Some of the discussion in recent posts has been about terminology (particularly “biological mother” and “genetic mother”) and the ways in which (at least in my view) technological progress can create ambiguity. Consider, for example, the technology that may soon allow use of mitochondrial DNA from one woman and nuclear DNA from another. In the face of this, what is the meaning of the term “genetic mother?”
To me it seems clear that in instances where this technology is used, it would encompass both women. Thus, a term that once uniquely identified one and only one woman no longer would do so. A legal rule that provided “a genetic parent will be a legal parent” would now potentially lead to a three-legal parent family. (Just as a reminder, I’m not in favor of such a legal rule. My point here is about the way the meaning of the language has been changed by technology.)
It’s not hard to see how you could alter the language to regain some clarity. You could speak of the “nuclear genetic mother” and the “mitochondrial genetic mother” and each term would identify only one person. You could then rewrite the legal rule to recognize one or the other as a legal parent and you’d have eliminated all the potential ambiguity.
That’s not the only option, of course. You could instead define “genetic mother” to mean “nuclear genetic mother.” This seems to me less satisfactory as the woman who provides the mitochondrial DNA does have genetic relationship to the child. It’s one thing to say that the genetic relationship has no legal relevance, it’s another (to my mind, anyway) to say that there isn’t a genetic relationship. The last actually distorts the language.
Which brings me to the term “biological mother.” Is “biological mother” synonymous with “genetic mother?” The question this really raises is whether a woman who is pregnant with and gives birth to a child is necessarily a biological mother.
Here again, technology has driven changing views on the language. Once upon a time, the woman who was pregnant/gave birth was necessarily genetically related to the child. Thus she was clearly a biological mother. You didn’t have to think very hard about it. Then along came IVF and the possibility that a woman could gestate and give birth to a child who was not genetically related to her. Let’s call such a woman a gestational mother. Is a gestational mother a biological mother?
While I think this might have been the subject of some debate in the past, the prevalent answer may be “no.” I think it’s a bit problematic because being pregnant is certainly a biological process and there’s an on-going relationship between the pregnant woman and the developing embryo that I think is a biological one. But still, I think many people would say she is not a biological mother.
Should this still be the case? There’s an emerging field called epigenetics. It seems that many characteristics are shaped not simply by genetic codes but by the activation or deactivation of these genetic codes. I’m hardly an expert, but it seems clear that significant epigenetic changes occur during pregnancy and some, at least, are attributable to behaviors of the pregnant woman. Indeed, what she eats before she is pregnant may effect the developing child’s eventual susceptibility to various diseases.
Even without any sophisticated understanding of all this, it seems to me clear that there is a complicated and crucial biological relationship between the gestational mother and the child. The child she give birth to will be uniquely shaped by her contributions to the child’s genetic make-up. I don’t quite know how to capture this except to say that it seems to me that she, too, can claim to be a biological mother of the child.
What all this means to me is that the term “biological mother” may not be terribly useful. It’s one thing if you want to identify the set of women who have some biological relationship with the child (which means the two genetic mothers and the gestatoinal mother, as far as I am concerned). But in many instances it will be preferable to say what you mean–to say “gestational mother” or “mitochondrial DNA mother” And all this because we know more now than we once did and we can do more now than we could once do.
Which brings me to a closing point. What to make of this–the first successful mother/daughter womb transplants? Maybe it doesn’t matter at all, but it’s just possible that this is the beginning of yet another wave of fragmenting the meaning of maternity.