Looking back at recent posts on a variety of topics, it’s apparent to me that there is at least one question that gets raised repeatedly in many contexts: What is (or should be) the significance of a genetic relationship between adult and child? You can see this question emerging in the recent discussions here about gamete providers, the marital presumption, the rights of natural parents and Iowa birth certificates.
I think I’ve been fairly clear about my own view–which is that while the person with the genetic connection may be an important person, she or he should not be considered a parent simply because of the genetic connection. A number of commenters have been equally clear that they disagree with me on this. They espouse what I will call for now the genetics-makes-a-parent point of view. (I do not mean to give this viewpoint an objectionable label and if what I have chosen is objectionable, I will change it. I just needed some sort of short-hand way to refer to it.)
As I think about the genetics-makes-a-parent point of view, I have a series of questions. The first, and perhaps most important question is what the virtue(s) of this perspective are. The best arguments I can think of would be that it serves the rights/interests of children and/or that it serves the rights/interests of adults. I’d like to consider these possibilities separately.
I can see several ways you might say a genetics-makes-a-parent view serves the interests of children. First, you could say that genetically related adults are always going to be the best parents for any given child. You could advance this view from a evolutionary biology perspective–that we are pre-programmed, as it were, to care more for our genetic related offspring than for other young. (I realize there’s a whole bunch one could say about this, but I’m just going to ignore that for now. I think I’ll probably come back and unpack this statement another time.)
Whatever the strengths of the theory there, it doesn’t seem to play out in practice. It’s clearly not true that all genetically related parents are pre-programmed to take good care of their offspring. There are too many instances of child abuse and neglect at the hands of genetically related parents. Further, the converse–that genetically unrelated parents will take less good care of their children–is also untrue. There are large numbers of adoptive parents and parents of kids conceived with third-party gametes who appear to do an excellent job. So it seems to me that sometimes kids who are clearly better off being raised by genetically unrelated parents than they would be being raised by genetically related parents. It doesn’t seem to me that a blanket presumption that people who are genetically related are the parents of the child can be justified on grounds that it serves the interests of children.
I would go further and say that a presumption in favor of genetically related parents would sometimes harm a child. If the genetically related people have not played a role in the child’s life and the child has formed substantial psychological attachments to people she/he is not genetically related to, then recognizing the genetically related people as parents and severing connections with the genetically unrelated people will very likely harm the child.
Perhaps the genetics-makes-a-parent view can be justified by reference to the rights/interest of the adults. I do think adults involved in child-rearing have rights that we should care about. On occasion I’ve been accused of putting too much emphasis on the rights of adults and too little on the rights of children.
I can sort of see a right–akin to a property right?–that a person with a genetic connection is entitled to be a parent of a child. And you do see this view reflected in law on occasion–I think this is part of why the one-night-stand guy is considered a father. This may be where I need to do some more thinking.
It’s possible that I haven’t been fair here, and so I am willing to be corrected. Perhaps the point is that people shouldn’t be permitted to raise children they are not genetically related to. Or perhaps it is that they should be permitted to raise them but should not be recognized as parents (in law) of those children.
The first suggestion (no raising kids unless you are genetically related to them) could be a statement of an ideal, but it is clearly an unattainable one. I think there have always been people raising kids they are not genetically related to and there always will be. I don’t see that we have any interest in discouraging this behavior generally.
The latter suggestion–you can raise the kids, but you cannot be a legal parent–seems wholly unworkable to me.
I should acknowledge that I have been considering the proposition quite abstractly, across a range of contexts. One could instead offer a narrower argument–like that gametes shouldn’t be bought and sold–that would be more context-specific. And that would be a different conversation.
As I think about the