Treating Children As Property (Or Not)

This is the continuation of a train of thought about treating children as property.   You might want to start with the last post, which I just linked to.   The long and short of it is that we generally agree that we shouldn’t treat children as property (and there are good reasons for this agreement.)  At the same time, though, there are aspects of the way we talk about and treat children that are just a tad property-like.   I think this is a good starting point because it suggests that while we all agree that we ought not treat children as property that simple agreement masks an awful lot of complexity.

Perhaps the most obvious thing we agree we do not want to do is buy/sell children.   This is related to but not exactly the same as treating children as property.   There are forms of property that cannot be bought/sold (Some will say cannot be commodified.)   Many people with much deeper understandings of property law and theory have written about this.   I’m not going to seek to match or replicate or even repeat their work here.   Instead, I want to make essentially the same observation I made earlier–although we agree we do not want to buy/sell children, we do not agree on when we are doing that.

What really got me started on this topic this time is the implicit assertion made by commenters here that using genetics as a test for legal parenthood isn’t treating children as property, while using other tests (the main ones being intent and function) amounts to treating children as property.    I say implicit assertion because I don’t think it has been stated explicitly but I think it necessarily lies behind the critique being offered.  I mean, if you say “genetics is better because using function treats children as property” I think it is fair to assume you also mean to say “genetics does not treat children as property.”

This perplexes me because I think there is a fairly obvious argument that using genetics as a test does treat children as property.    After all, the key question is this:   Why should the person who provides genetic material necessarily be a legal parent of the child?

I can think of several answers here and not all of them lead to the children=property point.  (So for example, you could argue that genetic parents will be the best legal parents for children–meaning the outcomes for children will be the best– and thus the choice is justified by our overarching desire to do what is best for children.   That’s not treating children as property, but you are going to have to convince me that genetic parents will, on the whole, be the best parents for children.)

But there’s another point I’ve seen quite a bit here which has to do with the fact that the child is actually formed from the materials produced by the genetic parents.   Your sperm/your egg=your child.   This looks a great deal like a property-based argument to me.   Doesn’t this amount to “your materials were used, therefore you have a claim to it?”    To say that children made with your gametes are necessarily yours seems like an argument for ownership (consistent with property) rather than parentage.

I know that it doesn’t look that way to everyone, which is why I’m raising it here.   It’s not so much that I’m trying to persuade anyone (right here right now) that I’m right and you’re wrong.  Rather what I am thinking is that we are all subject to the assertion that we are treating children like property.   And perhaps this is because there are aspects of how children are treated that are a bit like property.   (Hence the previous post.)

I am not at all convinced that this gets anyone any further, but it does make we wonder whether it should make us a bit more cautious in deploying the “you’re treating children like property” argument.


10 responses to “Treating Children As Property (Or Not)

  1. I think parental status based on a commercial agreement is commodifying; an agreement that looks a lot like a commercial agreement just without the money is also commodifying.

  2. What KI said

  3. Genetics isn’t a test of parenthood, it’s the basic definition of parenthood as we’ve come to know it; it’s the basic definition of family. It’s nothing to do with ownership, it’s to do with the kind of relationship you have with someone through biological connection rather than another means.

    I was working in front of the TV yesterday with one of those awful talk shows on which do paternity testing on TV. Following family revelations, a teenage girl wanted to test her father who she loved very much to see if he was her ‘real dad’ – they had a great relationship but it was important to her to know. They did the test and he wasn’t – they were both devastated, she said ‘I’m sorry you’re not my real dad’. That’s the power of the genetic connection in our society.

    When I say ‘my uncle’ or ‘my aunt’ I mean there is a particular kind of family relationship between us, not that I have any ownership of them. A man saying ‘my wife’ doesn’t own his wife. That interpretation only works for children until they’re adults because they’re dependent on adult care. It doesn’t work for any adult to adult relationship but the language used – and the meaning IMO – is exactly the same. Your sperm/your egg = your family. It is not about claims – that relationship is there whether you like it or not.

    The legal rights around a parent’s role are cultural. The lex talionis gave Roman fathers right of life or death over their children. The mother had no legal rights over her children. That was part of their culture but rightly IMO isn’t part of ours.

    Genetic parents are treated as the legal parents of their children for lots of pragmatic reasons not least of which that people can procreate freely in our culture and there are norms about how this is done. There are plenty of good reasons why the genetic parents shouldn’t be the legal parents of a child – adoption, unfitness to be a parent are two obvious ones. But if you use those examples and apply them to everyone, you’re using the exception, about 5% of cases, to make the rule and apply it to 95% of the population – the ones for whom ‘my daughter’ does have an accepted and non-property based meaning.

    It might sound odd that I’m basically agreeing with Marilynn on this point. The fact that to most people a genetic relationship basically = family is the reason gamete donation and adoption can be such a problem.

  4. I have said many times that I have a problem with the legal concept of parental rights because that line of thinking treats people’s offspring as their property. I think that people with offspring wrote the book on treating their children as property. You seem to be under the impression that I think genetic parents can’t or don’t treat their offspring as property and they most certainly do just exactly that. If genetic parents did not start the ball rolling by treating their offspring as property there would be no people running around putting lots of effort in to try and earn themselves children and the title of parent or trying to buy themselves children and the title of parent.

