Invisible Mothers

Elizabeth Marquardt has written an article in The Atlantic entitled: “Do Mothers Matter?”

She writes of the growing phenomenon of children unaware of their biological mothers, with some exceptions, a fairly recent phenomenon in the history of the world.

Do mothers matter? Having no mother was — at least until recently — widely agreed to be a tragedy. Psychiatric case studies, Disney movies, and well-known spirituals such as “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” have testified to the importance of mothers and the pain of mother loss. But such views have not meant that every child has lived in a society that affirms the importance of the child’s bond with his or her mother. Children have been denied their mothers because of class biases (see, poor); racial and ethnic biases (Indian, Aborigine); as part of severe civil conflict (Argentina, Dirty War); amid widespread, institutionalized human rights abuses (slavery); or because their mothers were rightly or wrongly perceived to be unfit (see: history of adoption, good, bad, and ugly).

These children are unaware of what their gene pool is, and they are expected (without having been given a choice in the matter) to form their identity exclusively based on their relationship with their legal and/or psychological mother.

 Yet even as the broad history of helping ourselves to other people’s children continues to be probed and largely condemned (except in the case of adoption, where most reasonable people agree that such an institution must exist in order to find loving homes for children in need of them), a newer and notably deliberate form of mother loss has sprung up, one that receives relatively little debate and is often presented as benign or even good, without question. I am referring, of course, to the practices of surrogacy and egg donation.

Most sperm donor-conceived persons strongly object to anonymous donation of sperm. Nearly half feel troubled by the role of money in their conception.

When surrogacy and egg donation first gained national attention in the 1980s the children in question usually had a social mother, a woman, herself infertile, married to a man and seeking to achieve pregnancy with the use of another woman’s body. Today we are witnessing an equal opportunity run on deliberately conceiving motherless children. Men, alone or in pairs, can buy eggs and rent wombs, too. A child can be denied knowledge of and a relationship with his or her generally fit mother simply because other adults — the child’s prospective legal parents — wish it to be so, and are willing to pay to make it so. These transactions occur with the aid of doctors, lawyers, and clinics licensed by the state, and thus with tacit approval from the state.

Marquadt’s critique of the ever growing phenomenon has to do with the cost to the children of this, a topic which is of course worthy of serious consideration. I would venture to say however, that whatever and despite the cost to the children, other agendas have probably taken over to the point where these are trends that cannot be reversed.

My focus instead is on her (accurate) remark, that all of this is done “with tacit approval from the state.” In Israel, where the state-run health systems actually finance much of the new technology, I would say that it is more than tacit approval, it is overt social and medical policy.

Here’s the problem: even as the state encourages and finances new technologies for reproduction, and we think it’s wonderful that anyone with enough money, flexible workplace and patience for wrangling with bureaucracy can have a child, we patently ignore –as Marquadt and her colleagues have discovered –  that same child’s issues of identity. Yet, at the same time, the Family Court will often force DNA testing against the will of one or other parent based on the premise that it is in the best interests of the child, indeed  a basic right of the child, to know from whence he or she has sprung.

I’ve written about this dissonance here, here and somewhat tangentially, here. Yet, in my readings of many court decisions around DNA testing, I have yet to find a judge, or lawyer who addresses this dissonance.

I don’t think there is one resolution to this issue. However, judges, social workers and others in the Family Court system can’t simply make the child’s right to know the overriding issue while ignoring the fact that in lots of cases the child doesn’t have a right to know – and sometimes maybe not even a way to know – where he or she comes from. It seems to me that in cases in which they want to pull the child’s right to know argument out of their hats, they would do well to balance a wide variety of factors, acknowledge that the child’s right to know is not an absolute rule, and that there may be circumstances in which we don’t insist on the child’s right to know, because after taking all factors into consideration, that is really the best interests of the child. That would also lead to a greater harmony in judicial and social policy.

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