’s critical not to over-generalize, even as we look for lessons to be learned.


45 responses to “Adoption: No Refunds, No Exchanges

  1. While there is certainly a story that makes the media stand up at attention, I suspect there is more than meets the eye.

    The author speaks to the boy’s mother as an alcoholic. I suspect that this child suffered AFS, thus the behavioral problems. Add to that questionable adoption infrastructure and you have children being adopted out without the intended parents having a true understanding of the child’s health care needs and personality.

    Heartbreaking no doubt. But lets not throw this Mom under the bus without all of the facts.

    • Fair points–we do not know, and may never know the story. This case may show something more about the failure of a system than the failings of any one individual.

      Neither do I mean to suggest that adoption of older children, and perhaps particularly older children from different cultures, is easy.

      I just would like it to be clear that whatever failed here, it doesn’t illustrate any broad truths about adoptive parents. All the instances in which adoptive parents endure tremendous challenges and persevere to raise healthy and successful children never make it to the papers. That’s just the way it is, I guess.

  2. I’m sorry Julie, I just cannot accept that an adoptive parent should have to suffer through with an extremely difficult adopted child who is wrecking her life. However, I do accept that a natural parent should persevere no matter how arduous – but also to a limit – however a wider limit! The difference is pretty obvious. But for the natural parent the child would not be there. But for the adoptive parent the child would be there anyway! So the adoptive parent has a heck of a lot less responsibility as does any non-biological parent. I see no problem with demanding less, even significantly less of different categories of parents.

    • Adoption must be permanent for the sake of the adopted children, not for the parents. Otherwise there would just be foster care. We all know how miserable foster care is.

      The main difference is that when adopting an older child, the child is likely to have emotional problems and adoption agencies or whoever was involved need to be available to provide support to the adoptive parent.

      Also I wonder if in the case of an older child, a trial period would be in order (BUT IN THE SAME COUNTRY!!!) or if it would only traumatize the child more.

      Airlines should not be transporting lone children without a specific person designated to pick up the kid .

    • I know I’m a bit late to the party and I don’t mean to pile on, but I disagree about the line you draw between the obligations of an adoptive parent and those of one who is biologically related to a child. I think the whole point of parenthood is to create this enduring relationship. (I think of the unbreakable vow in Harry Potter.) It’s a really grave undertaking.

      I’m sometimes puzzled by the weight people will place on the “but for” causation argument–since your conduct (intercourse, I take it?) caused the child to exist, you are forever responsible for the child. Perhaps it makes sense for a person to be responsible in some way for the consequences of their conduct. But I’m not at all convinced that making them parents is the right way. What if they are not up to the task? The child is the one who will suffer.

    • Marilynn Huff

      I agree so much with what Sandy said. You a are obligated to care for the children you create which is why if you find yourself in a position where you cannot raise them to adulthood, you can allow someone else to do that job for you, someone more “up to the job”, but its not like you cease to be their parent, cease to be forever related to them, they do not cease to be a member of your family no matter how much deceit and trickery goes on to hide your existence from the child whats real is real and what is contractual is contractual. The flow of blood from one generation to the next is not diverted by adoption.

  3. Sandy May, I just don’t get your logic. Adoptive parents don’t get brownie points for trying–just like any other parent. What are you saying about adoptive parenthood? That it’s a try on? Either this is the same parenthood we are talking about with the same level of commitment or the two types of parenting are different. Maybe you could explain the difference to me. What message is “demanding less” sending to adopted children? That you’re second best–that your parents get a do-over with another child if you don’t work out and you can be shipped return-to-sender like a bad ceiling fan? Frankly, I think your remarks are shocking.

    When I adopted my daughter the Chinese government asked me twice–in writing and as a pledge at the time of the legal ceremomy–to promise I would never abandon her. It was one of the most significant moments of the whole process. Stating those words reminded me what I was doing and what this would mean for my child.

    • Marilynn Huff

      Osolomama, you might find this interesting. I was asked tonight to help find a girl who was born in Vietnam in 1975. She was badly injured by a bomb as many of the children were in her village. Many of the children of the village had been injured and were sent to good American Run Charity hospitals and the families would come and visit them as they recovered. One day in 1975 they went to see her in the hospital and she along with all the other children were gone. The staff explained that the children had been put on an airplane to the US to go live with American Families “who would take good care of them all – give them a better life”. All the families were hysterical they wanted their children back they wanted them to give their babies back to them. But nobody helped. They never saw their child again. None of these people ever saw their children again. I came home and looked up the story it really happened:

      The link I is from the “Vietnam Adoption and Parenting Guide” (let me throw up now) It says our government called it “Operation Baby Babylift” thousands of Vietnameese children were kidnapped and sold into adoptive homes all over the US. I had never heard of this before tonight.

