Politics & Policy

Reengineering the Family

We can't yet know the full consequences of our institutionalized severing of biology from parenthood?

An image from a TV ad for gay marriage, reproduced in the January 18 New Yorker, provides a Rorschach test for reactions to America’s ongoing revolution in family structure. Two men in black suits stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a group of people, looking into each other’s eyes. In their arms are two newborns in white baby clothes and blankets. Though it’s not immediately apparent from the photo, the men are at a baptism for their infants. The ad, still being test-marketed, is called “Family Values,” and is intended to emphasize the “conventionality of gay couples,” explains The New Yorker.


If your reaction to the image is: “Where’s the mother(s)?” you may not yet be fully on board the conventionality bandwagon. If your reaction to the foregoing question, however, is: Why does it matter?” then you are keeping pace with the revolution. Why does it matter?” may ultimately prove the more appropriate response, but no one should pretend that it represents anything other than a radical revision of the traditional relationship between parents and children one whose consequences no one can predict.

Every time a homosexual couple conceives a child, there is another parent offstage somewhere whose sperm or egg has allowed conception to occur (and, in the case of male homosexuals, whose womb has allowed gestation to occur). In some homosexual families, that parent will be involved in his child’s life; in others, he will remain completely anonymous and unknown. Parental identity and responsibility for children in a homosexual family do not flow from biology; they result from choice and intent. To the extent that a gay couple wants to retain the traditional number of parents in the home, it must exclude one biological parent from inclusion in the family unit. To the extent that a gay couple wants to preserve the traditional connection between that biological parent and his offspring, however, the adult side of the family becomes more of a non-traditional threesome.

These features of homosexual families also characterize infertile heterosexual couples who have used other people’s gametes to conceive. Indeed, heterosexual demand drove the medical revolution that allows gays to procreate. Infertile heterosexual couples unwilling to accept a biological limit in their lives spurred the ever-increasing array of gamete- and womb-swapping technologies that now includes sperm banks and complicated surrogacy arrangements. Unmarried middle-aged women, similarly unwilling to give up their assumed right to have it all, have also provided a market for revolutionary fertility techniques. Gays have merely piggybacked on procedures that heterosexuals created for themselves. When a heterosexual couple or single woman (and occasional single man) makes use of someone else’s sex organs, biology is severed from parental responsibility no less than when a homosexual couple engages in that process.

This division of genetic and parental responsibility has been present throughout human history, of course. Orphans and abandoned children are raised by non-biological adoptive parents; divorce alienates one biological parent from the child’s household and sometimes replaces that parent with another adult. But these arrangements were considered outliers to the normal practice of conceiving and raising children, forced on the parties by sad necessity. However felicitous and loving a new family arrangement turned out to be, it did not challenge the understanding that the ideal route to a family was the shared conception of a child by a married man and woman. Likewise, the use of fertility techniques by heterosexual couples is still regarded as an exception to ordinary conception and child-rearing, and may not even be perceptible to outsiders. By contrast, every gay (and single-parent) conception by definition entails an absent parent; it is a visible affirmation of the social acceptability of severing genetic contribution from parenting. Every gay couple and never-married single parent raising a child trigger the same potential question as the couple in the Family Values ad: “Where’s the mother (or father)?”

A large number of people will respond:Why does it matter?” New York Times editorial writer Adam Cohen recently considered the possibility that reproductive technology will eventually allow “three or more people . . . to combine their DNA to create a baby.” Cohen’s response ultimately boils down to: So what? The “law should move toward a greater recognition that the intent of the people involved is more important than the genes,” he wrote. The concept of “fractional parents,” a phrase coined by a professor at the University of San Diego law school, causes no obvious disquiet in Cohen, and the legal conundrums that the reality of “fractional parents” would generate — “Could a baby one day have 100 parents? Could anyone who contributes DNA claim visitation rights? How much DNA is enough?” — apparently are to him (and undoubtedly to many others) merely interesting intellectual challenges, not potential sources of heartbreak and chaos for children. (It is just possible that the centrality of tradition-exploding fertility technology to gay conception drives the cheerful acceptance of that technology’s complicated and destabilizing results by members of the enlightened intellectual elite.)

The main answer to the “Why does it matter?” question is this: The institutionalized severing of biology from parenthood affirms a growing trend in our society, that of men abandoning their biological children. Too many men now act like sperm donors: they conceive a children then largely disappear, becoming at best intermittent presences in their children’s lives. This phenomenon is increasingly common among the less educated, and dominates in the black community. Too many children — including the great majority of black children and large numbers of children of struggling working-class mothers — are now raised in single-parent homes; many do not even know who their fathers are. The negative consequences of this family breakdown for children include higher rates of school failure and lack of socialization. Moreover, in a culture where men are not expected to raise their children, boys fail to learn the most basic lesson of personal responsibility and self-discipline.             