    There should be no parental anything but obligation – its not a minor’s fault they were put here on this earth and it’s them that needs the rights to things like support and care and accurate records about the individuals that they originated from. Its them that needs to know to whom they are and are not kin so that they and their kin may make informed decisions about who they do and do not want to date or who they do and do not wish to call family etc. The government does require genetic parents to raise their own young or there would not be such a thing as a paternity test. Minors don’t belong to the government, they can’t just assign minors to random citizens who had nothing to do with creating the dependent person. The government should only get involved when the parents fail to take proper care of their child for the child’s own safety. And when the government does get involved in finding other people to take care of those dependent minors it does not need to rewrite history or reassign titles it could simply just give the new caregivers the appropriate level of authority to make decisions on behalf of the minor. It need not try to obscure the minors original identity or try to say that the child’s parents are not their parents anymore or that their kin is no longer their kin. The minor could become the adoptive kin of the adoptive family without altering the child’s identity but that is not how its done. Why? Because people don’t want to do the work without the title parent. They want their effort to buy them that title and buy them a child of their own as if they’d made the child themselves. You see this with donor’s children and you see this with children of parents who have lost or relinquished their children to adoptive homes and with other parents who simply abandoned their children – the people doing the raising want the child to be theirs all theirs they want the child’s identity to reflect their identity not the absent parent’s identity. It is surely commodification. It’s unnecessary. You can love a child your raising without assuming the title of mother and the bond will be just as deep.The authority could be just as much as it is without erasing the legal ties to the persons actual family. Being actual family means nothing emotionally. You may not even know them but it will always be true that you are a member of your own genetic family. Paying to get a person out of their genetic family and into yours is commodification. Even cutting a deal with no money to get a child away from one family and into yours is unethical.

    The only ethical path to social parenthood is organic – assuming responsibility for the care of a child whose parent has failed sadly and tragically to raise them themselves. Respecting the child’s relationship to that absent parent acknowledging the fact that its not fair to them that their parent did not take care of them saying they deserved it they owed it to them and its wrong they did not take care of them – letting them know they had every right to expect that care and it sucks it did not happen that way. That is respectful of the loss. A social parent never wants to be in the position where they wanted the genetic parent to go away or be absent, certainly not where they paid the genetic parent to be absent like with standard surrogacy or with gamete purchasing. The person will feel so wanted they’ll feel bought.

    • Agree with you that the concept of legal parentage necessarily treats children as property. However, your entire argument breaks down when you essentially say that the concept of legal parentage when applied to genetic parents is not treating children as property.

      • To clarify further, it would require a communal raising and communal responsibility for all children born to avoid treating children like property. Once you assign the label of legal parent to the genetic parent, once you assign legal responsibilities to the genetic parent, you are already treating the child like property.

  5. Again not that genetic parents don’t treat their kid’s as property they are the worst offenders of that, but that is the inappropriate behavior of a person, not the reality of being someone’s parent genetically. A genetic relationship is something that belongs to a person a family is something that people belong to. Like a genus or a category it’s something that simply is because it’s a fact. I would say someone is my friend and in that way they belong to me as a friend. I am someone’s employee and I belong to them as an employee. To say she is my employee is not a statement of ownership of the person it is ownership of the relationship. You can be more than one person’s friend or customer or student – but you can only be so many people’s grandchild or nephew or cousin. These are statements that are either true or they are not true. I’m either someone’s student or I’m not. When we get into to making claims about being someone’s family it starts to narrow down and what is true has less and less room for error. That is how we dial down identity. You don’t have more than one mother and father – other people can play the roll but are not in fact in reality your mother or father. You may wish they were. You may feel that they do more for you than your mother or father and deserve the title more. The state may even feel the same way but none of us get more than one of each so far anyway. So genetic relationships are simply fact about who belongs to us and who we belong to – those people may or may not behave as society expects them to and oftent they don’t. It is important to recognize the difference though out of respect for who people really are not who we wish they were or want them to be. We may wish they were our partner’s child but if they are not pretending they are not is just so many kinds of wrong it can’t be righted.

  6. The problem with your earned parenthood approach is that the minor does not retain their right to care and support from the individuals that actually owe it to them – those that put them here on this earth, and it does not respect the minors right to be legally recognized as a member of the family that they are related to genetically. Those relationships are critical to them and to their relatives for medical reasons and for reasons of avoiding incest if they want to and also for social reasons if later they should want to be legally recognized as kin to seek benefits from the government or whatever they won’t have any legal standing as a member of their own family. It’s possible to do both respect and retain the minors rights and status within their own family even when a non relative has to care for them because their parent is unable or unwilling to do so.

    Number 1 people should not be establishing parental type relationships with other people’s children unless the parent is clearly a danger to the child to the extent the parent is convicted of a crime and punished for it. Nobody should be paying parents to not raise their offspring in order that they may have an opportunity to raise a child – that is commodification that is chidl buying.

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