      Its sad to think that this girl would call the woman who adopted her “mother” when the only mother she’ll ever truly have has cried for her every night for three and a half decades. I bet the girl wonders about her family and if they miss her even though they are strangers to her. They miss her though they do not know her name or where she is. Had you not met the child you are raising, would you miss her? Would she miss you? Would she seek you out or cry for you had she not been adopted by you or not been adopted at all?

      Adopted children fantasize about their mothers fathers brothers and sisters, whose names they do not know. They ache for people who supposedly abandoned them who they might pass as strangers on the street. Their mothers fathers brothers and sisters think about them too far more than adoptive parents want to know about. There is no such thing as a foundling anymore.

      Its all so interchangeable in adoption. The child you adopted could have been adopted by someone else and she would not be your child, you would not miss her and she would not miss you. You love her because you have her. Her family will love her despite the fact that they don’t know where she is or what has become of her. That is the difference.

      I wish people that adopt would refer to themselves as God Parents or something. It would make the separation from their families so much less traumatic for children.

      • I agree with you about many of the issues you raised. A cursory glance at my blog would show that. You might enjoy this post:

        Personally, I think adopted children have two sets of parents. I cannot undo the forces that caused my daughter’s parents to surrender her, but they still are and will always be her parents. That doesn’t mean she can’t call me mom.

        I have encountered before suggestions that my daughter refer to me as Ms. Pegis, “that woman,” or god-parent. The trouble is, I can’t quite identify what the measurable benefit would be to her. The fact is that her parents surrendered her. The fact is that she was not unofficially adopted by other Chinese parents (something that occurred with frequency in the late ’80s and early ’90s) and was placed into the int’l adoption program in ’97. The fact is the government matched the two of us and we became a family. Call me a substitute family by all means, and less than ideal. But to declare that none of this should have happened and so therefore this child must never be “parented” by anyone else . . . then I think your remedy is just as bad as the original tragic event.

        • Marilynn Huff

          I actually think you seem quite grounded in reality and I have no doubt in my mind that the child you adopted is better off in your home, under your loving supervision than being raised in an institutional setting. Children are not always best taken care of by their relatives. The next best thing to being raised by your own family that wants you is being raised by someone elses family that wants you. As you said its not ideal but you committed to do better by her than anyone else thusfar and you have every intention of seeing it through.
          I’m pro-guardianship just because its a more accurate way of describing the relationship as contractual rather than a substitute or a replacement, that’s all. I know that people who adopt have all the same rights and responsibilities as people who raise their own offspring – and as well they should. This story just highlights the fact that, like Sandy May said, you really can’t expect someone who is not related to a child to put up with crazed or violent behavior (if that is really what was going on). If the child was truely that bad a biological parent might have to put the child in a long term care facility for his safety and the safety of others and a biological family would foot the bill and visit him and work towards getting him well enough to come home at some point. But honestly someone who puts out $30,000+ just to bring a child through the door, might feel cheated by the prospect of having to turn the child over to a care facility within months of bringing them home. They might not even have the resourses to do that if the adoption fees wiped their savings out. The story just highlights that adoption does not give the child a new mother it gives them a caregiver who hopefully will stick with them to adulthood. Its sad that his own mother/father could not or would not do that for him, but he has not lost another mother, he just lost a caregiver.

          • Just to be clear, this is in reply to Marilynn Huff. I’m unwilling to speak in such broad generalizations. It seems pretty clear to me that different adopted children have different experiences. It’s easy to disprove any general statement (all adoptive children to this or that) simply by producing one counter-example. Surely the truth is that some adoptive children behave one way and some behave another? And just as there is nothing wrong with the adoptive child who craves the information about his/her forebears, there is nothing wrong with the child who does not crave this information.

            I’m also with Osolomama on the number of parents point. If a child is raised for all her life by a particular person or a couple, say, and if it is a good upbringing, than I think it quite likely these people are in a very real way her parent(s). Perhaps it would be useful to invoke the concept of psychological parent to make the point. Psychological parents don’t need to be biologically related, though of course they can be. The notion that all children have two and only two children defies the reality of so many kids’ lives.

            I know your desire to move away from the use of the word “parent” but it is so widely used in society and has so much power of its own. I am loathe to stigmatize (and yes, I think it would stigmatize) adopted children by labelling their parents “guardians” while other kids get to have “parents.”

