Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Heather Mac Donald on the changing family

Heather Mac Donald has an article on National Review titled Reengineering the Family.

Technology, and the willingness to sanction same-sex couples having children, are changing the nature of the family.

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.

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?"

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.

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.

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.

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.

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