Gay Parents and Biological Bonds

First published in Between The Lines News on April 15, 2010

Those who argue that same-sex parenting “deprives” a child of its mother or father sometimes ask, “How would you feel if your mother or father were taken away?”

My answer to that question is, of course, “I’d feel terrible.” But that fact scarcely settles the matter.

I’d feel terrible if anyone close to me were taken away. But that presupposes that the person “taken away” is already a part of my life. It doesn’t follow that their not being present in the first place would “deprive” me.

My grandparents were all an important part of my life, but suppose they had all died before I was born. Would anyone have accused my parents of “depriving” me of grandparents, simply by bringing me into existence? Of course not.

I grant that the cases are not exactly parallel. If my grandparents had died before I was born, my parents could hardly be held responsible for their absence (barring matricide or patricide).

By contrast, the lesbian who visits a sperm bank—just like straight women who visit sperm banks—may consciously intend to raise a child in its biological father’s absence, and thus has some responsibility for that absence (as does the father).

It is this fact that bothers our opponents. In their view, the lesbian and others in this (hypothetical but common) case are conspiring to deprive the child of its biological father. If we care to answer their concerns, we need to address this case.

Before doing so, however, it is worth pointing out several things. First, the objection doesn’t touch those who become parents by adoption. In such cases, opponents might still object that the lesbian is depriving the child of SOME father. But they can’t coherently claim that she is depriving it of ITS OWN father—and that is the objection I wish to focus on here. (Presumably, its own father is no longer in the picture—hence the adoption.)

Second, the objection applies equally to heterosexual women who seek anonymous sperm donors. Most people who use sperm banks are heterosexual, and most gays and lesbians never use sperm banks. So this is not an objection to gay parenting or gay marriage per se.

Third, and related, when applied to same-sex marriage the objection involves a blatant non-sequitur. It is one thing to argue against anonymous sperm donation. It is quite another to use that argument to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians. For even if one accepts the “no sperm banks” argument, it seems unfair to punish those gays and lesbians who do not use them. It is also unfair to punish those children whose parents did use them: such children exist, after all, and forbidding marriage to their parents (i.e. the ones that care for them) makes their lives less stable.

With these caveats in mind, we can return to the question at hand: is the lesbian (or for that matter, the straight woman) who uses an anonymous sperm donor “depriving” the child of its biological father?

The problem with answering this question is that the word “depriving” is so loaded that any response is likely to have unintended (and unpalatable) side effects. Answer “yes,” and you insult the many good mothers who have used anonymous sperm donors and have provided wonderful lives for their resulting children. You also potentially hurt the children, by suggesting to them that they lead “deprived” lives.

Answer “no,” and you seem to ignore the research that says that children do better, on average, with their own biological parents than in other family forms. You also suggest that there’s nothing special about growing up with one’s own biological father.

I for one wouldn’t want to make the latter claim. That’s partly because I am moved by the firsthand stories of people who have grown up not knowing one or more of their biological parents and feel a genuine sense of loss as a result. Their longing is real and should not be lightly dismissed.

But it’s also because I myself feel that there’s something special about the biological bond I have with my parents. The fact that I am literally flesh of their flesh moves me, for reasons that go beyond sentimentality.

The question is whether we can acknowledge this significance without casting aspersions on those whose parent-child bonds are non-biological.

I think we can. To say that the biological bond is special is not to say that it’s the only significant bond, or that those who lack it are deprived of something necessary (much less sufficient) for a strong and healthy parent-child relationship.

More to the point, to say that the biological bond is special is hardly justification for “depriving” an entire group of people of the opportunity to marry.