  4. “But parents cannot just quit. Until a person understands that, I’m not sure they should be allowed to become a parent. “

    Well, exactly. I, for one, as and AP to two, am perfectly fine with throwing this adoptive parent under the bus.

    She put a child on an airplane alone that was destined for the same Hell that caused his deep trauma to begin with. There was no concern for this child whatsoever only a selfish need to be rid of ‘the problem’. As long as her house isn’t being burnt down- no problem if it is a scorched orphanage filled with children.

    I adopted an almost 8 year old with a severe trauma history and subsequent severe behavioral issues. The last thing that I needed as a parent was some kind of ‘get by free’ card. No thanks. Not needed. I intended, and will always intend, to parent my children with everything that I have…and if I don’t have it I will seek it out and find it.

    Adoption is not an ‘eye for an eye’ battle. Russia screwed this AP over so she is screwing them back- with a child at the center. This is a little boy with some big issues. No doubt. But pinning a note to him and sending him off to the very place that bred those issues is so not ok.

    If I, as an adoptive parent, am not held to the same standard as a biological parent then adoption should not be an option for anyone.

  5. Non-biological parenting is by definition all about servicing the wants and desires of an adult to role play as a parent. Chinese adoption agencies understand that well and are careful to select only the healthiest, most alert and responsive children to place for adoption. Had you osolomama adopted a psychiatrically ill child from Russia you might well be just osolo again now without the mama suffix. I’m actually familiar with three families that have taken steps to annul adoptions or just placed their adopted kids back in care. One moved state so that the child’s adopted status would not be known to the social services – isn’t it handy having those fake birth certificates – with falsified parents names!

    • Marilynn Huff

      It took me five years to find my friend’s mother. Her adoptive family turned her over to the state when she was 12 and she was put into a group home. They adopted her when she was 6 months old! She’s the one ABC “Find my Family” contacted me about and thought her adopted situation was too much of a downer for primetime.

      Oh yes adopted kids do get given back! She was unruly she stole from them and she ran away from home continuously from the time she could walk. She was nothing like the family that adopted her, no matter how much they tried to love her she rebelled. When she finally met her mother, there was a huge weight lifted off her shoulders to know that she was just like her real family. She’s calmed down now.

      You can’t love a behavior out of a child if you don’t know where it came from. You don’t have the tools to help them because you are not their real family you have no point of reference.

    • China has a large special-needs program going now–SN represents more adoptions than healthy-girl adoptions because the supply of healthy girls has diminished considerably.

      You don’t know me and you don’t know what I would have done with a child with severe adoption issues. Moreover, we don’t know if the child in the Russian case is psychiatrically ill. More likely it is the case that he has major issues around loss and abandonment because he lived with his mother until he was 6 and then lived in an orphanage about which we know very little.

    • We don’t own a fake birth certificate. Only in the United States are parents forced to apply for these. We have a certificate of adoption that calls me the adopter and refers to my daughter’s parents and their unknown whereabouts. It is a legal document recognized by the Canadian, Chinese, and US governments (for passport and legal purposes).

    • You may recall that some time ago I asserted that all parenting that comes about as intentional (I mean where people choose to be parents) is selfish.

      All this means is that many people become parents because they want to become parents. Indeed, I think it is probably much better that way–people who do not want to become parents and find themselves in that role unwillingly are unlikely (in my view) to be very good at it. Way too hard a job for that.

      I think the deployment of the word “selfish” is an effort to make it seem like a bad decision, or one that cannot be good for the child. But to me it proves nothing to say that a person became a parent because they wanted to. Luckily enough, most of us did that.

      It does not follow, of course, that everyone who wants to be a parent should be a parent. Hence, the adoption screening process. Some folks do indeed get turned away.

      I’m inclined to think that all parents–including those conceiving via intercourse–ought to be pre-screened, but I have no thought that this will happen. It hardly seems to me that the fact that you can engage in intercourse demonstrates your fitness to be a parent.

  6. “So the adoptive parent has a heck of a lot less responsibility as does any non-biological parent.” Huh?

    What makes you an expert on adoption, Sandy? I sure as hell hope you’re not an adoptive parent.

    But for the adoptive parent, their names would not be listed as parents on the gift certificate.

    But for the adoptive parent, the child would not be with them at all! Nobody held a gun to their head and made them adopt a child. This is a choice, they chose to adopt. You know, one could argue that an adoptive parent has MORE responsibility.

