March 12, 2003
On Parenthood and Genetic Engineering

Stanley Kurtz reports on a lesbian couple who want to have more than two people declared parents of a child.

A lesbian couple from London, Ontario has asked a Canadian court to simultaneously recognize the two of them (the biological mother and her partner), as well as the biological father, as legal parents of a young boy. Rather than turn to an anonymous sperm donor, the women in question asked a friend to father their child. The father does not live with the couple and child, but is nonetheless treated as a member of the household.

Group Marriage Would Be Problematic

Kurtz sees this development as a threat to the existing institution of marriage and to the two parent family. As he sees it, gay marriage will find its justification in homosexual partners sharing legal parent status of the same child. If more than two adults can be legal parents of a child then that will be used to justify group marriages.

Group marriages would be hopelessly unwieldy. More than two people could disagree with each other. One person could decide to divorce all the other marriage members. Or one person might try to force another person out of the marriage while other members either oppose the move or are ambivalent. Or two groups within the marriage could split off and divorce the members of the other group. There could even be legal fights over who ends up in the two new subgroups with some person unwilling to choose one subgroup or the other.

Is it fair to the public at large to inflict group marriage and all its problems on society? Companies could easily face lawsuits because they do not extend spousal benefits to more than one spouse. The legal costs of divorce court and of police calls for domestic dispute situations would be much higher.

Two Competing Legal Claims On A Children Are Bad Enough

Then there are the children. There are alot of already occurring situations involving biological and non-biological parents. In the case of the lesbian couple and the biological father there are only 2 biological parents involved but three people all willing to share custody. In adoption cases where a couple adopts a child there is no biological parent involved. In cases where one biological parent marries a person unrelated to their child the person who is not related may opt to formally adopt the child so that both marriage partners are legal parents to the child. Though in such a case the other biological parent could assert rights and therefore the adoption by the non-biological partner could be challenged.

Already children shuffle back and forth to live parts of their time with two different parents. It would seem cruel to make a child move around to five or six different residences after the break-up of a group marriage.

What If The Child Doesn't Have Exactly Two Biological Parents?

In all of those cases there are still exactly 2 biological parents. This will not always be the case. Human cloning will some day be perfected. This will allow for there to be just one biological parent. Parenthetically there will be just two grandparents and they will have the same genetic relationship to the clone as they have to their child who is the parent of the clone. This could conceivably lead to legal battles in some cases where the grandparents seek to gain legal recognition of their status as parents.

Cloning throws up a fairly simple case of untraditional genetic parenthood relationships. But that is not the only case that will happen. Advances in biotechnology promise to make the genetic (and hence legal) parenthood issue a much more complicated question. Eventually it will be possible to use chromosomes from more than two people in order to put together the chromosome complement for a new human. Each person has 23 pairs of chromosomes for 46 chromosomes total. It will one day be possible to construct an embryo that contains chromosomes donated by 46 different people. Well, who should be eligible for status as custodial parent in such a case? In this hypothetical case each chromosome donor will be able to claim to have donated approximately 2% of the genetic complement of a child. Since some chromosomes are bigger and some smaller its not even the case that all 46 parents will have made an equal contribution.

Stolen Chromosomes And Offspring

It gets weirder. Some day an embryo may be constructed by secretly taking DNA samples from people without their knowledge. Imagine a groupie of rock stars or movie stars who saves sperm samples from one night stands and by doing so builds up a large collection of chromosomes from which to select to construct an embryo's genetic complement. A child born from such deception would not even be able to find out who any of their biological parents (if chromosome donors can properly be called biological parents) were.

Biological parenthood would become fairly meaningless if a baby was born with chromosomes taken from dozens of people. Even if a single chromosome's sequence could be matched with a particular adult that does not mean that adult was the source of the chromosome. A chromosome with very nearly identical sequence which was functionally equivalent could have come from that person's parents, siblings, or others more distantly related.

Sperm Banks Allow One Biological Parent To Have No Obligations

Keep in mind that its already pretty weird. When sperm bank donor sperm are used essentially the source of the paternal DNA is free of obligation to the resulting offspring. Also, the offspring frequently can't find out who the father was.

There is also de facto parental escape from responsibility for offspring via giving babies up to the state for placement in foster homes with the rest of the populace picking up the expense. There is also widespread abandonment of parental responsibility by fathers as well as situations where the mother can't figure out who the father might have been (e.g. mom never saw the guy after the one night stand and doesn't know where he lives or his last name). There is also adoption where again the biological parents escape responsibility but at least the state doesn't have to pick up the tab.

She Did Gene Therapy So Its Not My Kid

It gets weirder still. Gene therapy on embyros will allow introduction of sequence variations and even genes that do not occur in either of two biological parents. Imagine a situation where a woman and man have a one-night stand, she gets pregnant, doesn't tell him, and she goes off and has genetic engineering done on the embryo. She might conceivably sue the biological father for child support. But he might argue that since she tweaks many genes that she got from him that he should not be forced to have legal obligations toward the kid.

The argument that gene therapy makes a kid not one's own is not unreasonable. The mother might choose to introduce characteristics that make the child's personality and appearance totally unlike the man whose sperm started the pregnancy (I hesitate to call him the biological father). The man may feel that the child is not really his if he can't honestly say that the kid is "a chip off the old block".

Children Shouldn't Be Victimized By Lifestyles Of Crazy Adults

In deciding what is reasonable to allow in marriage the emotional, intellectual, and physical needs of children should weigh most heavily. Too many arguments about alternative forms of marriage are framed in terms of the rights and needs of adults. Well, adults can take care of themselves. Its children who are most vulnerable and it is children who are the biggest justification for society's support for the institution of marriage in the first place. Society's paramount interest in marriage is to see that children are properly cared for. Demands for support of new forms of marriage should be balanced against the interests society has in having workable forms of marriage for seeing to the care of offspring.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 March 12 06:50 PM  Biotech Society


Comments
Joleen said at July 19, 2005 8:02 AM:

Are you aware of any studies done that would support leaving a child in the school he currently goes to? As in, feeling safe there, familiar, etc. One parent wants to take their child out of the public school to put into private school...and the other parent wants to let the child stay where he is. I'd love to find some studies that might support the benefit of leaving the child where he's happiest, safest, etc. Thanks! J

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