The Gender of Parenthood

I have been meaning to do a little current events but I’ve fallen behind.  (Still seeking the right schedule.)  Still, this little snippet warrants some consideration.   It’s so abbreviated that it might take longer for me to explain it than it took for Sengupta to set out her original point.

So here’s the idea:  Many states confer citizenship on a child based on citizenship of a parent.   So (roughly speaking) if an US citizen becomes a parent, the child is a US citizen.  This is true no matter where the child is born.  (The US also says that a child born in the US is a US citizen, no matter the citizenship of the parents.   That’s a different point–sometimes a controversial one–and a more unusual approach.   It’s also not the topic of discussion here.)

You can probably already see that there is huge room for complication here.   When I say “US citizen parent” what kind of parent does it mean?   Legal?  Genetic?  Social?

But that is not the question raised by the news story.   It goes in a different direction.   It appears that many countries confer citizenship on children of their citizens.   It’s not hard to see why they’d do this.   But (and this is the point of the article) the rule is startlingly gendered.   In 27 countries around the world, mothers cannot pass on their citizenship while fathers can.   The child’s status as a citizen of country X, if X is one of those 27, depends on citizenship of the father only.  Citizenship of the mother won’t do.

As the author suggests, this is an aspect of discrimination against women, and not only does it hurt women, it often hurts children.    (She gives the example of Syrian refugee children, born to Syrian mothers in Lebanon, if the citizenship of the father (who may very well be absent) is unproven, the children are stateless.)   It’s hard to see any principled defense for passing citizenship through one parent but not the other.

That said, I want to highlight the difficulties the rule creates.   Historically, motherhood hasn’t been all that difficult to determine.   Woman gives birth?  She’s a mother.   (I hasten to add, I mean “a legal mother.”)   Granted that the development of surrogacy has challenged this picture, but it’s still pretty simple most of the time.   And while it may sometimes be hard to figure out who gave birth to a child (see, e.g., the judgment of Solomon), it usually isn’t.

But legal fatherhood?   This is a very different kettle of fish.  There is genetic fatherhood, but genetic fatherhood not always line up with legal fatherhood.    It is only recently that we are able to reliably determine genetic fatherhood.    As a result there are a range of ways to determine legal fatherhood.   Many places have laws that a husband is the legal father of a child his wife gives birth to.   (There are a very wide array of variations on this, so I’ll just state it generally for now.)   In some places, a man who holds a child out as his own can be deemed a legal parent.

What this means is that the article only scratches the surface in terms of a difficult topic.   That citizenship turns on fatherhood, which is necessarily more difficult to determine than motherhood surely makes the world needlessly difficult for many children.



2 responses to “The Gender of Parenthood

  1. It should be that if you hold a child out as your own it does not make you a parent but an adoptive parent possibly. There is that distinction between parent and adoptive parent for good reason.

    • But here is where language matters so much.

      There is a difference between an adoptive parent and a parent–the latter (unmodified term) is a much broader category than the former. At the same time, all adoptive parents are parents.

      There is no difference between an adoptive parent and a legal parent in the sense that an adoptive parent is a legal parent. That’s exactly what adoption gets you–status as a legal parent. But legal parent is still a bigger category than adoptive parent. (What I mean is that there are other ways to get to be a legal parent besides adoption.) Put differently, all adoptive parents are legal parents, but not all legal parents are adoptive parents.

      And for what it is worth, in almost all cases genetic parents and adoptive parents are two separate and distinct categories. Adoptive parents generally are not genetic parents. Genetic parents are not generally adoptive parents. Genetic parents may or may not be legal parents, but they are certainly in the broader category of “parent.”

      In states (and this is most states) where the doctrine is used, holding out makes you a legal parent. It does not make you an adoptive parent because to be an adoptive parent you have to go through a formal process of adoption and those who hold out do not do this.

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