Conceptions of Parenthood

Update: The author emailed me with a link to a more popular treatment of his ideas due out in September. Looks good!

What does it take to be a parent? What gives one the right to claim parental authority over a child? What kind of things are parents obligated to do for their children? These are some of the questions addressed in Michael W. Austin’s book Conceptions of Parenthood: Ethics and the Family.

What’s a single guy reading a book like this for? I first heard of this book when reading an interview with its author. It was one of those “Whoa” moments that opened my mind to a subject I rarely ever seriously thought about. Everyone knows what a parent is, right? Well, not exactly.

For example, while many people believe biology is the determining factor in establishing parental rights and obligations, it absolutely fails–so says Austin. Why? Well when you start asking what exactly it is in biology that determines parenthood things get murky. Is it carrying a child? If so, then are surrogate mothers parents of the children they give out to adoption? What about the sources of egg and sperm? Do donors have the rights to the children they inevitably produce? Or could it be genetic make up? But then, does a father’s identical twin brother get a say in how to raise the child? Some think the causal sex act ought to be binding to a parental role, yet no one would want a rapist to be a father of their children.

In the book, Austin argues for a pluralistic understanding parenthood organized around the motif of stewardship. Broadly speaking, this means parents, no matter who they are, are specially invested in the care-taking and guidance of a young person into adulthood. Imagining the child as a potential adult, a parent is to be primarily interested in the child’s well-being and is obligated to nurture and raise the child into a responsible adult capable of his or her own independence. Both parental consent and causal factors play a part in determining whether one is a parent or not. If a couple consents to raise a child, they can achieve parental status by way of adoption. Biological parents who forsake their children forfeit their parental rights, though they cannot annul their obligation to see to it that their children are placed in an environment of caring parental stewardship.

A key to understanding Austin’s thought is that children have moral status. This means that reproduced human life has a self-interest, namely an interest to survive and thrive, that is to be honored. This has implications for abortion morality in that those responsible for the existence of a fetus had the knowledge that their sexual behavior could result in a being that has moral status. Though Austin does not weigh in directly on the controversy over when a fetus obtains moral status, he does effectively connect a notion of moral responsibility to protecting the lives of those that have the will to live in and outside the womb.

Austin ably submits many puzzles and paradoxes that function as effective examples and counterexamples of parenthood. The infamous Buzzanca case demonstrated the failure of traditional ideas of parenthood in that an infertile couple contracted with two anonymous sperm and egg donors and a surrogate mother to adopt a child. At least five people had a parental claim of some sort in the case. When John Buzzanca filed for divorce near the end of surrogate Pamela Snell’s pregnancy (saying the child was not his), Snell objected to handing the child Jaycee over to Luanne Buzzanca, because she was promised the child would grow up in a two parent family. At one point the judge in the case ruled that Jaycee was an orphan that could be adopted, but thorny questions remained. Who was she orphaned by? Who could she be adopted from?

Austin uses this case to shatter whatever unifying conceptions of parenthood we might have and advocates a pluralistic understanding between consent and causality organized by the virtue of stewardship. According to Austin, Pamela Snell has a right to be upset with the Buzzanca’s and even had a legitimate claim to Jaycee as her rightful mother due to her gestational role. John Buzzanca, by virtue of his divorce, forfeited his parental rights and lost his claim to Jaycee by nullifying his consent. Nonetheless, John is obligated to support Jaycee (at least financially) in that he was a significant part of the causal process that helped bring her about. Luanne was eventually awarded custody of the child even though she was unable to provide the two parent family she so desired. Her consent to being the primary cause and adoptive parent to Jaycee could not be be overturned.

These and other other amazing cases show that parenthood is something that is a moral rather than biological role. It’s obligations are related to biological causation, but not necessarily in that consent and moral duty are the primary factors in being a good steward of a child’s upbringing. Though this book was a very dense and at times difficult read, it was deeply rewarding… though probably not as difficult and rewarding as actually being a parent!

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