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The Parent Hood

How technology and social progress are turning procreation into self-actualization.

11:00 PM, Dec 3, 2006 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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NEWSWEEK some weeks back had an arresting picture on its cover. The famous photographer Annie Leibovitz--tall, blonde, and 57, dressed in black trousers and a black V-neck top--stands with her three young daughters: a radiant, curly haired 5-year-old and adorable blonde toddler twins. Leibovitz is holding one of the chubby twins on her hip. All four are gently smiling.

Inside the magazine, in the middle of the cover story, there appear, without further explanation, these two sentences about Leibovitz's family: "She gave birth as a single mother to her daughter Sarah just after 9/11. Then, a few months after [her friend Susan] Sontag and Leibovitz's father died, her twin girls were born, via a surrogate mother."

The same week that Newsweek ran this subtly edgy photograph, a report was unveiled in New York on "The Revolution in Parenthood," the growing phenomenon of the deliberate creation of children without a mother and a father. The juxtaposition was a nice instance of what film and TV editors call "random sync."

But random sync with a difference. For while Leibovitz is apparently in the vanguard of this revolution, and Newsweek is eagerly mainstreaming it, the report is skeptical. Its subtitle warns of "The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children's Needs" (see the full text at americanvalues.org).

"Around the world, the two-person, mother-father model of parenthood is being fundamentally challenged," begins the report. Produced by the Commission on Parenthood's Future, an independent, nonpartisan group of scholars and leaders, and written by Elizabeth Marquardt, the document is an appeal for "reflection, debate, and research about the policies and practices that will serve the best interests of children" at a time when a redefinition of parenthood is taking place "at breakneck speed around the world."

Certainly, developments in reproductive science and the law have raced ahead, making it possible for adults to choose parenthood apart from nature's one-male-plus-one-female reproductive scheme. Consider:

* In Spain, new legislation eliminates the words "mother" and "father" from birth certificates, replacing them with the terms "Progenitor A" and "Progenitor B."

* Scientists in several countries "are experimenting with the DNA in eggs and sperm in nearly unimaginable ways, raising the specter of children born with one or three genetic parents, or two same-sex parents."

* In Canada, "in an amazingly contradictory pair of moves, in some provinces it is now the right of an adopted child to know the identity of his or her biological parents; whereas in the case of children conceived by sperm or egg donors, revealing to the child the identity of his or her biological parents is a federal crime, punishable by a fine, imprisonment, or both."

* In the United States, where reproductive technology is almost completely unregulated, courts improvise as they are forced to decide who a child's parents are, among all the adults, married and unmarried, involved in its planning, conception, birth, and rearing. Increasingly, we see situations like this: "In Erie County, Pennsylvania, a judge recently had to decide parentage in a case in which a surrogate mother carried triplets for a 62-year-old man and his 60-year-old girlfriend. When the couple failed to pick up the infants, the hospital initiated steps to put them in foster care. In response, and eventually with the judge's approval, the surrogate mother took the children home and began raising them as her own. But the commissioning couple continues to fight for access to the children (and the 62-year-old man has been ordered to pay child support), while the college student who contributed her eggs for their conception is asserting her parental rights as well."

If all this legal and genealogical confusion is not good for the children involved, or ultimately good for society, is there nothing we can do to stop it or slow it down--or must individual adults' freedom to choose always prevail? Both the testimony of the first generation of young adults conceived with the use of donor sperm, and the large accumulation of social-science data showing that children on average do best when reared by their own married father and mother, make the question serious and urgent.