Who's Your Daddy?

Who are a child's parents?

It seems like a simple question — the kid's mom and dad, right? The people who made the baby.

But for decades, legal and technological changes have been reshaping families, as reproductive techniques like sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogate motherhood become far more embedded in our culture than most of us realize.

Now we have kids with two moms, four moms, or none at all.

These technologies, and the legal tangles they create, have shifted us to an understanding of family that pretends bodies don't matter, and denies children's need for their own mother and father. Here are only a few examples of how what we might call “third-party reproduction” is reshaping our culture; hundreds such stories emerge every month.

On Sept. 7, an Ohio judge ruled that an egg donor had parental rights to the triplets she created with a surrogate mother and a 64-year-old single man. It should be obvious: She is the children's parent. But egg and sperm donation are based on the fiction that her messy biological tie is trivial. And so there's no marriage here, no love between the three people claiming parentage; only contracts and legal disputes.

On Sept. 23, NBC's fertility-clinic drama “Inconceivable” premiered. The show's co-creators have both used surrogate mothers. One co-creator told USA Today that just as women once borrowed a cup of sugar from a neighbor, “Now they can borrow an egg or a uterus.”

In an ongoing case in California, Guadalupe Benitez's case awaits oral argument. Benitez planned to conceive a child through donor insemination and raise the child with her female partner. The clinic where she was receiving infertility treatment refused to perform the insemination for religious reasons (and claims it also refused to inseminate heterosexual single women).

Benitez brought a lawsuit against the clinic for sexual-orientation discrimination.

The longing for one's own child is powerful and, in itself, good. But using a surrogate mother or a sperm or egg donor brings a third parent into the picture (you could think of it as adultery-for-reproduction instead of adultery-for-sex), leaving children at risk of “parental rights” disputes and filled with their own unacknowledged longings for biological fathers and mothers they will never know.

The weblog of the Institute for American Values, www.familyscholars.org, is a great resource, often featuring stories about the emotional struggles of the first generation of children of sperm and egg donors.

In my own case, my parents have been married all my life. Like most children, I needed an intuitive, obvious sense of my place in the world. It was in many ways important for me to realize that I took strongly after my mother in looks and my father in personality. That helped root me in my family, and in the world — especially necessary since I was in other respects a difficult and alienated child.

I know I'm the product of my parents’ love, the symbolic and literal result of their union. Every child deserves that sense of belonging. Every child, whenever possible, deserves her own mom and dad.

We need a serious debate about third-party donation and its effects on children and society. If we want to limit uses of this technology, there are many routes. For instance, egg and sperm donors could be held legally accountable the way other biological parents are; this rule alone would make the practice much less appealing to both donors and those who would use their services.

When a Pennsylvania woman went to court earlier this year to force her sperm donor to take legal responsibility for his child, the judge asked her lawyer, “What man in their right mind would agree to [donate sperm] if we decide this case in your favor? Nobody.”

Anonymous donation could be barred, giving children the right to know their biological parents. (Britain barred anonymous donation last February.) This too would make the practice less attractive.

The President's Council on Bioethics has issued a report calling for intensive study of third-party reproduction's effects on both children and adult participants, and exploring other regulatory possibilities.

These reproductive strategies should in no way be further normalized in culture or in law. This is one reason to oppose same-sex “marriage”; as liberal philosophy professor J. David Velleman put it, “Marital rights generally go hand-in-hand with parental rights. … Equality between homosexual and heterosexual marriages may therefore require us to deny that donor-conceived children have both a mother and a father, thereby expunging the children's connection to half of their biological past. … My worry is that a purely affectional conception of marriage will tend to favor a purely affectional conception of parenthood. And I think that denying the importance of biological parenthood leads us to violate fundamental rights of children.”

Family ties will always be messy — hence the old proverb, “It's a wise child who knows his own father” — but we shouldn't capitulate to harmful trends. Children need to be able to answer the deceptively simple, profound question, “Who's your daddy?”

Eve Tushnet is a policy analyst at the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy.