I’m always (yes, you’d think I’d learn) sort of astonished about the degree to which conversations here evolve (or devolve, depending on viewpoint), to focus on questions of the meaning of genetic relationship. I think this reflects both the personal concerns of those who take the time to write but also (and perhaps more importantly) a larger debate within our society. Indeed, as I think I’ve said, it seems to me that the prevalence of stories about seeking genetic origins, etc. reflects the same societal concerns.
Anyway, I thought it might be useful to step away from the detailed discussion of individual cases and think more broadly, and I wanted to try out a slightly different way of looking at things.
Let’s start with the focus on a single question: How important is it for a child to be raised by its genetic parents?
It seems to me that people’s answers to this are going to range widely. Some will say that it is very important, or extremely important. And some (and I’m in this category) will say that it isn’t necessarily (and I’ll come back to why that word is there) important at all.
But to begin, let me talk about why I think this is a crucial question to focus on. It seems to me that IF you think it is very important THEN you will think that things like use of third-party gametes (which mean that kids are not raised by their genetic parents) are a bad idea. But IF you think it isn’t necessarily important, THEN you’ll be open to the use of third-party gametes. Thus, the answer to this question determines how you’ll respond to a lot of the cases discussed here.
I also want to note that the question I’ve posed talks about being “raised by” genetic parents–not knowing who your genetic parents are and not having contact with (or the possibility of contact with) your genetic parents. You could certainly pose the question differently, but I choose to post it this way because I think this focuses us on what it means to be a legal parent–it means being the people to raise the child. Thus, I can say “genetic parents are interesting people who may have a role in a child’s life” and still say it’s not important if you are raised by them.
So now on to the actual question. And I want to do two things here. First, I want to explain my answer to the question and then I want to think about how one might arrive at a different answer.
My answer: Being raised by your genetic parents isn’t necessarily important. First off, I’m not aware of any kind of study that says it is necessarily important. Many kids are quite successfully raised by people not their genetic parents. And nothing I’ve ever seen in the way of studies even says it is necessarily best to be raised by genetic parents.
But I need some caveats here. First–I do think it is important that kids know the truth of their origins, though exactly when and how they learn is for the parents to say. It won’t be the same for everyone. I don’t think living in situations shrouded in secrecy, lies and/or shame is good for kids. But you can have truth and still be raised by people not your genetic parents, as is the case with open adoptions.
Second, the inclusion of the word “necessarily” in my answer is significant. I think the importance of being raised by your genetic parents is socially constructed. So if you live in a community where it is understood to be of critical importance, than a child being raised by people other than his/her genetic parents may well be at a disadvantage and in that case it may really matter. If everyone in the community conveys to the child that the absence of the genetic parents is a big problem then it may very well be a big problem. But if a child is raised in a community where being raised by genetic parents is just one of many fine family forms, then I think it can be quite fine for the child not to be raised by genetic parents. In other words, we create our own realities on this point.
This being the case, I’d say, for example, that people who believe that being raised by your genetic parents is really important ought not to use third-party gametes. I don’t really see how that’s going to work out well. At the same time, people who don’t think it’s critical to be raised by your genetic parents can succeed at adoption or with third-party gametes.
So much for my answer (which of course I’m happy to elaborate on). I’ll close with some thoughts about other ways to try to arrive at an answer.
I know that many people believe that being raised by your genetic parents is always critically important. I think the challenge is in trying to support that view with something beyond personal conviction. Is there evidence that not being raised by genetic parents causes harm to a child? If the answer is “sometimes it does”, then it seems to me the “sometimes it doesn’t” is implicit, too. And if “sometimes it doesn’t” then this suggest other factors are actually determinative.
Long enough. Time for others to have their say.