    It’s their child, for better for worse, just as much as any biological child. I’m from a family of three children only one of whom was biological. I can assure you there was no chance of any of us “being returned to sender”.

    Can you imagine, a child growing up under the threat of that??

    Three families eh Sandy? And you can sit there and say with a straight face that this is fine, that it’s their right to take on a kid and then give them back in, from what you describe, somtimes deceptive ways.

    If it’s A-OK to return the merchandise, why not just walk back into the store with your head held high? If there’s no shame or wrong doing why don’t you list the three families names and addresses here.

    Ultimately, I guess these poor kids are well rid of these loser, fair weather “parents”. Let’s just hope next time around they get the real deal.

  7. Sandy May,

    A parent is a parent. I would argue that an adoptive parent has a higher level of responsiblity to their adopted child. It was a conscious choice to adopt that specific child, at any point in the process they can back out – unlike a bio who once the baby arrives there are no do overs.

    The adoptive parent is the ADULT with the ability to research and carefully assess their own capabilities and has all the say in whether or not that child comes into the home. The child has NO SAY.

    Adoptees are NOT disposable. We are NOT returnable. We are NOT BLANK SLATES that can be returned, our memories wiped and ready again for the next PAP in line to have a crack at parenting…and people wonder why we learn early that we must be perfect so we are not given away again.

  8. “Julie, you say: “the biological bond is somehow better or stronger or more genuine than the bond between adoptive parent and child”. I would say it is more permanent. You can’t argue it away. It also has a moral, not just a legal basis. What I mean is, that you are morally responsible for those of your actions which you should be able to foresee the consequences of (with reasonable probability). Procreation is one of them.

    The problem with the concept of “legal parent”, as separated from biology, is that it lacks a moral basis. You don’t create the child, but sign a document. The execution of law depends on people signing documents, but it is not based on it. You may be excused for having signed a wrong document, but not for having created a wrong child.

    • The biological link is permanent in the sense that your biology does not change during your life time. Thus, if you check the DNA and twenty years time, it will still match.

      But this permanence does not ensure that the actual human relationships are permanent. Sad to say biologically related parents do sometime abandon their children. Perhaps that is better than instances where they treat them brutally.

      Ideally, of course, the commitment any parent makes to the child should be a permanent one. I think a person contemplating adoption ought to be clearly informed about that and I’d be fine in requiring that they demonstrate that they understand what that means.

      I don’t think simple factual causation (you had intercourse and therefore caused this child to exist) is a particularly strong moral basis for assigning parental responsiblity. If you want to impose some sort of financial obligation to mitigate the costs of the conduct, that’s a different matter.

      I suppose I would attach moral weight to the commitment an adult makes to a child. There are some promises that cannot be broken, perhaps because of the consequences of breaking them, perhaps because they are made to children. When a person adopts a child, they accept responsiblity for that child. For me, it is hard to imagine a great undertaking. When I’ve seen judges preside at adoptions, I think it is quite clear that there is something very important–something with substantial moral weight–transpiring.

  9. Julie, you say “I don’t think simple factual causation (you had intercourse and therefore caused this child to exist) is a particularly strong moral basis for assigning parental responsibility”. Simple factual causation is the foundation of moral responsibility. It is up to every society to decide about to which extent moral responsibility should be translated into a legal one, but it is important to remember that the execution of law depends on moral arguments.

    You say: “If you want to impose some sort of financial obligation to mitigate the costs of the conduct, that’s a different matter”. I must say that I disagree. In the real world it is not a different matter. You can’t reduce the problem of creating children into a matter of paying taxes. Economic responsibility and social responsibility go together.

    You say: “I suppose I would attach moral weight to the commitment an adult makes to a child”. I agree, but such commitments often don’t outlast the social circumstances which created them. As an example: Step-parents rarely keep in contact with their step-children after a divorce. Biological parents generally do. The sociologist Kari Moxnes who has studied this says that it tells a lot about how we regard parenthood.

  10. Like Nelly, I’m going to take you to task on your statement that: “I don’t think simple factual causation (you had intercourse and therefore caused this child to exist) is a particularly strong moral basis for assigning parental responsibility.”

    Julie, sometimes I wonder whether we’re even sharing the same planet, since our perspectives on these particular matters are so far apart.

    i cannot think of any stronger creation of moral obligation to a child than that which exists just by virtue of being that child’s procreator. To me any assignment of parenting of the child to a non-procreator can never shift the moral obligation, but merely assigns the caretaking role to the new ‘parent’ despite the moral obligation residing with the procreator. I do understand that an adoptor can thus acquire a legal obligation to parent a child but does that adoptor also acquire a moral obligation, and if so what level of moral obligation? To my mind the moral obligation must be less than the procreator’s moral obligation, and arguably if the child has not been long adopted the moral obligation is very minimal.

    • Perhaps I have not been clear, though I think we’d still disagree.

      If you engage in intercourse and as a consequence a child is created, then perhaps you have some obligations that arise from your act. The easiest one for me to see is that you might have an obligation to help pay the costs of raising that child. I’m not sure I’d describe this as exactly a moral obligation, although I suppose you could. It might be more that I want to internalize the costs of the conduct–otherwise you can reproduce willy-nilly without any regard for the burden of raising children. That’s rather a utilitarian view.

      But (to me) it doesn’t follow that because you have some obligations to help pay for the costs we all incur because of your conduct that you get assigned the far more critical role of parent. This, it seems to me, does precisely what I am often accused of doing–it ignores the interests of the children.

      I think it’s quite proper for us to think about the manner in which children are raised and to try to maximize the possiblities that that they will be raised well (whatever that means). From my point of view, we shirk this reponsiblity if we automatically assign parenthood to the people who happened to engage in intercourse. Why on earth would we think the ability to engage in intercourse is correlated to the ability to be a good parent?

      Here is where I think the core of our disagreement is: I don’t think the fact that you are genetically related has much to do with whether you will be a good parent, so I wouldn’t use genetic relationship as a method of assigning parenthood. I think you’re assuming that if you are genetically related you are going to be a good parent.

      Perhaps more broadly, I think being a parent is rather a privilege as well as a responsiblity. I’m not willing to award that privilege to folks simply on the basis that they are capable of conceiving via intercourse.

  11. Julie, from your comments it seems that you also don’t believe biological parents have the right to raise their children. I sincerely hope you never become a social worker – I can so visualize you tearing apart families willy nilly because you just have a hunch that a completely unrelated person would make a better parent.

    • You are both right and wrong. I would not always assume that those who are biologically related have the right to raise their children. First off, there’s all of ART. As we’ve discussed at length, those who provide gametes for ART are typically not (in my view) parents. But it’s probably the broader version of this statement that seems controversial. I’m not at all clear that biologically relationship means your particularly qualified to be a parent. Surely we can agree that there are too many cases where those who are biologically related prove to be terrible parents?

      But you are wrong that I’d take reassign children willy-nilly. I value parental rights quite highly, and one of their most important functions is to protect families from undue interference by the state. A hunch is never enough to overcome those rights.

      But until you are recognized as a legal parent, you don’t have those rights. This is why precisely why recognition as a legal parent is so very critical. And particularly for the one-night-stand kind of guy, I am not inclined to recognize him as a legal parent and therefore grant him the legal protections entitled to parents. Where there is no relationship with either the woman involved or the child, I don’t see why he should be granted such substantial legal rights.

      Finally, have no fears—I am not and do not plan to become a social worker.

  12. marilynnhuff

    I appologize for making broad generalizations Julie, it is poor form and I am trying to broading my understanding of other viewpoints by reading your blog. Its one thing for me to say that everyone needs to know who their relatives are, its entirely another for me to say that everyone will want to have a personal relationship with them.
    I help people locate their relatives, I only encounter people who feel deceived about who they are and/or deprived of the right to know who and where their relatives are. Because I help people for free and pay for their searches I’m inundated with requests and overwhelmed by the volume of people looking. I want to stem the tied by helping change the laws that has allowed these people to be so deceived, that allowed these people the right to be with their own flesh and blood.
    I’m confused by your most recent post Julie. It is my understanding that the law currently does give progenitors first crack at custody of their own kids. The common term for that is parenthood. They may ultimately fail but the law grants the title of parent automatically to people because they are assumed to be genetically related (mother by virtue of giving birth as you said its deeply gendered I would say deeply genetic).
    I think people who adopt have the same legal obligations to the child as people who conceive, that is clear. Its interesting that this woman treated the child as if it were under warranty rather than giving him up for adoption at the child welfare department herself the way a progenitor would have to if they decided they no longer wanted to raise their own flesh and blood. I suppose she chose to return him to Russia because it would be kinder to return him to his own culture than to abandon him here in the United States. In this instance the only problem I see with the situation is that the child seems a bit like purchased goods. I know that’s not true of all adoptions so please – don’t give me hell for generalizing. In this instance is all I’m saying.

