Melissa Moschella. To Whom Do Children Belong? Parental Rights, Civic Education, and Children’s Autonomy. Cambridge University Press, 2016.
Alanna Newman doesn’t know the man who gave her half of her genetic code. She is a sperm donor baby and has searched for her biological father for years, launching a website called AnonymousUs.org for those affected by donor conception. She’s also written a documentary screenplay in attempt to find him. When asked by an interviewer how her parents felt about her quest, she quietly replies: “They don’t think that my father should matter. They are totally perplexed as to why it would be important.”
Hundreds of thousands of donor-conceived adults and children like Alanna daily face the reality that they may never know one or both of their parents. Yet their feelings of loss and hurt are all too often dismissed. With children born in increasing numbers in unconventional ways, the adults who choose these methods, more often than not, assume that biological parents do not matter to their children.
Melissa Moschella believes they do. An expert in parental rights and professor of philosophy at the Catholic University of America, she released a book in August 2016 called To Whom Do Children Belong? In it, she skillfully makes the case for the importance of biological parents to their child’s life. The book is a philosophical and grounded discussion answering the question of the title, in no small part as it pertains to public education. Yet, at the heart of the book is the idea that an intimate relationship inescapably exists between biological parent and child. This bond dramatically influences the life of the child, regardless of the presence or absence of the birth parent after conception.
Existence and identity
It may seem strange to assert that children can have a relationship with a parent they have never met, but consider this: birth parents are the reason why the child exists at all. Every child has a biological mother and a biological father. Moschella notes: “the child is who he is because of who his parents are; to be begotten by other parents is, simply, to be someone else.” Since parents are the cause for the existence and identity for their child, they are “unique and irreplaceable to their children.” If we understand a relationship to be connection between two people, then the intimate genetic connection between parent and child is basis enough for relationship. This relationship is initially the closest that the child has and is permanent in nature.
As with any relationship, there are implications for the two people involved, and one implication is that they contribute something unique to each other’s lives. Take a romantic relationship, for example; when a guy has invited his girlfriend on a date, he can’t send someone else in his place to go to dinner with her. The girlfriend is dependent on her boyfriend for their mutual date, because “by definition, the need in question can’t be met by anyone else.”
In the same way, children have needs that can only be met in a certain way by their birth parents. Moschella writes: “The fact that children’s initial and prolonged state of neediness (together with their existence) flows precisely out of their personal relationship with their biological parents, implies that children are...personally dependent on their biological parents for the ideal fulfillment of their developmental needs.” In creating a human being who requires attention and commitment, parents have created a role for themselves which only they can fulfill. Moschella’s book reminds us that conceiving a child inherently mandates a duty to that child.
Here it is important to clarify that Moschella is in no way advocating for children to remain in harmful situations with their birth parents. Neither is she diminishing adoption; she emphatically believes that adoptive parents, through undertaking the responsibility of raising a child to flourish morally, physically, and emotionally, are true parents. Rather, she is merely pointing out that natural parents are optimally poised to meet the developmental needs of children given the basis of their relationship.
Meeting children’s needs
So which needs can biological parents uniquely meet for their children? Moschella’s first benefit is that children receive significant insight into their personal identities by virtue of knowing their birth parents. Details of family history, familiarity with personality traits, and comfort with physical features which children glean from their biological parents aid them in developing mature personalities. Conversely, if children do not know one or both of their biological parents, they often feel that part of their identity is missing. Alanna Newman phrased it this way: “The biological parent’s absence is impossible to ignore because their presence is impossible to ignore when you’re living in a version of their body and thinking in a version of their brain.”
A groundbreaking study of young adults conceived through sperm donation done in 2010 found that sixty-five percent of donor offspring agree with the statement, “My sperm donor is half of who I am.” Twenty-five percent agree strongly that “I don’t feel that anyone really understands me,” compared to thirteen percent of adopted children and nine percent of those raised by biological parents. The study quotes Olivia Pratten, a Canadian donor offspring, as saying: “I think of myself as a puzzle; the only picture I have ever known is half-complete...I’m not looking for a dad...I have questions about who I am and why I do what I do.” Tom Ellis from Britain told a reporter: “the stranger who helped bring me into the world...is important to me...he is a part of me and without him, I will never feel completely whole.”
A second benefit that Moschella highlights is the extraordinary love of the parent for the child created by the parent-child bond. A commitment of parental love catalyzes the well-being of the child; conversely, without parental love, the child is hurt. Moschella explains: “Of course children can lead a good life without being loved by their biological parents. Yet the absence of biological parents’ love is still a significant loss to children, because once children begin to understand the facts of how they came into the world, they can miss the specific love of their biological parents, and the absence of that love can harm them. Children do not miss being loved by those with whom they have no intimate relationship, but with their biological parents they do and always will have a unique and intimate relationship, a relationship which is a permanent and identity-defining feature of their existence. Just as being spurned or ignored by a friend can harm me even if I have many other friends who treat me with appropriate affection, children can be hurt by their biological parents’ failure to love them, even when they are well-loved by others.”
For those who would dismiss these ideas as pure conjecture, there is a growing body of research showing that children fare best in a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. One study in 2005 by renowned sociologist Paul R. Amato, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, found that “On average, children in all other family types fare worse on a wide range of outcomes than those raised by both of their biological parents.” While this does not ultimately prove Moschella’s point, it does speak to the inherent value of biological, married parents in the social science.
Political ramifications: Ontario’s Bill 28
So why might the stories from AnonymousUs.org be silenced, and why does Moschella need to build the case that biology in parentage matters? At least in part it’s because modern trends in parenting routinely ignore biology. Ontario’s Bill 28, which passed unanimously on November 29, 2016, is reflective of this reality. Termed the All Families Are Equal Act, the bill reflects modern trends in parenting by striking the terms “mother” and “father” from the law and replacing these terms with the designation “parent.” In addition to removing any reference to a child’s natural parents, it establishes that a child can have up to four parents if they sign a “pre-conception parentage agreement” before the child is conceived. The bill does not include any provisions for documenting biological parentage, meaning that any child born under the law has the possibility of not knowing who gave them half of their DNA; or, to quote the study on donor-conceived children, “half of who I am.”
Being raised by biological parents may not always be possible for various reasons. This doesn’t change the fact that they are at very least biologically irreplaceable; Moschella’s book reminds us of that. Family change proceeds rapidly and the law is now changing to reflect new realities in ways that appear to diminish the value of biological parents.
For this reason, and for all the Alanna Newmans and Olivia Prattens out there, it will be important to remember this defence of biological parents in the lives of their children—even or especially when biological parents are not acting as social parents.
Anna Buhrmann is an intern at Cardus.