A Report of "The Philosophical Groundings of Parenthood and Moral Implications for Families"
A Lecture by Sarah-Vaughan Brakman of Villanova University
Sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University
March 6, 2012
“It is widely assumed that the conventions that govern the assignment of parental relationships are constrained by certain natural relations, like genetics or biology,” says Sarah-Vaughan Brakman. Yet such an assumption denies the reality of adoptive parenthood, a relationship which has proven to be deeply meaningful despite its frequent dismissal to the “fourth choice after natural reproduction, assisted reproduction with people’s own gametes, and assisted reproduction with donor gametes.” In response to this conflict and to this modern use of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), Brakman presents four philosophical definitions of parenthood.
“Theoretically, five different individuals can contribute to the existence and flourishing of an individual,” says Brakman. “Since these practices will continue, we need to think more carefully about what precisely establishes the ground for parenthood.”
Genetic theories of parenthood are reflected in Jewish law, Islamic law, English common law, and tribal membership in Native American culture. In Catholic theological literature, says Brakman, “Some have specifically claimed that adoptive motherhood affords a less genuine form of parenthood, such that traditional adoptive mothers are neither ‘actual mothers’ nor ‘full, real, and categorical’ mothers of their children, nor even ‘mothers in the primary natural sense of that word.’”
According to Brakman, one critique of genetic accounts is that they “deny the weight that families not formed by genetics seem to have.” In addition, it is reversed by those who use ART. “The degree of biological relatedness and connection is the same here as with birth mothers, but one is viewed as the real mother and one is viewed as the surrogate mother,” she says. Brakman asks, “Are sperm and egg donors more like organ donors, giving the gift of life? Or are they really parents, in some way, of the children who were born as the result of their donation?”
Brakman then discusses labor-based accounts of parenthood. “These first are run in terms of gestational labor,” she says. The gestational account is flawed in that it discounts the role of the father as the male parent of a child. Beyond these, yet still within labor-based accounts, Brakman states, “The view that biological relatedness can only be conferred from either a genetic contribution or from pregnancy misses what makes parenthood real to begin with: The permanent physicality of the act of parenting.” In this perspective of labor-based parenthood, both adoptive parents and birth parents can be considered legitimate, “but they still seem to give gestational motherhood veto powers,” she says.
“Intentional or voluntarist accounts hold that parenthood is morally established through agency,” says Brakman. This theory supports general attitudes toward ART, such as using the term “surrogate motherhood” (as opposed to true motherhood). One critique of the voluntarist account is that it seems to absolve procreators from responsibility for the child that they cause to exist. A bigger critique, says Brakman, holds that family relations are not voluntary.
Fourth and finally, Brakman mentions causal accounts of parenting. In this definition, “Parenthood is secured for those who can be said to be the cause of a child’s existence,” which can include donors, surrogates, and commissioning couples as well. However, she says, “There is a risk that we could be ad hoc about this, tailor making it for whatever we want it to be.”
“I am interested in a pluralistic account which would hold genetics and labor-based accounts as both independently sufficient for establishing parenthood,” says Brakman. She includes genetics because “genetics matters to our sense of lineage, and we know from studies in adoption literature that genetics matters for identity.” Citing Pope John Paul II, Brakman defends her inclusion of labor-based accounts in stating that “adoptive parents procreate” by giving a gift of self.
Brakman concludes by expounding some implications of her pluralistic account of parenthood. “Birth parents are the real biological parents of their children,” she says. “Adoptive parents are the real social, emotional, lived parents of their children.” She advocates open adoption and permanent homes. In terms of ART, Brakman states, “Gamete donors are, in fact, parents of their child.” She suggests that donors be told so in their informed consent. Further, she says, “This means the mandatory disclosure to children of the use of donor gametes” and the end of anonymous donation programs.
“My analysis validates current adoption practices and explains, in part, the growing concern over the use of donor gamete conception and the use of surrogacy,” says Brakman. “The very first and foremost principle has to be: What is in the best interest of children?”