  13. I meant “denied these people the right to be with their own flesh and blood.”

  14. From Julie’s point of view, as an LGBT advocate, in whose culture it is normal to raise unrelated children due to the inability to reproduce together, parenthood is assigned.

    But for most of us, who are from a society in which raising other people’s children, while it happens, is rarely plan A, parenthood is automatic. For us, such terms as “assigning” or “awarding” parenthood make no sense so Julie when you say “I don’t think we should award parenthood based on intercourse” that statement is absurd because they’re already parents.

    However, if you added the qualifier “legal” parent, you’d find a lot more people agreeing with you, because we understand that sometimes parents do not fulfill their legal role and substitutes must be “assigned.”

    Since you’ve stated that you’re primarily concerned with legal parenthood, why not just add the qualifier, if you do not mean to include the existential aspect of parenthood?

    • Taking the last point first, I do try to use the qualifier “legal” when it’s helpful and I can be more attentive to that. I don’t know if you’re thinking of a particular place and I”m not sure what you mean by the existential aspect of parenthood. If the rest of this discussion has missed that point, I apologize.

      To work back to the first point, I think to a surprising degree parenthood has been constructed by legal understandings (which is to say assigned, I think) for much of human history. So, for example, a child born to an unmarried woman once was said to be a child of no one (fillius nullius). This isn’t to say that people didn’t think some woman gave birth to him/her or that no man was involved. What it meant was that these kids had no legal parents. At other times, an illegitimate child had a mother but no father. I suppose you could say this is the reverse of assigning parenthood, but I see it as an instance in which we had legal and/or social conventions that determined who a child’s parents were (or were not) that had nothing to do with biology.

      For equally long periods of time, and to this very day, legal parenthood for a child born to a married woman is initially assigned to her husband. Throughout history there are countless instances in which the assignment was made even though it was widely understood that the man was not genetically related to the child. And in a Supreme Court case from the 1980s, a married couple successfully defeats a claim of parenthood on the part of the wife’s former lover though it is clear that the lover and not the husband is genetically related to the child. (The case is called Michael H v. Gerald D.) The outcome is determined by California law (which the Court finds to be constitutional), which effectively allows married couples to claim those children they wish to, as was the case here.

      The point I want to make is that the idea of assigning parenthood is nothing particularly new. It’s something societies have struggled with forever. It’s more obvious in cases of ART, but it’s in the background unnoticed a lot of the time.

      Would it be helpful to say that there are two different aspects of parenthood–legal parenthood (my main concern) and social parenthood (how people are actually living out there.) I might then assert that generally speaking it is good if the people who are acting in the role of parent socially also are the people who have the legal rights and obligations assigned to parents. I’d then go on to say that genetic linkage is one particular basis on which you could determine parenthood. And whether and when we should use it is where a lot of disagreement lies?

  15. Julie, you say: “I think you’re assuming that if you are genetically related you are going to be a good parent”. Not necessarily a good parent, but a permanent one. As to the extended family, this is even more important, since “kinship” is largely understood as a genetic one. Non-biological parents can be excellent parents, but their parenthood is fragile and depends critically on social circumstances. The relationship of the child to the extended family of a non-biological parent is even more fragile. When a married couple who has used donor insemination go through a divorce, or when a lesbian couple with a child splits up, the truth often comes out: “anyways, it not your child”, or: “anyways, it is not my child”. It reflects on the way we see parenthood and is well known from studies of step-parent families after divorce. Parents don’t necessarily have to be very good, their greatest virtue is simply to be there. Otherwise it doesn’t matter how good they are.

    • There’s much you assert I disagree with.

      First, I want to split some hairs. The genetic relationship is permanent, by which I mean the genes do not change. But this doesn’t mean that the social relationship is permanent. There are countless instances of genetically related parents abandoning their children. I don’t know that adoptive parents abandon their kids at a higher rate than do those who are linked by DNA. I actually doubt that they do.

      I don’t know your basis for asserting that the extended family of a non-biological parent is more fragile (than that of a biologically related parent.) If it is true, though, I’m not sure what to take from that.

      I think you are right that biological relationship is often used as a tool when couples are splitting up and one parent has a biological link while the other does not. I think that’s a terrible thing. To some degree it reflects the fact that our society places a high value on the genetic tie. I’d say that’s a problem.

      I’m not at all convinced that statistics about step-parents are relevant when considering families where both grown-ups are involved from the very beginning. There are many reasons why these situations might be distinguishable.

