May 31, 2007

What Counts as Family?

Several people have pointed out an email sent out by Stephen Bennett of Concerned Women for America, which clearly says that what matters in parent/child relationships is not actually the relationship, but the biology involved. Talking about Mary Cheney, her partner Heather Poe, and their child, Samuel David, Bennett says

Fact is Mary Cheney, the Vice President's daughter - in one way or another - received a male's sperm. She is the biological mother, parent number one, and some man, somewhere out there, is Samuel David's real biological father, parent number two.

Heather Poe is Mary Cheney's live-in lesbian lover. She may act like a parent, she may treat the baby as a parent, she may love this baby with all of her heart, but in this reality we all live in, Heather Poe is NOT the baby's real parent. She has NO biological connection to the child whatsoever. Some man, the baby's real Daddy, is the child's other REAL parent.

Early on in the emailed press release, Concerned Women for America attempt to separate out a very specific set of adopted children and parents: those who are adopted by the spouse of a second marriage, implying that there is still at least one biological connection present. But what about kids completely adopted into a family, through either closed or open adoptions in the United States, or overseas adoptions? How about kids who are created through assisted reproductive technologies, who might have the genetic material of one woman, carried by a second, and raised by a third? What about families where one parent cannot contribute genetic material? Are they suddenly no longer a parent because they are not in this special category of marrying into an already established family where something has "gone wrong"?

There is more than the biological identity of a child. There's the social identity - the years upon years of familial habits that are not genetically encoded into us, but become part of us because it's part of our experience. I don't expect science to ever find a segment of DNA that is responsible for the fact that my grandmother and mother both placed potholders over their purses whenever they turned the oven on, so they would not leave the house without turning the oven off. Yet it's there, and if I ever get back into the habit of cooking, it's probably something I'll do without thinking about it - just like my sister does.

A few years back, Glenn McGee wrote that

one profound miracle of the mapping of the genome is that it is now more clear than ever that we share so much of our genes with every human being that to select a child on the basis of a few inherited susceptibilities or traits is to overestimate the power of individual genes to make us human, to make families, or to link us together.

Science has allowed us to change the rules of biology, and DNA is becoming a tool, not a definition. Likewise, family is a constantly changing concept, fluid with both social and technological advances. What matters is not the genetic code tying us together, but the social construct that allows us to feel tied together at all.
-Kelly Hills

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