Must Every Child Have A Mother?

My last post asked this same question about fathers.   It’s only fair to switch the genders around and ask about mothers.   I’d suggest reading that other post first as it clears up some confusion that might arise about my willingness to accept science.  I think of myself as a pro-science sort of person and am not making any claims at odds with the general understanding of DNA and reproduction. 

So–must every child have a mother?   Mostly what I would say would perfectly parallel what I said about fathers.   Surely there are many children who are raised without social and/or legal mothers.   This may be the result of planning by a single man or gay male couple or it may just be happenstance.   I believe that a man (or men) are fully capable of raising children without mothers.  And so to a large extent I’d say just what I said in that other post, just switching round men and women.   

But then there is this one stark, undeniable difference between men and women and the roles they play in children’s lives.   Every person is carried in utero and then born to a woman.   Only women (though not all women, of course) become pregnant and give birth.  

What difference does this difference make?   Well, it depends on how you think a person becomes a parent.   For example, if you think legal parental status should be conferred on the basis of DNA, then difference just cited makes not difference–you’d still treat men and women precisely the same.   If you think parental status should be conferred on the basis of intention–who intended to create and parent this child–then again, I think the difference makes no difference–you’d treat men and women the same. 

But I don’t accept the genetic link and I’m at best a wavering supporter of intention.    If you’ve read this for a while you’ll know that I’m generally supportive of something like recognition of de facto or functional parents.  (Use the tags in the tag cloud if you want to poke around under those topics.)   And from this point of view, I think pregnancy very likely matters.  

It seems to me that a woman who is pregnant has an ongoing relationship with the soon-to-be child that is clearly parent-like.   All the needs of the developing fetus are met, 24/7, for nine months.   Thus, when a woman gives birth, she is a mother of that child.   And so yes, every child must have a mother. 

Do I want to say this?   Do I want to revise my view before doing so?   There are obviously implications for surrogacy here.   It doesn’t necessarily mean surrogacy is impossible or impermissible, it just means that the surrogate is in a much stronger legal position than she is in many states today.   (I don’t raise this because I think everything should be decided by considering it’s impact on surrogacy, but rather because there’s an obvious impact there.)

That’s all I’ve time for just now.  I think I’ll try and pick this up again next time, though I have several other open tabs clamoring for my attention.

18 responses to “Must Every Child Have A Mother?

  1. The points of view of sperm donor offspring is just coming out, and they succeeded in influencing my opinion in favor of the genetic connection. Not to replace their social fathers (if he was a good one) but in addition to it.

    I wish there was some research out there about how children born via egg donation and/ or surrogacy view things. That would be the most important data to me.

    Everything we say now is but speculation…

    • I think the data that is emerging is not all that conclusive. (Having said that, I must confess that I wonder how open to persuasion I really am.) The most substantial study we have is the daddy/donor study that’s been discussed here and lots of other places. I’d say the actual data, while interesting, doesn’t clearly point in one direction. The most obvious thing to me is that honesty between parent and child is vital, and I suspect that is also born out by studies of adoptive kids, too.

      The anecdotes included in the textual report are compelling. But they are merely anecodotes. There are also anecdotes from kids who are quite comfortable with being donor conceived. These tend not to be compelling because of the nature of the story they tell–“everything fine here.”

      It’s clear that some people who are donor conceieved are very unhappy about that. I think it’s equally clear that others are not. The obvious question, it seems to me, is why the variance? What makes it okay for some people but not others?

      I see two possible answers: First, there could be other reasons that would help us understand why some people seem content and others not. I’d expect to find honesty of parents to be one of them, but you’d have to make a serious scientific examination, I think. If you could identify the things that make people more comfortable/content/happy, then you could teach people using donor gametes what to do to help their kids. Or you could do other things to try to minimize or address the unhappiness.

      Second, it could be that this is just individual variation that is bound to occur. If that is so then I think you have to try to figure out where the balance lies–how much/many unhappy vs. how much/many happy. I wouldn’t say that just because some people are unhappy you rule out the procedure.

