Over the weekend there were articles in both the Guardian and Sunday Times about the Court of Appeal case I highlighted last week regarding the lesbian couple who are in dispute with their ‘donor’ over access to a child created between them (No Legislating for Feelings 7th February ). Charlie Condou in the Family section of The Guardian uses his column to pour scorn on the apparent lack of thought that went into the agreement that was made between the women concerned and their donor, who according to the Sunday Times, was the gay ex-husband of one of the women. Condou himself has two children with his gay partner Cameron and Catherine, a single, straight friend whom the men had about two years of discussion with before going ahead with trying to conceive. As Condou says, “The mothers did not choose an anonymous sperm donor – presumably because they wanted their child to know who his father was – they chose a friend. A friend who was present at his son’s birth and who has been active in his life. He is a father, and they, as mothers, don’t have a right to put a limit on how he expresses that, whatever they think they agreed over a bottle of wine. The child has a father who loves him and wants to be in his life, and the child has every right to that relationship.” In fact it’s all to do with relationships and really nothing to do with sexuality.
Giles Hattersley in the Sunday Times talks to Alison Burt a solicitor with a family law firm that is seeing an increasing number of difficult and upsetting situations occurring with complicated and un-thought out parenting arrangements. Sam Dick, head of policy at Stonewall advocates that gay and lesbian parents when seeking someone of the opposite sex to help them have a child, have a long ‘dating’ period where they get to know each other very well before deciding to go ahead. Condou is adamant that everyone must understand to the letter what the term ‘involvement’ means. All interviewees agree that “Until you have a child you have no idea of the intensity of emotions that rise” and that everyone has to be as prepared as they possibly can be to reconsider arrangements and compromise in the interests of the child. This being something the women in the current case seem very reluctant to do.
In the meantime the lovely Elizabeth Marquardt asks Do Mothers Matter? in this weekend’s edition of The Atlantic. I hesitate to mention her as each time I criticise this woman armies of her supporters come out of the woodwork to post their strongly held views about what I have to say. But I can’t let this pass.
In the article Marquardt starts by proposing that not having a mother was, until recently, widely regarded to be a tragedy. She then goes on to list ways in which children have historically been separated from their mother and how painful this is for mother and child. And of course no-one would disagree that any forced separation between parent and child where there has been a bond of love and attachment is something to be avoided at all possible cost. The argument then moves from one where mother and child are separated to that of egg donation and surrogacy where the parents are gay men and two women, neither of them intending to be mothers, helped them to have a child. This is a new form of family not in the conventional heterosexual mould – yet another way in which what we mean by family is evolving in the modern world – but lesbian couples have been having children together for a long time now and research shows that their children do very well. No father present there, unless they have chosen to co-parent.
Is there something special about a woman that makes her more likely to be missed than a man in the family? I don’t think so. Men cannot breast feed but they can be equally nurturing and supportive of their children, providing warmth and comfort as well as boundaries and boisterous play. I’m not dismissing the positive roles that both a father and a mother can play in children’s lives but same sex couples are likely to bring a range of qualities to their parenting that fulfil the needs their children have. Heterosexual parents who are left on their own with children find that they develop the qualities that the other parent used to bring. Not having a man or a woman in the house does not necessarily mean that children are missing anything.
Marquardt’s underlying position is always that anything other than a heterosexual couple family with children conceived with their own gametes, is inevitably damaging for children. Donors are viewed as ‘parents’ who have given up their children to be raised by others and non-genetically connected parents are raising ‘other people’s children’. In her methodologically flawed study My Daddy’s Name is Donor and quoted in the Atlantic article, she shockingly claims that “Compared to their peers raised by biological parents, sperm-donor conceived persons are more likely to struggle with delinquency, addiction and depression.” Whilst she has every right to her views on the way in which families are changing, Marquardt has no right to make such statements about donor conceived people in general.
To return to the questions raised at the beginning of this post, it is vital that men and women, straight and gay, understand what they are doing when they bring children into the world. Adult relationships may be evolving but children’s needs for love, nurture and security do not change. I believe these needs can be met by same sex as well as heterosexual couples, those who are not genetically connected to a child as well as those who are. Mums and dads (in same or different sex couples) are those people who are there for their children day in and day out. Donors are important too but in a different way. They are not parents who have abandoned their children but contributors of a vital ingredient of life. They deserve thanks, recognition for their gift and (hopefully) their willingness to make a connection with a young person who needs to know more about them. Mature responsible parents; mature, responsible donors. Happy children.