Do We “Own” Our DNA?

Candice eetimesIn some parts of the world today, such as present day Alabama, a man may rape a woman, then claim parental rights to the resulting fetus and possibly a resulting child.  If the latest attempt at outlawing reproductive choice (outlawing abortion, even in the event of rape), a man could legally rape women to have to as many children as he physically can before he is rightfully incarcerated… and then to every one of those women’s deep horror they would be forced to carry the child to term and watch as their rapist demands and is granted equal parental rights to the child.

Sounds like something out of a bad historical novel or a dystopian made for internet video series.  But, this tableau is real, and historically, has deep connections to a concept that I will argue should be abandoned.

First, the concept actually starts with a seemingly valid moral position from our prescientific and pre-modern-medical reality.  Once upon a time, most pregnancies could not be reliably prevented nor safely aborted.  If a couple had sex, it could and often did result in pregnancy.  So, given that it took the two of them to create the pregnancy, they both could and “should” be held responsible for the upbringing of the child, at least in decent societies.  This lead to the notion that with responsibilities also came privileges, on both sides, the parents and the child.  Such notions included parental authority and rights of inheritance.  All well and good for a pre-industrial society.

But there were ugly downsides as well.  When men had power and privilege not shared with women, men could deny paternity, either through lies, or through law.  Then… ah… then came paternity suits.

Another problem occured with adoption.  This one hit me personally, as I adopted a child.  But my family failed to acknowledge her.  They all coo, dote on, and brag about their other grandchildren, but my daughter doesn’t count, ’cause she’s not their “blood”.  And how many times do adopted mothers get asked about the child’s “real” mother?

These old social rules are based on a mystical concept called “blood” relation.  In modern times, we might call this “genetic” relatedness.  However, with our modern understanding of genetics this may not make scientific sense as a moral or legal guide.

How related are you to any other human?  If we look at the full genetic code… all humans are related to any other random human by 99.9%.  Yes, that’s right, we share 99.9% of our genome with the rest of humanity.  Further, almost every single gene you have in your body is found in thousands to millions, even billions, of other people unless you have a brand new, never before seen mutation, in which case that single mutation isn’t shared.  Lucky you, big deal.  So, do you “own” your DNA?  Or is it a shared resource with all of humanity?

How can it be said that we “own” our DNA if we share it with all of humanity.  How can it be said that we “own” a child just because some of that shared human inheritance came through us?  What does it matter that there may be an infinitely small percentage of the total that is more similar between two people than with the rest of humanity?  Not much.  Seen in this light the concept of “blood” relation is nearly meaningless.

There has been some concern that our present laws have not treated men fairly given the changes in custom and medical technology.  After all, if a woman has the full right to choose not to carry a child to term or not while a man has no right to demand termination, why should he be responsible if she chooses to carry the child.  Indeed, justice would be on their side, as this asymmetrical power of choice and responsibility is inequitable.  However, that does NOT warrant giving men equal say over a woman’s body, to deny her the right to choose, nor the right to her child, as some patriarchal men’s rights activists demand.  It says that we need a new form of measurement of parental rights and responsibility, one that is not dependent upon genetic relatedness or “blood”.

Parental Equity

Rather than using genetic relatedness as a measurement of parental rights and responsibility, we can and should use a measure of how much responsibility a given individual, whether genetically related or not, has provided in the past.

Consider that having chosen to carry a child to term using her own financial and social capital, a woman giving birth has risked her health and put in nine months of “sweat equity” into providing for the life of a newborn infant.  She has a great deal of parental equity.  Now compare that to the few minutes of sexual intercourse and the pleasure of orgasm that the man who impregnated her provided before disappearing from her and the child’s life.  Should these two people have the same parental rights?  Under the old “blood” view, yes.  With our new understanding, absolutely not.  Nor does he shoulder any responsibility.  After all, she chose to carry the child to term where she could have chosen not to.  Modern access to multiple methods of birth control, up to and including abortion, give a woman nearly full control of her body independent of a man’s choice.  Men also have a choice.  They may choose voluntary sterilization or use condoms.  Under the old rules, if a condom failed, he was on the hook so to speak.  But not under the new rules as she had equal responsibility for choosing to use effective birth control.

