July 4, 2022

Biological ties are unimportant, says bioethicist

We must not give in to patriarchal thinking….

The search for one’s “real” father or “real” mother is a motif not only of yesteryear’s literature but today’s news. Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Shakespeare’s Pericles, Fielding’s Tom Jones, or Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker draw on the same anxieties as AnonymousUs, a website for children of sperm donors, and the unexpected parentage of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

But is that feeling good or bad, justifiable or unjustifiable? An ethical evaluation of much of contemporary assisted reproduction rests on the answer.

The Journal of Medical Ethics today published a sturdy defence of the idea that genetic parentage is not intrinsically valuable by Ezio Di Nucci, of the University of Copenhagen.

Di Nucci begins by disputing an article by J. David Velleman, of New York University, in Philosophical Papers. In the way of philosophers, it is described as a “recent” paper, but it was published in 2010. Velleman, the descendant of Russian Jews who emigrated to the United States, tried to make sense of our attachment to our genetic heritage. He argued, basically, that knowing our forebears helps us to make sense of our own identity and he concluded that “donor conception is wrong”.

Adoptees can certainly find meaningful roles for themselves in the stories of their adoptive families. Even so, they seem to have the sense of not knowing important stories about themselves, and of therefore missing some meaning implicit in their lives, unless and until they know their biological origins.

Di Rucci’s immediate focus is on IVF with ROPA (Reception of Oocytes from Partner), in which one partner in a lesbian relationship provides the eggs and the other gestates the baby. But his arguments apply to IVF generally. He does this on two grounds.

First, he says that the biological contribution to one’s identity is not necessarily important. The fact that many disconnected offspring feel that something is missing is hardly conclusive. If 50% of adopted children may end up looking for their biological parents,  but 50% do not.  

Second, insistence on a biological contribution is patriarchal. A woman contributes half of the genetic material and all of the gestation; a man only half of the genetic material. Yet he claims half of the parentage.

Our commitment to equality, then, is exactly what should make us sceptical of this appeal to biological ties based on patriarchal prejudices about how biological ties affect role distribution and power imbalances within a family.

A parental project cannot be liberated from the patriarchal norm by trying to redistribute the very phenomenon, biological ties, which is consistently used to reinforce our patriarchal status quo: rather, liberation requires the establishment of fair and equal parental projects where biological ties do not play any role in the distribution of roles, responsibility and, ultimately, power.

Di Rucci concludes that IVF with ROPA is a legitimate preference, but that it need not be justified by referring to the importance of biological ties. That would simply be a concession to patriarchal norms.

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