  16. I believe the social relationship between a genetic parent and child are permanent in a psychological sense. The ties exist even if they are cut off from eachother, and the cut off is likely to influence the emotional life of both anad the quality of their relationship with others.

    • Yes, I see in a sense that the genetic relationship has social meaning and thus and can form the basis of a permanent social connection. But I think the content and meaning given to the connection ranges widely.

  17. Julie. you say: “The genetic relationship is permanent, by which I mean the genes do not change. But this doesn’t mean that the social relationship is permanent”. Not always, but most people keep in contact with their “genetic offspring”, but not with the offspring of a social partner.

    You say: “To some degree it reflects the fact that our society places a high value on the genetic tie. I’d say that’s a problem” I would rather say it is a fact, and not a very surprising one. It has probably to do with the fact that “kinship”, which is the most universal way of social structuring among humans, is genetically based.

    You say “I’m not at all convinced that statistics about step-parents are relevant when considering families where both grown-ups are involved from the very beginning”. I agree that there would probably be a statistical difference, we don’t yet know how great. But what we hear from family court is hardly encouraging.

  18. Marilynn Huff

    I see that it was Nelly that wrote that great thing a while back about social parenthood not outlasting the situations that created it. You have a way with words Nelly. You should write a book or a law – yes it might be best if you wrote some changes into the law. At least then the law would be clear and logical and concise. I could handle the clear and logical part – definately not concise or properly spelled.

  19. Julie, I think that for you genetic relatedness is not a very important thing but I believe that you are unusual in this respect. I also believe most social parents do feel very close and loving towards their non-biological children. But I have seen enough non-biological parents walk away from their much loved non-biological kids at divorce or breakdown of relationships, to realize that the difference between being a biological parent and non-biological parent is very significant. The reality is that biological parents stick around on average through a great deal more adversity. My experience has definitely taught me that the two types of parenthood are not on par.

    • Apart from experience, which will vary in countless ways, is there authority for the proposition that the difference between being a biological parent and a non-biological parent is very significant? It seems to me this is a terribly difficult statement to test. For instance, if you focus on conventionally described step-parents you introduce a host of variations apart from the lack of a biological link.

      I have no expertise in designing statistical studies, but I have trouble even thinking of how you would broadly describe your groups in order to take the first steps towards describing a study. Would you first assemble a group of married parents where both parents are genetically related to the children and then compare it to—-to what? I think you’d have to stay with married parents in order to make the comparison valid (or you introduce a different variable). So married parents where one person was not genetically related to the child? But not step-parents, where the non-biologically related parent came late to the party. So married parents who used ART? But then you’ve got yourself a distinctive subgroup–those who have difficulty with fertility.

      I would be interested in seeing studies that might show the point, but I’d also want to scruitinze them carefully.

  20. Marilynn Huff

    Sandy May I have to say you are correct. In fact in my experience step relationships no matter how good are often awkward if maintained. I mean the desire to remain connected to the kids after the break-up is almost odd and intrusive and typically dwindles away just from that awkwardness.

    • At the risk of becoming boring, step-parent relationships are not the appropriate comparison. While it is true that step-parents may be parents who are not-biologically related to their parents, they arrive in their role of parent in a very different way. And that path may shape their relationship to the child.

  21. See alot of the discussions enter the relm of personal opinion when the issue seems to be that current law is rather disorganized and haphazzard in the assignment of legal parenthood. The law really could stand a facelift in that regard just so that the basis upon which one can be come or can avoid being called a legal parent won’t be so much of a moving target as to cause such heated debates.