Let’s add a twist to the above situation.  The man wants nothing to do with the child, not having chosen to be a parent and she agrees.  But years later his parents find out about the child and want to be grandparents, demanding parental rights as such.  The mother, having no social or emotional ties to these older strangers, no desire to know or acknowledge these grandparents, contests.  She loses in court, because “blood”.  This situation has actually happened.  Under this new concept of parental equity, there are no rights granted by “blood”.  These grandparents have no parental equity and thus no rights to establish a relationship with the child against the mother’s wishes.

Now consider a married heterosexual couple who have both dreamed of being parents, they have children.  Both have provided financial and social capital during the woman’s pregnancy and subsequently.  Clearly she has earned parental equity.  But so has he.  Further, the children have rights of access to the parents, both emotionally and financially.

Consider yet another real world situation created with modern reproductive medical technology.  A married gay male couple decide to have a child together using surrogacy.  They don’t want to have any arguments about whose sperm to use so they direct the clinic to use, mix, both men’s sperm so that random chance decides.  They two contract with an an anonymous egg donor.  The gestational surrogate is paid a handsome sum and all of her medical and living expenses are paid during the pregnancy.  Under the old rule, she has no genetic (“blood”) connection with the resulting child.  The child is delivered into the arms of the waiting men.  They raise the child as their own… until disaster strikes and one is killed in an accident.  The homophobic parents of the dead man demand a paternity test to prove that they have genetic “blood” rights to the child and the other dad does not.  Who wins?  Under the old patriarchy, it all comes down to the result of the paternity (grandpaternity?) test.  Under the new rule, no test is undertaken, as it would be meaningless.  Both dads are equally their child’s parents and the grandparents, having contributed NOTHING to the wellbeing of the child in the past have no hold on that child.  The surviving man has full parental rights with none shared with the grandparents.

Now let’s look a VERY real world situation created with modern reproductive medical technology.  A married gay male couple, one a native born US citizen, the other a new green card holder, decide to have a child together using surrogacy.  They don’t want to have any arguments about whose sperm to use so they direct the clinic to use, mix, both men’s sperm so that random chance decides.  They two contract with an an anonymous egg donor.  The gestational surrogate in Canada is paid a handsome sum and all of her medical and living expenses are paid during the pregnancy.  Under the old rule, she has no genetic (“blood”) connection with the resulting child.  The child is delivered into the arms of the waiting men.  The couple takes the child to the US embassy which then demands a paternity test, because the child was “born out of wedlock” and only if the child is the “blood” relation of the US citizen will they grant the child US citizenship and a passport.  The law is both homophobically discriminating against a gay couple but also using the old “blood” superstition as a marker of parental connection.

Now let’s consider the case of a lesbian couple who meet and marry.  One of the partners has an infant when they meet.  Together, they raise the child for several years until disaster strikes with the birth mother killed.  The birth mother’s parents, the child’s grandparents, who have been close and have provided both financial and emotional support to the family, including childcare on numerous occasions, now want full custody and claim “blood” parental rights.  Who wins?  In the old days, these women’s relationship would have been ignored and the grandparents given full and sole custody.  In this case, everyone has some parental equity.  But the married partner has more, having been the day to day co-mom, genetic relations or no.  Everyone has a right to continued connections with the child and the child has rights to them.

We do not “own” our DNA.  We jointly share temporary custody of it with all of humanity.  We do not “own” our children and grandchildren, we earn our rights to be caring parents and grandparents.  And that goes double for those that we adopt !

And finally, NO, men do NOT get to force women to carry a rapists child, or any child for that matter.  NO, a rapist does NOT have parental rights under any circumstances!

Further External Reading:

When Your Rapist Demands Custody