Intention, Parenthood and the Adult’s Perspective

This post is meant to follow from a recent post on intention and point of view.  You might benefit from reading that one first, but in a nutshell by point there was that from a child’s point of view, the intentions of the parents (or intended parents) matter much less than the actual actions taken.   Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that (from the child’s point of view) intentions alone do not matter at all.  Only actual action matters.   (I should  note that I am thinking here about relatively young children.)

But that this was just thinking about the child’s point of view.  Perhaps there are other perspectives to consider?   In particular, what about the perspectives of the adults?  (I guess here I am thinking about the adults involved in ART.)   How do we weigh or think about their point of view.

I’m inclined to think that, generally speaking,  intentions matter more for adults than for children, though I could be persuaded otherwise.   I’m reminded of the saying “It’s the thought that counts”–which appears to me to encapsulate the idea that intentions do matter for some purposes.  (I’m not sure about this, mind you.  If I mean to buy you a present but don’t, do I get to say “it’s the thought that counts”?  Or does that only apply if I buy you a present but it happens to be something you do not want/already have?)

Anyway, to the point:  Suppose you consider the point of view of intended parents–people who are using ART for the purpose of becoming parents.   These are folks who will set in motion some chain of events that, if completed successfully, leaves them with a child to raise.   This might mean a couple who are hiring a surrogate, for example.   Or an individual using third-party gametes.   These people are relying on the intentions of others (the surrogate or the gamete provider) not to be a parent.

Now there are two separate questions here and I want to try to keep them separate for the moment.    Perhaps the most obvious question is whether one should be entitled to rely on anothers expression of intention.    That’s critical for lots of reasons, but it isn’t what I want to focus on first.  I’ll come back to that.

What I want to think about first is what happens if intention doesn’t match action.    And I suppose I think, as with kids, that when  intention doesn’t match action, then action (and not intention) is the more important.   If I mean to do something and I don’t do it, the key thing is that I didn’t do it.

It may be that this appears most frequently in law in the reverse form.     A man intends to be a sperm donor, which is to say he does not intend to be a parent.  And yet as life unspools, he functions as a parent.   Then one?   Does his intention matter if you think of it from his point of view (and those of the other adult involved) rather than that of the child?

Maybe the key here is understanding that intention can really only be assessed at a particular time. In the case above maybe what you really have is two different intentions–an intention to be a sperm donor at time 1 and an intention to be a parent at time 2.   Because surely the actions of the person at time 2 are intentional, too.

If that is so then perhaps the question is really about what meaning (if any) we give to subsequent changes in intent?   And perhaps we should distinguish between changes in intent manifested by action (like assuming the role of a parent) as opposed to those that simply exist  in the mind of the adult.

In view of all this, I think I want to restate the first question–the one I said was crucial–which is about the ability of people to rely on the expressions of intent of those involved in ART.   Maybe the question (at least for adults) should be “when do you have the right to change your intentions and have the newly formed intention recognized?”

This isn’t really new.  It’s a different way to posing the same question.  Does the sperm donor have a right to change his mind and form a new intention (with the possibility of action following from that) or is he stuck with the first intention–the intention of being a sperm donor?    If the actions are there–and notice that he can only become a social parent with the collaboration of existing social parents–that’s important to me–then that’s one thing.  But if there are no actions (yet), then what?

I see timing as being crucial here, but in ways I need to think about.   And I know I’ve wandered off my topic, too.  Out of practice perhaps.   But the whole intention thing seems so important, one has to begin to unravel it somewhere.

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4 responses to “Intention, Parenthood and the Adult’s Perspective

  1. Intention or lack of intention softens culpability for our actions; “I did not mean to hurt you” tells us they did in fact hurt someone, but it was reckless or totally accidental.

    A person with offspring always meets the primary definition of parent in the dictionary. There is just no getting around the fact that whether they intended to become a parent or not they are one simply for the fact that they have offspring and extended their family. Most people raise their own children. In fact it’s a legal obligation just for having offspring and intention to have offspring is irrelevant in a paternity suit…minors have a right to support from their biological parents but the law is so unevenly applied its maddening.

    Intention will matter to their offspring – why would parents go out of their way to have kids they did not want to raise? It is of no comfort to a child to tell them that the man who is their father in the technical sense of the word, intended to have them but not to raise them – wantted to let someone else have a family. His intentions won’t seem noble to the kid but might seem noble to the people raising that kid.

    • A few responses here.

      First, I surely agree that intention often determines culpability and/or degrees of culpability. So deliberately breaking a glass in my house is a different matter from accidentally breaking it. And culpability may be important for a variety of reasons. But I don’t often associate ideas of culpability with parental status. (It’s more commonly related to punishment, I think.) Still, it’s an interesting idea to think about and it bears further examination.

      Second, I don’t know (and I don’t really care) what the dictionary definition of “parent” is (and it may even vary dictionary to dictionary.) My point is that in common speech we use “parent” in lots of different ways–sometimes with modifiers (“adopted parent”) and sometimes not. Typically we know (or we hope we know) what people mean in any given situation. I’m most concerned with the concept of “legal parent”–which is a person who is legally recognized as a child’s parent. This means they hold various legal rights and obligations. And the meaning of that term turns out to be wildly complicated.

      Finally, I think intention can matter to children and to others. It matters whether a social/psychological or legal parent deliberately abandons a child or is does so involuntarily–say they are separated by a natural disaster or war. Perhaps this does tie back, in some ways, to culpability point. I have no doubt that a child might feel very differently about the two situations. And surely many a book and movie has turned on the child who assumes the first but then learns, at some later point, that the situation is more akin to the second. But at the same time, from a child’s point of view–and particularly a very young child–absence is absence.

  2. “It matters whether a social/psychological or legal parent deliberately abandons a child or is does so involuntarily” It can also very much matter when a biological/genetic parent does this intentionally. Perhaps not as much to a younger child if their parenting needs are being met but it certainly does happen to many when they age and are able to reflect on things when they are more detached from/less emotionally dependent of social parent(s). (such as when they have children of their own etc.)

    • I think it also matters as to how the person was treated by the parent(s) that raised them. I’ve noticed that the people who were dismissed, abused or mistreated by the parent(s) who raised them it can have them turn to the donor for a parental relationship looking for something they didn’t have with the best parent(s) that raised them. The idea that the grass is greener on the other side to give them hope.

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