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Parenting a Bicycle Built for Two

May 1, 2009

Not so long ago I was listening to a chat show on the topic of the rights of children seeking the identities of their official sperm donor fathers and vice versa. I was struck by the commentary of one of the participants, who explained why those children have no such rights because the entire notion of affiliation to a biological father belongs to an outdated set of ethics that, blessedly, are no longer accepted or applied. He was correct in that no one has a legal 'right' to know who their father is. Heaven knows paternity is a secret a lot of women have taken to their graves throughout history and a great many men have certainly casually donated sperm, sometimes even while sober, and with it, their fatherhood over the years never to be heard from again. There is no mention of this sort of issue constitutionally so there is no 'right' allotted to people seeking this knowledge. But there is, or at least there was, a generally acknowledged moral standard in society that insisted men take responsibility for their donations, drunk, sober, married, or otherwise. If it no longer exists, and it very well might not, I missed the public debate that concluded the old rule need not apply. I remember my father drilling this apparently passe notion in to me when I was a teenager. Have sex, he said, and the girl will probably get pregnant which means you will then have to quit school, get a job, marry her and regret it for the rest of your something or other life. At the time, there appeared to be no other option because growing up in the 20th Century as I did, there was still this insistence that people should be responsible for their own actions. Nevertheless and accurate or otherwise, my father's words inspired the intended level of terror and had a considerable mitigating impact. I suppose the change began with the "if it feels good, do it" and "if you can't be with the one you love, love the one you're with" philosophy of the 1960s (it is remarkable how much of the political philosophies developed by the young men leading the hippy revolution tended to serve their needs). And then of course there was Murphy Brown, the TV show character played by Candice Bergen who decided she would parent a child on her own as an expression of her rugged feminist independence. Vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle became somewhat notorious and was generally mocked in mainstream media for criticizing this as an inappropriate role model during the 1992 election. The show's producers were inspired to fight back with a series celebrating the diversity of family structures. Maybe that's when the debate took place because, come to think of it, that's about the time more women began to give up on the idea of finding a husband and fast-forward straight to motherhood thanks to sperm banks. Certainly the banks served the mother's need to become a mother. And I suppose they helped a lot of young men pay their way through college or buy some beer. There is no question either that women who chose to become mothers through artificial insemination are generally wonderful mothers, perhaps even better than most. But they are not fathers. In 2002, Candice Bergen, the actor who played Murphy Brown, said she agreed with Quayle. Bergen called Quayle's notorious talk "a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable," adding that "nobody agreed with that more than I did." In France, a government study on marriage recognized that while adults have freedoms, children have rights and that the government should not "systematically give preference to adult aspirations over respect for [children's] rights." All of this can and no doubt will be debated for decades. But despite all the changes in mores, laws and biotechnology, the most compelling argument in favour of dual obligations of parents to their children comes from children themselves. One of the very first questions each of us asks as we emerge as sentient beings is this: "Mommy. Where did I come from?" And one of the earliest questions asked by children with mothers only is:"Mommy. Why don't I have a daddy?" Those are questions that need to have answers and they need to be the truth.