An employee of the laboratory of reproductive biology CECOS, the medically assisted procreation (PMA) unit of Tenon Hospital works in Paris on Sept. 24, 2019. (PHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Parenthood is not just a matter of “personal autonomy” but has social implications in which society as a whole has vital rights and interests
Victimization is a prominent leitmotif in contemporary culture, and our morally relativistic, “non-judgmental” times tend to take self-claims of injury at face value. But, as contemporary Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski has observed, today’s “sleek barbarians”—those who, employing traditional terms like “rights” and “justice” empty them of their received meanings, pressing them into service of what had once been deemed wrongs and injustice—often employ the victim card to parry what once would have been called “chutzpah.” Case-in-point: Bryce Cleary.
Bryce Cleary is a physician who, as a student at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) 30 years ago, apparently liberally donated his sperm. He claimed his motivation was to help the infertile and to foster research. He caveated his gifts: the sperm should be used by five couples on the U.S. East Coast, while the rest should go for research. He’s now suing OHSU for $5.25 million, claiming fraud.
See, thanks to modern technology, the internet and Ancestry.com, Cleary discovered that he had fathered at least 17 children (in addition to the four he publicly acknowledged as a father within marriage), most of whom lived nearby in Oregon. And that’s what’s got him peeved: his acknowledged and unacknowledged offspring can intermix (and apparently have) without their even knowing it.
A narrow, autonomy-centered paradigm might say, “Well, that’s what he was concerned about, and that’s what OHSU failed to prevent. He’s been lied to.”
Perhaps, however, we ought to expand the concept of “lie.”
“Oh, what a tangled web we weave//when first we practice to deceive,” goes the old axiom. Cleary thinks he was deceived. But so were his children.
Bryce Cleary is responsible for 17 lives with which he clearly never intended to have any contact. Sperm donation has long been shrouded in secrecy, and Cleary had no problem with being at least partially a liar. After all, “’I can’t emotionally be invested in all these people’” he says.
Well, then, you shouldn’t have become their father.
This case is tragic, but not the way Bryce Cleary sees it. It is tragic because real people—real kids—do not know whom their real father is, have probably been lied to all their lives, and do not know whom their brothers and sisters are (or even how many they have).
Letting Cleary define the parameters of this case would be wrong. The situation shows that parenthood is not just a matter of “personal autonomy” but has social implications in which society as a whole has vital rights and interests, in no small part “in the best interests of the children.” Yes, we’ve forgotten that test of social policy.
A person’s right to know his true parentage and relations and the prevention of incest are not just Cleary’s private concerns. They are all our concerns. Cleary’s lawsuit suggests that, because he donated his sperm, he is the policymaker for whether and how to achieve these ends.
So does that mean he could decide a child has no right to know his true genetic parentage? Even as we recognize that orphans have a right eventually to know who there is true parents are, we would give genetic fathers a veto over another person’s rights to their very identity? This would guarantee making that person an orphan, not just physically but spiritually and intellectually? Afflicting the orphan, like maltreating the widow, is among the Bible’s worst crimes.
The artificial insemination industry has, of course, long been shrouded in secrecy. Artificial insemination by donor (AID) has been cloaked by its own “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, where one’s real father excludes himself from his child’s life, while an often infertile man pretends to be the “father” of this child – until the ugly truth comes out (usually not voluntarily). (For the perspective of lied-to children, see “Anonymous Father’s Day,” a great documentary film, here).
When this “gentlemen’s agreement” of secrecy was confined to AID, its impact was circumscribed: the number of people resorting to artificial insemination, especially using the gametes of a third party, was in the past limited.
But the fertility industry today is an enormous (and enormously profitable) business, which depends on AID, ovum donation and surrogacy. It is also a largely unregulated business: America at large is, as Jennifer Lahl puts it, “the Wild West” of surrogacy, and some states (e.g., California) are wilder than others.
Trends in delayed marriage, subordination of parenthood to career milestones, and growing infertility fuel that fertility industry. So, too, does “same-sex marriage.”
The fallacy behind Obergefell’s establishment of “same-sex marriage” was the Supreme Court’s claim that sexual differentiation was irrelevant to marriage because marriage had no inherent nexus to procreation. But the Court is inconsistent in its own logic, because homosexual activists increasingly argue that, unless they have a “right to parenthood” (notwithstanding their own natural sterility), then Obergefell’s promise of “same-sex marriage” is empty.
Lest this proposition end on some maudlin slogan about “the right to choose whom you love,” understand what it implies. If there is a “right to parenthood” notwithstanding the natural incapacity of two people of the same sex to conceive children, it means that parenthood as it has been understood in every culture throughout history (and as it biologically exists) has no right to be privileged or given priority in law. Parenthood as the natural outcome of the union of a man and woman is just “one alternative” parenthood, and the state must support any method of conceiving children so long as it fulfills the problem of overcoming the “discrimination” apparently established by “nature and nature’s God.” Natural law itself would become practically unconstitutional.
If one has any doubt that legal preference of parenthood as it has existed as long as there have been men and women would be undermined, consider already what has been going on with birth certificates. A number of states have been complicit in the “gentlemen’s agreement” of AID by establishing presumptions about paternity when it comes to issuing birth certificates: if a child is conceived in wedlock, the law presumed that the husband of the wife is the child’s father. If a couple agreed to use AID, neither spouse had an interest in disclosing true paternity, and the birth certificate simply covered up that fact.
With the advent of “marriage” without sexual differentiation, however, there also arose the question of whom to list as “parent one” and “parent two” on the birth certificate. (Note the disappearance of “father” and “mother,” presumably as “discriminatory” sexual residue. A child may now be entitled to two parents, but he is not entitled to a father and a mother). Several states balked at applying the “paternal presumption” in the case of two lesbians, since clearly (a) there was no male “married” to these two persons and (b) the female “spouse” clearly could not have exercised the genetic paternal role. But the federal courts, applying Obergefell, have insisted that—biology notwithstanding—the “parental presumption” requires listing the same-sex “spouses” as “parents” on the birth certificate, regardless of their natural incapacity to give life.
What this clearly means is that birth certificates need not have any necessary relationship to truth, i.e., need not necessarily tell us about who is father and mother of this child. What it means is that the law increasingly ratifies and countenances the parcelization of parenthood, sliced and diced into genetic, gestational and social components, with the implicit presumption that the social component – those who chose to raise the child –is the “parenthood” that matters.
The poor kid: who gets the Father’s and Mother’s Day cards? The anonymous gamete donor? The gestational “womb for rent?” The woman or man that signed the check for the braces?
Sperm is not just “another bodily fluid,” whose “donation” is as anonymous as blood or plasma or bone marrow. It’s time we stopped pretending it is. Newsweek featured a story in 2011 about the new “paternity,” of a man hired by two women for his semen, who went into a Starbucks bathroom, ejaculated into a cup, handed his free will donation to the woman, who then employed it, after which they all shared a Venti Dolce Latte.
Is society to affirm “fatherhood” as an ejaculate handed over in a coffee shop? Cahal Daly once observed that the way one treats sperm is the way one would treat a human being. I didn’t grasp his existential meaning when I read that line 45 years ago, but I get it now.
It’s also time to stop pretending that a child born from his real mother’s womb is no different from one from another’s womb or commissioned as a product from a hatchery. All methods of “family production” are not created equal.
These are profound and radical changes with enormous social implications, but they are advancing with little, if any, social debate. And the real victims, because they are deceived about their origins, are the children. Instead, pseudo-“victims” sue in the name of their violated autonomy.
We need to refocus on those who are the real victims: the kids.
All views contained herein are exclusively those of the author.