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The Third Chimpanzee, The Winter’s Tale, and the Imperatives of Biology

February 17th, 2009 No comments

How important is the biology of parenting?

Here’s an example from Shakespeare: Audiences and critical scholars have long struggled to understand the insane rage that suddenly overcomes King Leontes in “The Winter’s Tale.” At first, the king is good-naturedly encouraging his queen, Hermione, to beg their mutual friend, Polixenes, the King of Bohemia, to stay another week.

She does so, but not with the result she expects: Within a few lines, Leontes becomes blindly jealous, crying: “Too hot, too hot!” I’ll spare you the spiral of tragedy that ensues (and is only partly redeemed at the end) to focus on a big reason for Leontes’s rage: He suddenly thinks that Polixenes, who has been around for a span of nine “wat’ry stars” –nine moons, or roughly nine months — is the father of the child Hermione is soon to bear.

Well, it was certainly possible (although not true in “The Winter’s Tale”) that Leontes had been cuckolded. Until the recent development of DNA testing, husbands never knew for sure that they were the fathers of their wives’ children. Yet, as Jared Diamond discusses in “The Third Chimpanzee,” from an anthropological perspective fathers were only interested in devoting themselves to the support and raising of their own biological children — they wanted to pass on their own genes, and not those of another man. (As an example of how strongly this impulse is felt, he discusses one tribe in which the women have sex with many men serially, so that determining paternal parentage was impossible. In those cases, men raised the children of their sisters — at least then 1/4 of their genetic make-up would then be passed along.)

Thus, patriarchy was both strongly enforced and inherently unstable: Men held the legal power and the physical strength, but only women knew with confidence the identity of their children. Yet that biological identity was of vital importance.

The question is whether biology should continue to be so central today. Undoubtedly, there are good effects to making biological fathers responsible to their children, however difficult that responsibility may be to enforce: Men will take responsibility for potentially procreative sex more seriously if they know that they are “on the hook.” And to the extent that the primal urge to pass on one’s genetic attributes still imbues men with an urge to provide for their offspring, there can be benefits to the child and the mother.

But note that I’m talking here about biology and “urges.” Maybe it’s time to develop a more sophisticated approach that recognizes these brute facts but isn’t enslaved to them. In this regard, consider the broadly different ways the law treats natural, as opposed to foster or adoptive, parents.

When my spouse and I wanted to adopt children, we became well-acquainted with the rigor of the process for ensuring that any kids we might adopt would be safe, secure, and well-cared for. There are home visits, probing questions about your life and your reasons for wanting to adopt, embarrassingly intense examination of your relationship, exploration of your parenting style (useless in the abstract, as any parent knows), and a quiz on the 50 state capitals. Then there are required training sessions and certification; additional sessions are required if you’re also interested (as we were) in qualifying as foster parents. Oh, and you also undergo background checks for state and federal crimes of all kinds — not just those including child abuse. After all this, you wait — and wait — for a match.

OK, let’s compare the process for reviewing the suitability of biological parents. Are you ready? I’m about to start now….. All done.

As everyone reading this surely knows, there isn’t any such process. It’s true that the law and society have evolved so as to get better about removing kids from abusive or neglectful homes, but the barriers to doing so are high, and (legal standard aside) the parents really don’t have to do much to get the kids back — often, their return leads to tragic results.

But such removals from the home are rare. In most cases, kids are left to fend for themselves in some dismal situations.

I’m not suggesting that biological parents undergo the same kind of comprehensive process that is in place for foster or adoptive placements — it’s probably practically impossible, anyway. But I think that the model for screening non-birth parents has lessons for the treatment of all families: Why not offer (require?) state-funded parenting classes? Does the state have a right, even a responsibility, to identify risk factors for children and then to intervene in some way before those risks materialize in injury of some kind? Efforts to address some of these questions might lead to clumsy governmental snooping — a real risk. But doing nothing has its own perils, as we know.

In short, once we start questioning the continued preeminence of biology, the questions start tumbling forth.  I’ll be revisiting this topic soon.

Categories: adoption, biology, Social Justice Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Biology Uber Alles

February 16th, 2009 No comments

Here’s an interesting story, loosely based on a real set of events I recently learned about:  

A stable male couple, working through a private adoption agency, completes the required family profile. They then wait for a new mother to choose them as the best family in which to raise the child that she’s decided she cannot raise on her own.

Within days, the excited dads-to-be learn that they’ve already been selected as adoptive by a young mother. As is true in many such cases, this woman is single, and can expect no support from the father of this girl. She knows who the father is, but their relationship was brief and they have both moved on. They are barely in touch with each other.

Nonetheless, because this guy is the biological father of the child, he has an equal vote in the placement of the child. After first agreeing with the mother’s choice, he has his mind changed by his mother, who has “a problem” with the child being raised by gay parents. “Dad” changes his mind, and our male couple’s profile is rejected. 

I have no idea who actually ended up adopting this child, and whether that placement will end up working out well for the kid. It might, given that the girl is an infant and most people prefer adopting babies. On the other hand, there are complicated race issues that I’m deliberately not getting into here that might have made finding another placement tougher.

But let’s think about who has a say in this process, and whether there’s justification for this approach. I placed “Dad” in quotes earlier, because to me the biological father is about the furthest person from “Dad” that one can imagine. To repeat: He has no interest in his daughter, and no plans, ability or inclination to support her. Whether adopted or not, she’ll have many male role models — but not her own father.  

Yet he gets a vote just because of his, er, contribution to the process of creating a child. The anomaly of this result is only underscored by the further wrinkle that it wasn’t even the father himself, but his mother, whose objection scuttled this otherwise smooth plan.

But should he have any say at all? In my view, the emphasis on biology, while powerful, convenient, and historically deeply rooted, is open to serious question. This is just one case in which this adherence to the brute facts of nature might end up compromising the best interests of the child. There are others.

Consider this example: A lesbian couple has a child together, agreeing to raise him as “their” son. But because the child is biologically the child of only one of the mothers, in many states the other mother is a legal “stranger” to the child. In a few states, the couple can marry and perhaps solve the problem that way. In some others, the non-bio parent can adopt the child and thereby gain legal status. In other states, various unreliable, equitable doctrines such as “de facto parent” and “parent by estoppel” have at times been invoked to grant parental rights to the “other” mom. 

But the point is that the lack of a biological connection creates a problem that needs to be solved in the first place. Assuming there’s solid evidence of agreement to act as equal parents, why shouldn’t that suffice? 

Courts should know better than to support the efforts of former partners in same-sex relationships to stop their biological kids from seeing the other person they call “mom” or “dad” ever again.  And don’t even get me started on parents in same-sex relationships who use the law to wall out their former spouses in this way. [Short memo to them: “Have you no shame? Using laws that oppress the LGBT community for your own personal ends is loathsome.”]

The biological imperative creates other issues that aren’t usually thought of in quite that way. Tomorrow’s post will discuss another of these.