      Of course, I think it is probably some of both, which makes it even harder to reach some firm conclusion. But perhaps because in my own experience I seem to encounter mostly contented donor-conceived, I’m not prepared to throw the who matter out. I am prepared to try and figure out how to minimize harm. Hence my willingness to entertain policies based on the idea that the donor could be an important person to the child, just not a parent.

      • I think what makes the difference to a certain point is every individual’s coping skills. The ability to cope with certains situations is better in some people than others, this is true in every situation in life as you can see people who is able to overcome horrific situations easily, while others can’t cope with something very small. Being donor concieved falls into the same. Some DC people have better skills to cope with it. I, also, think there might be a few things that can make a difference. Seems like people that learned about it later in life have greater difficulty than the ones that knew since early childhood. I think the way the parent feels about it has influence over the kid, if the parent feels uncomfortable maybe the kid will absorb that. Also, maybe how supportive the parent is with the kid might have an influence in how content the kid will be on the situation. Also, it seems to me that DC kids who have a good involved social father and knew since early childhood might have a better copying skill than the child of a single mother who might be trying to find a “father” connection. I think it would be very interesting to see more studies in this matter.

      • The question isn’t confined to happiness; people can be happy and still consider the man who sired them their father.

      • I would be very interested to hear more about your experience with donor conceived persons. Approx how many have you encountered, and how many have you encountered intimately enough, that they might share this aspect of their life with you? Were they small children or adults?
        Were they ID release or not?

        • Marilynn Huff

          I encounter adults conceived for profit by anonymous men all the time because I reunite families as a hobby for free. The ones that are content with not knowing their relatives are not very vocal I have not met any of those. They are all very protective of the little web of denial their mothers spun for them – they are reluctant to call the men who created them fathers yet they are deeply compelled to find them. They feel badly for wanting to know him, like it might let their mothers down. I’ve also been contacted by vendors looking for their children after they realized “hey where are my kids what have I done?” Its all worked out well in each case. They are close with their fathers now.

    • I suspect indeed that their may be a different psychological response to motherhood and fatherhood.

      Elsewhere in this blog it was mentioned that fatherhood (as culturally construed ) is felt to be intrinsic to the genes, whereas motherhood is felt to be intrinsic to the womb, the milk, and by extension, the baby-care role.

      It can take many generations for psychology to catch up to new technological realities and this is only one example.

      The question is, how much should we be pushing it to change, and I personally can’t answer that.

  2. There are people now, employing ART, that so desperately want to create children “of their own” where they are the first people to be named as parents of a child at birth – and some of those people are finding their frozen embryos are winding up in the bellies of other clinic clients without their permission. Men are finding their sperm was used to inseminate clinic clients without their permission. These people want children and they are having difficulty conceiving with their partners. Don’t they have a right to share custody of their own offspring? Would a surrogate really be the mother just because she gave birth? Their offspring are kidnapped who is the mother then can there be no mother if the the real mother wants the child back?

    • I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to here. There are certainly instances of mistakes–where the sperm meant for woman A is used for woman B or where the wrong embry is implanted. I’ve blogged about some of those. In most of the cases I can recall off-hand, the courts do recognize some claim by the providers of the genetic materials–thus, there’s at least one case I can recall where he sperm donor was recognized as a parent of the child concieved although it meant he was co-parenting with a woman who he had no relationship with and who had intended to be a single mother.

      Absent mistakes of this sort, isn’t there generally permission? Certainly in surrogacy, if it is managed properly, the commissioning individual or couple agrees to the process.

  3. The very fact that we use a pronoun in front of every other type of parent suggests differences…adopted, social, surrogate, bio, commissioning, foster, step and the like. What matters most in my mind is that the child’s needs are being met. Who is in the best position to meet those needs? Does that negate in anyway who we call the caretaker? Can we use all the titles as long as the child’s needs are being met and recognize that each brings a uniqueness to the child’s identity? Their culture? Their extended families? Is more better than less? I am still inclined to follow the genetic link when it comes to naming the bio-parents – and yes there are two and both are important for the child. We can deny it, avoid it, relinquish the obligations that go with it but I contend the bio-parents are still that – the bio-parents and whether society as a whole wishes to acknowledge that or not, I would say most kids will want to know who they came from and should have a right to know.

