More Challenging Technology Ahead and What It Means for Our Language

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.

21 responses to “More Challenging Technology Ahead and What It Means for Our Language

  1. I think I agree with your tentative conclusion Julie that the term ‘biological mother’ may just not be a helpful one. Maybe ‘mother’ alone belongs to the woman whose intention it is to parent the child, and who will be the child’s legal female parent, and that anyone else involved is either a donor of nuclear or mitochondrial DNA or a surrogate (in the UK we tend to use this single word instead of saying surrogate mother). Not naming any of these women as ‘mother’ does not imply any disrespect or denial. Gratitude and acknowledgement of a vital role is their due, but in my view none of them is a mother.

  2. My parent's donor is my father

    I disagree with Olivia. They are absolutely all mothers of any child conceived/gestated this way. To say anything else is disrespectful of those connections and denial of the truth. The ‘social mother’ is also a mother but with an adjective qualifier (like the genetic, gestational, nuclear dna etc. etc. mothers). The only mother without an adjective qualifier is a egg/gestational unaltered natural mother. That person might or might not raise the child. Any other woman who might would be a ‘social mother’ regardless of the intent. The same is true for fathers.

  3. My parent's donor is my father

    Reality check. It is an urgent matter of human dignity. That is where the line has to be drawn.

    Donated Generation Blog

    “The sooner that we all refer to the sperm donor/vendor/progenitor as the man that he really is “father”, the sooner we can acknowledge the actual situation, move on, create meaningful change and begin to heal. And this applies to all parties within the DC triad.”

    • Yes you’ll never be treated equally unless you refer to your mother and father as mother and father.

      • My parent's donor is my father

        It’s not about being treated ‘equally’ to me personally. I wouldn’t expect my father to treat me the same as his other (social) children because he ‘ate the apple’ as they say. He simply could not because it was set up that way pre-conception. BUT he is and always will be my father and I love him dearly regardless. I know he was a beautiful person and he left me some absolutely amazing siblings (who made sure to pick up where he would have if he could have)! I am so blessed.

        That being said, knowing you my friend Marilynn, you are going to challenge me on that and just to head that off, I get and respect what it is you are trying to say.

        • My parent's donor is my father

          Clarification – just so ppl understand what I mean by “I am so blessed” – siblings as in (my half), our father’s social children.

        • well no you personally got shafted its not about you anymore or anyone already shafted its about stopping this in the future treating all people equally at birth. I think compromise is a human rights violation. I’m sorry no, I’m not.

          • My parent's donor is my father

            “not about you anymore or anyone already shafted its about stopping this in the future treating all people equally at birth”

            YES THAT! It’s NEVER been about me or any of us already ‘shafted’, it’s ALWAYS been about educating with the hope that ppl just won’t go there to begin with…

  4. “It’s not hard to see how you could alter the language to regain some clarity.”

    Its hard to use the right words when your trying to lie. Hell just Redefine truth and then technically your not telling a lie. Then just rewrite history and say that its always been that way.

  5. Women are not mother’s before their offspring is born. Just like they are not adoptive mothers until they’ve adopted a child. Before that, while they are awaiting the birth or adoption of a child they are just themselves or at best expectant mothers or prospective adoptive mothers.

    People with offspring are biologically parents of their offspring. They reproduced themselves. Half our genes come from our mother, the other half from our father.

    The point at which a gestational carrier’s biology is supporting fetal development is a period of time where nobody was a mother yet, biologically or otherwise.

    Biological mothers are mothers of biological offspring that have been born. If your biological contribution does not outlast gestation then your not the biological mother of anyone since motherhood begins at birth.

    • If they want to be motherrs on a legal technicality try “birth mother”

    • There are plenty of women who would disagree with you about that, who celebrate Mother’s Day despite the fact that miscarriages mean they have never had a full term pregnancy.

      • Kriss I am not concerned with people who never existed, were never born they have no rights to be obtained or lost or infringed upon. Everyone wants to make this some squishy emotional journey this is a blog about the law and parentage.

        Julie likes to say that the law should assign parenthood to people that raise kids. OK fine. She’s also pro choice so she steps on her own argument by saying that there is care giving going on prior to birth when women are not yet considered mothers but are expectant mothers. I am not the only one whose taken her to task on that I caught some people with credentials on a feminist lawyer blog saying the same thing and she told them she was going to think about putting it into better words or whatever. I’m not alone and maybe people whose opinions mater also think that you cannot present these two opposing view points out of your same mouth and expect not to be queried on it.

