Here’s a story from the NYT that I’ve been meaning to get to. (I’m not caught up on comments, but because I have limited time and a couple of posts I wanted to add, I am just going to try to do shorter posts on the newer stuff and then return to the comments.) It’s about the modern family tree and the dilemmas posed for some families.
The story starts with Laura Ashmore and Jennifer Williams–sisters by any reckoning. Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned they could not conceive a child. Williams agreed to serve as a surrogate for her sister. She became pregnant using sperm from a third party (who I think was anonymous) and gave birth to Mallory. Mallory was then adopted by the Ashmores.
(This last point leads me to a couple of side notes. If the Ashmores adopted Mallory then when Williams must have been a legal parent to begin with. This reminds me that there are two important variations on surrogacy–one where the surrogate is a legal parent who intends to turn over the child to someone else and the other where the surrogate is never a legal parent. It also makes me think about the difference between conventional adoption and what happened here–the main difference being that the child was deliberately conceived for the eventual parents.)
Anyway, we could now describe Mallory as a child of either Williams or the Ashmores, depending on what we mean. From a genetic point of view, Mallory is Williams’ offspring and will always remain so. Laura Ashmore is Mallory’s aunt. But from a social point of view, Mallory is the Ashmore’s child and Williams is the aunt. The law–my habitual concern– happens to endorse the latter view in this instance.
If we draw a family tree starting with the two sisters, where do we put Mallory? And what’s the proper description for the relationship between Mallory and Jamison, Williams’ genetically related son? Or between Mallory and Williams’ lesbian partner (who is, let’s assume, Jamison’s legal parent, too.)
The article uses this frame to offer the following observation:
Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.
This ought to make us think about the different reasons why people draw family trees. A the article notes, genetic history can be important for medical reasons. But social or emotional history is obviously important, too. It all depends what it is you are trying to capture/convey in the family tree and what it will be used for. It would be foolish to present the doctor with the social family tree when she/he wanted the genetic one, but in fact, both could be useful to him/her.
You can say the same thing about the school assignment. A long time ago I wrote about the difficulties the school exercise family tree can create. Recognition of this difficulty is captured in the quote above. It seems to me the critical question with the family tree drawing assignment, as with the general drawing of family trees, is what are they for? When a teacher assigns it as a project is it to have the child learn about family history? Is it to teach basic genetics and the heritability of various traits? Surely no teacher offers this assignment for the actual purpose of destabilizing a child’s sense of her/his place in the world. If we are clear about what the pedagogical purpose of the assignment is, then we can consider whether it’s an effective teaching tool given the complicated realities of children’s lives.
Then, of course, there is my perennial question: What about the law? Which version of the family tree should the law recognize/enforce and why? Is there a way it can recognize both? If one has to choose, how do we choose–either as individuals or as a society? It is increasingly clear to me that we need to recognize both types of connections but the law is nowhere near accomplishing that.