    I spoke to a female colleague recently who wants to become a surrogate. She is doing it for the money. When I asked her if she would be using her egg, she said “no”, she could not do that as it would be giving up a part of herself. The embryo would be implanted inside her but not genetically hers which allows her a much greater ease of detachment at the time of birth. Her husband is supportive of this. Lots of risks but she is willing to do it for a certain amount of money and altruistic reasons.

    When it comes to social policy and the law, it just makes sense to follow the genetic link and relinquish parental rights, then adopt. Keep everything transparent and expect the child to go looking for their bio-mom/dad someday if they haven’t been able to have contact.

    • The note about your colleague seems to me to demonstrate something I suggested in a comment I just wrote–that how women think about this varies and that the critical thing is that a woman know her own mind and her own capacities before she embark on becoming a surrogate.

      As for the genetic link part–I think the idea of the genetic link being a natural determinate of parenthood is so powerful that people often don’t make an affirmative case for why it is a good idea. Instead people (like me) are left to object to it. I’d like to see the positive case for genetic determination of legal parents fleshed out. And note I said legal parents. Why is it a good idea to use genetics as the (initial?) determinate? Granted that will ensure that every child born has two and only two parents, one male and one female. But why is that necesarily a good thing? Could I just say those genetic providers are interesting folks who should be indentified (or identifiable) but who should not, absent more, be deemed legal parents?

  4. marilynn huff

    I don’t have to write anything I think Lee pretty much said it.

  5. marilynn huff

    1) Do you think the woman that gives birth ought to be the only parent recognized automatically upon the birth of a child and that she should be able to name whomever she wishes (male or female) as the child’s other legal parent?
    2) Do you believe male progenitors should only be granted rights over their offspring with the express permission of the woman who gave birth?
    3) In your opinion the woman who gives birth could allow her same sex partner to be named as the other parent – I want to know if you think the woman that gave birth is more a mother than her same sex partner. I want to know if you would throw the act of birth out the window as you do genetics in determining which of the two women is the childs real mother in the event of a break up.
    4) What if the two women were unmarried but planned to have the child together and the woman that gave birth even entertained the idea that the baby had two mothers. They break up when the baby is 6 months old – and the woman who did not give birth wants 50% custody – exerting the same kind of control that you mentioned wanting to avoid from male progenitors. Does her ex’s intent to be a parent to her child really count when you get down to brass tacks. The other woman has not had time to build up much of a relationship. The mother faces the horrifying proposition of being with her child only 50% of the time over the next 18 years if the other woman is treated as a legal parent. What then?

    I really don’t see the difference between a a mother’s ex-boyfriend or ex-husband having say in his child’s life and the mother’s ex-girlfriend or ex-spouse if she were to be a legal parent.

    • I can try to answer these.

      1. A two part question with a complicated answer. And at the outset, let me say I’m unsure. This is hard for me to answer as I feel competing impulses and see competing arguments. I do think the woman who gives birth should be recognized and recorded in some way, and probably for me that would be recognized as a legal parent. I think she’s earned that right. I think she can then hand over the child to a couple who is expecting her to do so, of course. I don’t think she has power to name the other parents simply because she gave birth.

      2. I don’t think permission of the mother should be the critical factor. Again, I’m uncertain here, but I’d be inclined to consider performance. If I person (male or female) is around through the pregnancy, is supportive and all that, perhaps they have some sort of claim. It seems to me it almost has to be a lesser claim, since no matter how supportive one is, one is not actually pregnant. And this does confer an element of power in the selection on the pregnant woman–she can refuse offers of support.

      3. See 2, above. I’d treat the partner the same no matter what sex. Note, however, that if a dispute arises some time after the birth (yes, that’s a bit vague) then I think the analysis may change. Once a child is born, both people in a couple can parent that child. After you’ve done that for a while, I would put the two people in the same category, not because of genetics but because of performance.

