What is a Family?

I’m a Guardian reader (wouldn’t you just have known it) and on Thursdays enjoy reading and often agree with Deborah Orr when she writes in G2.  This week I could not more fundamentally disagree with part of her thesis about families being for life.  Perhaps what I am actually disagreeing about is the nature of family.  She writes, in the context of ‘broken Britain and broken families,’ “Maybe it is time, at least, to acknowledge one thing; a family, however, estranged the parents may be, can only be ‘broken’ by the death of one parent.  Have a child by someone, even an anonymous donor, and you have made a family with that person.  No separation, no divorce, no abandonment, no reluctance to acknowledge or accept, can alter that unchangeable biological fact.  Having a child with someone is for keeps, even if the relationship is not.  That, quite literally, is life.”

As it happens I have also been re-reading a set of International Roundtable articles from 1993 commenting on a seminal article ‘Secrecy and Openness in Donor Insemination’ by Ken Daniels and Karyn Taylor from New Zealand.   Donor conception as a means of creating a family has necessarily posed questions that require us to revisit what it means to be a family, a mother and a father.  Families are essential to society, but it is the quality of relationships between people who regard themselves as family that nurtures the well-being of all its members.  I would argue, as does Helen Bequaert Holmes in her paper Openness, Fatherhood and Responsibility: a Feminist Analysis, as part of the Roundtable, that “families are small clusters of people strongly committed to each other’s welfare, related genetically or not.”  When commitment goes, the family dies. Parenthood, however, remains and if that parenthood occurred as the result of a relationship, no matter how tenuous, then on-going responsibility results.  However, biological connection to a child where there is no relationship and not only no intention to parent but a contract NOT to parent, is different.  Rhona Achilles in her paper Protection from What? The Secret Life of Donor Insemination, states,

“We need to re-define parental roles; we need to be able to hold two different images of fatherhood in our mind’s eye at the same time.  One, the social father- the man who will nurture, guide, and take legal responsibility for the child – clearly has the most significant role.  The other – the genetic father – cannot, however, be dismissed or denied.  Although his contribution seems only genetic, his role must also be understood in social terms since knowledge of his identity may be essential to the child’s mental health.  These two roles should not necessarily be a threat to each other if clarity is achieved about their respective features, rights and responsibilities.”

What constitutes a family is a commitment to nurture, not the fact of biological parentage and the holding in mind of the two different images of father or motherhood at the same time is exactly what DC Network has supported and encouraged over our lifetime.  It is fascinating to me that the above words were written in 1993, the year that DCN came into being as DI Network.  Some things change, some absolutely do not.

I recommend these papers to anyone who can get hold of them.  Ken and Karyn’s article and the many others responding to it appeared in Politics and the Life Sciences August 1993.  Deborah Orr’s article can be read at http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/17/marriage-family-deborah-orr



About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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One Response to What is a Family?

  1. marilynn says:

    Hi I have never commented here before a friend suggested that I comment on this particular post, I help folks find their family members for free. Its a labor of love its fun it feels good and oddly enough its never gone poorly. That is nobody has ever said they did not want to meet their parent or their child or sibling, aunt, grandchild, whatever. What they ended up making of their relationships after the weight of mystery was lifted goes in as many directions as there are individuals and families. I’ve been lucky about 200 times in the past 12 or so years.

    When we think of children thriving with people who love them we know that those people don’t necessarily need to be the child’s biological family. In fact we know that sometimes its not safe for children to be raised by their biological parents, sometimes being raised by unrelated people is much better for the child. Bearing that in mind we still would not say that the child did not deserve to be raised by his or her biological parents, its not that the child had no right to be part of his own biological family, its just that sometimes things don’t work out the way they should and biological parents abandon their children or are neglectful. Thats why we have laws that say people are required to protect and raise their biological offspring and we make it a crime for them not to and in extreem cases, despite their right to be raised by their biological parents, children have to be raised by others for their own safety.
    I think it should be a crime to abandon our obligations to raise our offspring to adulthood, whether its skipping out after a child is born or signing a contract promising never to try to take care of the children you reproduced to create as a “donor”. All children deserve to be taken care of by their parents and whatever someone else does for the child is in addition to what the child is already owed by his parents. 18 years later is too late because its after that period of time when the parents actually had a duty to be taking care of their child. I don’t think adoption should fully sever parental obligations either. You should have to stay in contact keep up with medical information make sure that the rest of the family knows about the child and honestly contribute something to the childs care. Part of what is so offensive about these practices is that its so presumptious of someone to sever ties with a child when its not for their own physical protection. If it is not necessary for the safety of the child it should not be done.

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