If parental status is a matter of intent, however, not of genes, absent fathers can say: “I never intended to take on the role of that child’s parent; therefore I’m not morally bound to act as a parent.” Defenders of the separation of genes and parental identity may respond that when homosexuals and infertile couples make use of fertility technology, the intent of all parties to either raise or repudiate the resulting child is explicit and contractual. Where there has been no contractual repudiation of parenthood, an argument could run, the default tradition that links genetic and social parenting roles should prevail. It is not at all apparent, however, why heterosexual fathers who have engaged in physical intercourse should not be able to define their responsibilities according to intent, like fathers who have engaged in non-physical intercourse.

Gay child-rearing undercuts another understanding of why fathers should stay with their children: that mothers and fathers bring complementary attributes to child-rearing. On average, men and women have different biological dispositions towards aggression, competition, empathy, and cooperation — a proposition that even radical feminists and gender constructivists sometimes affirm. While there are of course exceptions and infinite variations on type, a father on average is more likely to serve as the authority figure and the model of manly virtues, the mother as nurturer. Proponents of gay child-rearing proclaim that boys do not need fathers and male role models at home and that males can provide the same emotional rapport with their children that females can. Regardless of whether these claims are empirically accurate, they undermine the argument that fathers have a unique contribution to make in a boy or girl’s development. (Obviously, children who have lost one parent through death or separation may be raised without both sexes at  home. But gay parenting creates a single-sex home as a matter of deliberate engineering, not accident or unforeseen chance.) The sole argument potentially remaining for persuading fathers that they should raise their chidren — that children need two parents in the home — is easily disposed of: My baby momma is living with her mother.

Even if one grants that the case for the biological two-parent family is more difficult in light of recombinant parenting, however, the implications for gay marriage are not self-evident. The primary challenge to traditional notions of parenthood comes from gay conception, not gay marriage. Even if gays never gain the right to marry, the practice of gay conception will presumably continue apace. Given that continuation, gay marriage at least preserves one strand of traditional child-bearing arrangements: raising children within the context of marriage.

Second, the rout of traditional parenting roles that fertility technology has set in motion is arguably so powerful that gay marriage will add little to the ongoing changes in how we think about parents and children.  Designer babies engineered by heterosexual parents are in our future, no matter what parenting institution the law grants to gays.

But gay marriage moves the separation of parental status and biology to the center of the marriage institution. To be sure, most of the attributes of gay procreation and gay marriage can be found individually in other family structures. But those attributes — most important, the absence of a child’s biological father or mother from his life — have been considered exceptions and second-best solutions to the norm for child-rearing. (Contrary to gay-marriage proponents’ favorite rhetorical strategy, the existence of an exception does not mean that a norm or rule does not exist.) When gays procreate and marry, all those exceptions become the rule. To the extent that you worry about, rather than celebrate, the dissolution of biological ties between parents and children, gay marriage could be a straw that you are reluctant to add to the camel’s back.

These are not easy questions. The deprivation to gays from not being able to put the official, public stamp of legitimacy on their love is large. If one were confident that gay marriage would have at most a negligible effect on the ongoing dissolution of the traditional family, I would see no reason to oppose it. And fertility technology is hardly the only source of stress on families; heterosexual adults have been wreaking havoc on the two-parent family for the last five decades in their quest for maximal freedom and choice. The self-interested assumption behind that havoc has been that what’s good for adults must be good for children: If adults want flexibility in their living arrangements, then children will benefit from it, as well. Perhaps children are as infinitely malleable as it would be convenient for them to be. But if it turns out that they thrive best with stability in their lives and that the traditional family evolved to provide that stability, then our breezy jettisoning of child-rearing traditions may not be such a boon for children.

The facile libertarian argument that gay marriage is a trivial matter that affects only the parties involved is astoundingly blind to the complexity of human institutions and to the web of sometimes imperceptible meanings and practices that compose them. Equally specious is the central theme in attorney Theodore Olson’s legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8: that only religious belief or animus towards gays could explain someone’s hesitation regarding gay marriage. Anyone with the slightest appreciation for the Burkean understanding of tradition will feel the disquieting burden of his ignorance in this massive act of social reengineering, even if he ultimately decides that the benefits to gays from gay marriage outweigh the risks of the unknown.

Heather Mac Donald is the John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute and co-author of The Immigration Solution.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article has been amended since its initial posting.


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