        So expectant mothers are using their bodies to grow a life that yes started from a single cell of the female and one of the male cobbled together in a dish opposed to the egg providers Fallopian tube. The zygote is now its own gigg its own new kind of cell 50 percent mom 50 percent dad and it travels down the Fallopian tube into the uterus where it will sit and reproduce itself – it builds itself it makes its very own blood and no maternal blood ever gets near it, nor does its blood mingle with the woman carrying itt. It receives nutrients through the umbilical cord and it expels waste. Now its a fetus with its own blood doing its own magical cell reproduction – she can have a negative impact on fetal development cellular development if her body is not healthy. If she’s healthy her body will not impact development at all whether she is related genetically or not the goal is to be healthy enough to not interfere with fetal developmental right? Everyone knows that’s the goal.

        That is not an opinion that is a fact. We can have a difference of opinion about a concrete fact. Like we agree the country spends lots of money on welfare I think thats good maybe you think that’s bad….but here is the thing..

        even a biological mother is not a biological mother until there is a born individual to be biologically related to, prior to birth the term is expectant mother or parent. Unless your way into the anti-abortion thing and your basing an opinion on religion which they consider to be fact even though it cannot be quantified in which case the conversation can’t go anywhere because of religious freedom and all we have to stick to stuff that is the same for everyone and science is the same for everyone. The world is round for you as it is for me for instance.

        So the bio mother is not a bio mother without a person to be biologically related to and the bio connection a gestational carrier has is with a fetus, not the person. Egg donor’s do not donate DNA as Aimee was asserting on the other post. DNA is inside of the cell she donates and is the blueprint for the person she will reproduce to create her cell and the dads cell are the ones that divide Aimee made it sound like her cells divided and built a baby and all she needed was a drop of DNA for good measure.

        Oi Vey

        • But in saying that you’re not interested in people who never existed or were never born you’re stating an opinion about when personhood starts: I’m not sure that is an undisputed fact. You don’t have to take a religious point of view to assert that personhood starts at any significant point during or before pregnancy – pick one; there are justifications for all of them.

          You’re right that in practice a foetus doesn’t have independent rights till it’s born, but that’s also an issue that is disputed and I believe in the US Bush jr passed a law that says the foetus can be the victim of violence separately to the mother, whether or not it is born as a result of the violence. (Not law in the UK.) So that’s shifting ground I think.

      • A fact is the same whether you like it or not. It is not based on feeling it is based on concreteness. It’s not blue because everyone says that its blue, its blue because its blue and then the people of a country get together and agree on a word for blue. A thing that is blue will be blue no matter what word one uses for it. Call it azure call it cobalt whatever it all means blue. It will be blue in French as it is in Japaneese it won’t be red even if someone calls it red. Freedom is slavery and slavery is freedom. Call it what you will people know when someone else has too much control over them

        • For the last couple of hundred years people interested in psychology, philosophy and physics have been arguing about what colour is, whether objects intrinsically have colours or whether it’s our perception that gives them that colour, if the colours we see are determined by the society we live in, or how else we might account for it. The view that it’s obvious what colours are and everyone sees the same ones is an objectivist perspective 😛

          It’s not just about what name you call it, like people who call blue red are just wrong or have faulty colour perception.

          I’m not saying this to be awkward. It’s possible to have different attitudes to established facts, but we’re also entitled to believe that different things are facts, and hopefully with good reason! I have a lot of sympathy for the approach that some things are obvious common sense but at the same time our knowledge and understanding of so-called facts, even scientific facts we think of as undisputable, is changing all the time.

          • Well sure Kris your right and I know we can get all existential about everything but generally its my understanding that the law addresses this little problem about language by saying that words are to be understood in their plain and commonly understood meanings. (this is in the code in my state) Otherwise people would just argue all day long about the meaning of words so that they could make up anything they want and claim that it’s true. The best example of this is a cheating boyfriend or spouse…they will play with word definitions and argue about perception just like that and its maddening because there is no fair and square conversation with someone who says that not everyone has the same definition of monogamy or friendship or sexual relationship. Their goal is that you get exasperated and give up, let them get away with what they want to get away with.

            I think if she’s the mother legally because she gave birth she ought not push it because someone else is the mother based upon being the biological origin of the person she gave birth to and there is no shared biology between the woman that gave birth and the born individual. Whether she switched genes on or off you’ll never be able to know for sure because she leaves no trace of her biology in the born individual.
            DNA is in our cells so that for whatever reason the biological origin of our cells our tiniest parts can be tracked back to bodies that created us.

            But your point is well taken. It sounds as if mine was as well and you enjoy a spirited debate for the kick of it. Yes universal truth is hard to come by. I’m going out on a limb but I think if you use the term biological in a sentence it should be based upon a definition that would be commonly held in the field of mollecular biology. If your using scientific terms stick to scientific definitions. What do I know I’ve gotten talked into having to believe my husband went camping in march in the rain without a camping bag or a tent in an area that gets no cell service. Cause I could not prove he was somewhere else even if it was a damned unreasonable story. Depends on how you define camping –

          • You think if you gave 12 people that spoke different languages a big fat plump summer strawberry with a remedial box of crayons and a sheet of paper (gave them the task to draw the strawberry) they’d each pick a different crayon?

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