Heather MacDonald’s latest piece at National Review explores some of the questions surrounding gay marriage, and the difficulties that arise when parental status and identity is established solely by intent, rather than by biology–as it is in the case of homosexual marriage.

The question, of course, that MacDonald has to answer is why this separation matters at all.  She answers:

The institutionalized severing of biology from parenthood affirms a growing trend in our society, that of men abandoning their biological children. Too many men now act like sperm donors: they conceive a children then largely disappear, becoming at best intermittent presences in their children’s lives.

If parental status is a matter of intent, however, not of genes, absent fathers can say: “I never intended to take on the role of that child’s parent; therefore I’m not morally bound to act as a parent.”

The separation of biology and parenthood, then, has two problematic effects:  on the one hand, it undercuts the argument that fathers have obligations to any offspring they do not conceive intentionally, further perpetuating the social problems absenteeism has caused.  On the other hand, it undercuts the complementarity that men and women have in raising children, a complementarity that MacDonald thinks can be established even at a biological level.

MacDonald realizes the muted force of her argument, as she hedges her position on the final page. But it is still an interesting line of thought.

And if it’s right, it might have significant repercussions for younger evangelicals who want to claim that they are pro-life while still allowing homosexual marriage.  The force of MacDonald’s piece is that she establishes a link between the technological subordination of procreation (as expressed through making procreation only valid when it is intentional) with marriage practices, arguing that, “The primary challenge to traditional notions of parenthood comes from gay conception, not gay marriage.”

The first line of argument indicates that intention alone is not the sole criterion for parenthood, a position that the pro-life community has vigorously asserted and that homosexual child-rearing has to deny. This, however, might call the coherence of simultaneously being pro-life and pro-gay marriage into question.

I say “might” because McDonald’s line of argument might also cause problems for the adoption movement, which also establishes child-rearing on a non-biological basis.  But even on that front, it’s not clear that encouraging adoption and including adoptive children as regular, normal children on the same level as biological ones makes adoption normative in the way biological children might be.  And it preserves (in most cases) the biological complementarity of a mother and father.

MacDonald’s piece is by no means conclusive, but it does move one up some important lines of inquiry that are worth reflecting on.  At the least, it offers up a few more questions for proponents of gay marriage and explains the cautiousness of social conservatives to give weigh to libertarian ideals.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

0 Comments

  1. I might be missing the thread of your argument, but I noticed some problems that bothered me; first the vague statement “the growing trend in our society” statement that Macdonald makes. I know it is a commonly held assumption, but is it really a growing trend? Men fathering children and then abandoning them is certainly not a new problem, and the growing number of unwed parents does not mean that those fathers have abandoned their children. I think that statements needs a bit more back up; it makes me think of Stephanie Coontz work research that shows our romanticized preconceptions of how families used to be is vastly different then the reality. Also, saying that homosexual child rearing is divorced from biology is just wrong; many, many homosexual couples are raising children from previous heterosexual relationships.

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  2. A Biological Basis for Traditional Marriage? | Mere Orthodoxy: On the other hand, it undercuts the complementarity… http://bit.ly/cXhYP3

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  3. Bigarme,

    For one, yes, it is a growing trend, and in the African American community (which she singles out) it’s almost a crisis.

    I don’t think that MacDonald is adopting any romanticized understanding of the family (see her last page, for instance). And as for empirical data, she’s written a book on this topic: Marriage and Caste in America. So I think she’s okay on that front, too.

    As for Coontz, there’s clearly never been a ‘golden age’to American marriages, when everyone was happy and had perfect marriages. But that doesn’t entail that American marriages (and the institution of marriage) hasn’t undergone a seismic shift, as it most clearly has.

    And your final sentence, I think you misunderstand the point, which is that homosexuals’ status as parents depends entirely upon intent, since they can’t biologically produce the children on their own. Clearly SOMEONE has the kid, but that person is necessarily a third party, not someone in the relationship itself. Hence the divorce between the biology and the intent.

    Best,

    matt

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  4. Interestingly enough, a “Thou shalt perform a marriage ceremony” commandment is not found in scripture (although it is assumed); nor is there a prescription for one. Marriage from a Biblical perspective is, I believe, covenantal within the context of a covenanted people- i.e., Jews (OT) and Christians (NT). Thus, for instance, John the Baptizer was within his covenantal privilege to censure Herod; and Paul was equally exercising his privilege as an Apostle to proscribe marriage practices within the bonds of Christian matrimony.

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  5. Woops! Looks as if my last paragraph was left out. So, her it all is again:

    Interestingly enough, a “Thou shalt perform a marriage ceremony” commandment is not found in scripture (although it is assumed); nor is there a prescription for one. Marriage from a Biblical perspective is, I believe, covenantal within the context of a covenanted people- i.e., Jews (OT) and Christians (NT). Thus, for instance, John the Baptizer was within his covenantal privilege to censure Herod; and Paul was equally exercising his privilege as an Apostle to proscribe marriage practices within the bonds of Christian matrimony.

    Now, from a sociological perspective, the sanctity of marriage along the Biblically proscribed standards for Christian marriage is a wise choice, but hardly a right of ours to proscribe, except for political or sociological concerns or reasons.

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  6. I’m having a hard time understanding the value of MacDonald’s argument at all (never said that before), mostly because I think the adoption problem is a fatal one.

    It seems to me that becoming parents by intent is a mostly positive idea. There are just too many good parents out there parenting kids they didn’t biologically create for one to say that intention isn’t significant. Adoption isn’t normative only in so far as being an orphan or an abandoned child isn’t normative. Once a child needs parents then adopting and parenting such children is the thing to do. Parenting by intent may not be the way most people get children, but it is the way children who need parents get them.

    As far as the benefit of emphasizing paternal responsibility, it seems like one could find a way to argue that biological procreation requires responsibility of some kind without negating the responsibility of parents by intent. I know this leaves her without an argument against gay parenting, but I just don’t see this one holding water with anyone who wasn’t predisposed to like any such argument to begin with. Am I missing something?

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