    If DNA is the basis for establishing paternity (legal fatherhood) for court to order child support payments on a man’s offspring born of a one night stand with an unmarried female, then DNA should be equally the basis of court granting that same joint custody (if he so desires) so that he has some say in how his offspring is raised (and how his money is spent). I think its fairly clear that DNA is sufficient for the law to call a man the father when seeking support payments then the law must also aknowledge that DNA is sufficient for the law to call a man the father when he wants shared custody. This simple logic is not always applied. The law does require consent from male and female proginator’s both before allowing a child to be adopted, yet a woman can name her husband as her illigitimate child’s father and essentially prevent the male proginator from ever sharing custody of his child – its basically kidnapping and where the court allows it there is an agregious miscarriage of justice. So what if the other man held his child out as his own if it is not in fact true? Why in that instance does the court not require the male proginators consent to an adoption? Why would the court allow some people to take custody without following formal protocol and obtaining consent from the proginators of the child? Laws that allow for this must be changed so that everyone has their opportunity to assert their rights to raise a child and so that everyone does so with the appropriate consent. Assignment of parenthood is rather irratic under these circumstances.
    If DNA is enough to order to establish fatherhood and order support payments from a man why not from a woman? Why is giving birth still the basis for establishing motherhood when genetics would be used to establish the father in the reverse situtation? We know that there are many cases of surogates trying to keep the child they gave birth to, to prevent the child from being raised by his or her own kin – why would we not require DNA as the basis for establishing motherhood so that men and women are treated equally under the law? Why would the law want to support someones ability to take custody of another persons child without first going through the proper chanels and obtaining proper consent? The law is not clear and logical in this regard either.
    ART does allow for a very weak form of consent in the form of a unilateral waiver of parental rights over any children the clinic conceives on the donors behalf. I personally feel that those waivers of rights ought to be made by the “donor” for each child born after the child is born and that the comissioning couple ought to adopt the child from the donor. I say this because 1) it would be a shot of reality to the donor as they would have to aknowledge each childs birth and 2) it is in line with the idea that a child is not a person until birth and cannot be given up by either the mother or the father before its born (like adoption) ART waivers are really out of line with the logic applied elsewhere and it seems to cause some custody and support order suits. 3) it would prevent commissioning couples from trying to conceal the facts from the children conceived by anonymous parties.
    Adoption has its own inconsistencies with custody laws. Its just time to make the criteria more clear and logical and consistent. The logic has to be applied more evenly than it is currently. That is the issue as I see it anyway.

  22. Marylinnhuff, You are right that current law is rather disorganized and haphazard in the assignment of legal parenthood. Politicians deal with family law in a piecemeal fashion, trying not to offend to many voters at the same time. In the UK they did away with “the child’s need for a father” in the context of donor insemination of single women, and only two months later they made it an offence for single women not to name the father of their child on the birth certificate, because of the “child’s need for a father”. The public was confused. One day fathers were unnecessary and two months later they were essential. The same thing has happened in Scandinavia. What is happening? A cynical interpretation is, that politicians don’t wish to offend upper middle class “single mothers by choice”, but at the same time can’t afford to pay welfare to less fortunate single women. Apart from the futility of creating different laws for different classes in society, there is also the problem of which rights the children have. The UN convention of “The rights of the child” says that “the child has the right to know and be cared for by its parents”. Many politicians say that it is not clear what this means, exactly (I can understand it, but then I am not a politician!).

    I am slightly optimistic because the donor children are growing up and starting to fight for their rights. They won at “High Court” in the UK (which changed the ART laws) and will probably win in Canada too. Our children are starting to ask questions, and we have a bit of explaining to do. This process may sharpen our minds and in the end our laws.

    • Marilynn Huff

      I’m actually happy to hear that the U.S. is not alone in its disorganized assignment of legal parenthood. It’s something of a global issue anyway. I think the best approach is to respect the rights of all people equally and recognize that if one wants to or believes themself to be a parent to anyone other than their own offspring, they’d better have the full knowledge and consent of both the progenators for that child and have it formally documented in a court of law AFTER the child is born. I would also like to see an end to any law that allows a parent by means other than conception to withold that information from the child, but that is secondary in my mind to first straightening out the custody laws, it would put an abrupt stop to people circumventing court documentation of their obtaining other peoples offspring without going thru proper court procedures when using ART sperm/egg/embryo “donation”.
      I’ve mentioned before that I find family for people. A significant portion of them are progenators and offspring looking for eachother thru the donor sibling network. Oh, those kids are pissed off for sure. Luckily I have not encountered any irate proginators, they all get that these kids are their children whether they raised them or not. Whoever raised them ultimately fades into the background blood is thicker than either water or ink. Sad but true at least in my experience. Love to hear from someone who is the kid or an anonymous provider or an anonymous provider that could care less about finding their relatives. Open to hearing their thoughts.

  23. Marilynn Huff

    I was a hellion as a kid, but I kept it mostly out of my parent’s faces. I had enough respect to sneek out after they were asleep, always sobor up before I got home, etc. Not so with all my friends; many of them went to YGC or away to big time little kid jail. Some of their parent’s actually went to court and relinquished their rights turned my friend’s over to the state because they could no longer control them. I’m pretty sure they lost “parental” rights, but of course they did not cease to be their parents. Officially they had no legal parents, only foster parents, none of them were adopted. Point is lots of biological parents do give up, I don’t say its right, but sadly it does happen.
    The difference being the parents all got back in contact with the child after they turned 18, I don’t think this happens often when APs cancel the adoption.