      4. I’m uneasy with intent that is not confirmed by action. There are many things I intend to do that I never get around to. I don’t want to give credit for intent where there is no follow through. And where there is follow through, I think I want to rely on the actual follow through, and so I’m not sure what the intent adds. To put this another way, if intent and action point in different directions, I’d be inclined to go with action. If they point in the same direction, it’s a lot easier. The really hard cases are those where there is intent but then no time for action–so agreement to have a child but rapid deterioration of the agreement. I’m inclined (though not yet totally committed) to discount intent in such cases.

      The question I’m evading is how much performance counts. If a person has been around for the entire life of a six month old, I think that is probably enough. But I’d want to know a bit more about what we know about infant bonding, I think. But the same six months in the life of a five year old child probably wouldn’t do it for me.

  6. marilynn huff

    The vast majority of women give birth to their own offspring, and they are the mothers of their offspring. However if women could retain the title of mother to their own offspring but cite pregnancy and childbirth as the basis for having been granted the title of mother then performance alone would have to be the basis for determining who the father is – and women could prevent performance of any duties that would earn the man the right to be named father and then women can successfully lock men out of their children’s life forever and would free women and children from the tyrany of wiked patriarchs.

    If genetics is so irrellevant to who should have parental rights over a particular child then maybe the state should shuffle all the babies born each week before sending each one home in the arms of a genetically unrelated mother. All the women would still have parental authority as mothers because they were pregnant and gave birth…what difference does it make whose offspring it is. At least this would make it fair, women would be granted the rights and responsibilities of a mother because of the sacrafices they made during pregancy while at the same time putting women on equal footing with men who would have no natural right to be aknowledged as the parent of their own offspring. Any woman that would pull that kind of stunt would deserve to get her goose cooked in a double cross just like that . Really.

    And before anyone suggests that the woman deserves to be the mother of the baby that she was pregnant with, make that statement only if you are a bible thumping right wing pro-lifer. If you are pro-choice you know a woman’s right to choose hinges on the concept that a person must be born before they can be murdered, they certainly have to be born before they can be cared for. As uncomfortable and unpleasant as pregnancy is, it is nothing like actually caring for a real baby. NOTHING NOTHING nothing like it. Ask anyone who has been up all night long with a screaming infant if it is anything like the solid 8 hours of sleep she got while pregnant and she will say no. Ask her if she’d just as soon take a different baby home. She’d say no or she’s lying.

    • In the first paragraph you correctly outline my view, I think. Realistically I think the vast majority of women who are in couples would choose to share parenting with their partners and thus, I don’t forsee a sudden epidemic of single-parent families. But women could choose to raise their children alone if they wanted to. Is this a terrible thing?

      I think many many women do want to raise children with men and so I don’t think you’d see scads of men who want to be parents going childless. (And of cousre, I would make adoption an available option.)

      I think your suggestion of shuffling babies among mothers is absurd. I think it is not uncommon for women to feel that they have already established a relationship with the child they give birth to and I would not do violence to that. Indeed, I think there is some scientific evidence to support this view.

      I think I can affirm a woman’s right to end a pregnancy (as a matter of autonomy) and at the same time assert that if she continues that pregnancy then we ought to acknowledge the time and effort she puts into being pregnant. Further, I think a woman who elects to continuing a relationship is nuturing a fetus that will, if all goes well, become a child. That nurturing matters to me.

  7. Do you think that surrogacy should be made more available to men that do want to be parents and are going childless? my understanding is that most States surrogate contracts are not enforceable which complicates things if the surrogate changes her mind, also, surrogates tend to be very expensive which makes it difficult for most regular men to have acces to surrogacy, do think surrogate should charge less? How would you establish parenting in these cases where a man wants to be a parent through surrogate, by intention or by genetic linkage?

  8. not really, I don’t think surrogacy should be encouraged at all. It can’t be made illegal because people have a right to do what they want with there bodies but I don’t think overall it’s good for society.

    Men who want to be parents? Easy. have sex, or donate sperm, but not in California. Or adopt.

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