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Further Reading

FEATURE: Society

Family Skewed

When the Needs of Children Are Secondary to the Desires of Adults, Guess Who Keeps Losing?

by Marcia Segelstein

Perhaps the producers of "Sesame Street" were prescient—or, more likely, trying to push things along—with the lyrics of one of the show's songs, "Doing the Family Thing":

Any group of people
Living together
And loving each other
Are doing the family thing . . .
It doesn't really matter
Just who you're living with;
If there's love, you're a family too . . .

Little listeners (among them my own then-preschoolers) were being taught, albeit subtly, a new definition of family. Daddy's not around? No worries; Mommy's live-in boyfriend is family. Never mind that it wasn't actually true. But the message was clear: all it takes to make a family is love.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and kids hearing that song might be reassured that Mommy's live-in girlfriend, or Daddy's live-in boyfriend, is family. Only now, depending on a state's marriage laws, it could be true. In Connecticut, for example, an organization calling itself Love Makes a Family successfully took up the fight to get so-called same-sex marriage legally recognized there.

Same-sex marriage is legally recognized in several other states now, too. And while it may be the most headline-making example of how norms of family structure are changing, it's hardly the only one. Shifting societal attitudes, easy accessibility to artificial reproductive technology, and the success of the gay rights movement have opened a Pandora's box of possibilities for "doing the family thing." The definition of family is changing, and with it, the definition of parent. In today's brave new world, biology—and even love—are being trumped by "intention."

The Rise of "Intentional Parenthood"

Author and family expert Elizabeth Marquardt examined the issue in a report published by the Institute for American Values called One Parent or Five? A Global Look at Today's New Intentional Families.

According to Marquardt, the term "intentional parenthood" originated in the 1990s, when complicated surrogacy cases started coming before the courts. In a 1997 case, for example, Luanne and John Buzzanca had a child conceived for them using donor sperm, a donor egg, and a surrogate. But before the baby was born, they split up, and they then went to court, along with the surrogate mother, to fight over custody.

Diane Ehrensaft, a developmental and clinical psychologist, wrote about the case in her book, Mommies, Daddies, Donors, and Surrogates: Answering Tough Questions and Building Strong Families. "The court decision was made on the basis that these two people [Luanne and John Buzzanca] were the ones who intended to have this child together," she wrote. She cited the case as one that "helped point us all toward a key concept in family building using reproductive technology—the intent to parent. If we want to know who a child belongs to, ask who made plans to have the child." It was on this basis that several cases involving lesbian parenting disputes were settled.

"Intentional" Family Structures

When it comes to "intentional parenthood," single mothers by choice have helped lead the way. Eschewing husbands in favor of artificial insemination to pursue their dreams of motherhood, they have their own acronym, SMBC, and an organization of the same name. Norms change quickly, but it was not all that long ago that choosing to be a single mother was virtually unheard of, much less approved of. Today, SMBCs are downright proud of their "power choice," as one psychologist called it. "Women Opt for Sperm Banks and Autonomy," read an October 13, 2005 headline in the New York Times. Such approval (some might even say cheering) isn't limited to the news media.

Author Rosanna Hertz, in her book Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family, tells the story of "Lily," a single woman who began to contemplate trying to have a baby through artificial insemination. What makes her story unique is that, as a committed Christian, she sought the advice and counsel of her pastor and the church's elders. Much to her surprise, they were supportive, assuring her that she "would be a great mom" and that the church community would stand behind her.

Another kind of intentional family structure emerging on the scene might be called "co-parenting." In this arrangement, two would-be parents decide to have a child together without ever intending to have a permanent relationship. Custody and visitation rights are worked out in advance, almost like a pre-conception divorce minus the marriage. The website www.co-parentmatch.com bills itself as a place where you can "Find Your Co-Parent or Sperm Donor." A similar British website, launched in 2005, is aimed at lesbian or single women who want both parents to be part of their children's lives.

More than Two Legal Parents

But why stop at two? In 2007, a state superior court panel in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, ruled that a child can have three legal parents. The case involved two lesbians, both legal parents of two children who were conceived using a friend's sperm. The panel determined that all three were liable for child support. All three were the child's legal parents. There have been similar rulings in Canada, and this year the California legislature approved a bill allowing judges to declare more than two parents for some children there. While Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the bill, asking for time to consider all of its implications, activists have already promised to try again.

Speaking of more than two, the question of polygamy also looms. As the push for same-sex marriage continues, some legal analysts and other experts see polygamy as the next marriage battlefront. In a 2006 Newsweek article called Polygamists Unite!, one activist called polygamy "the next civil rights battle. . . . If Heather can have two mommies, she should also be able to have two mommies and a daddy."

From a legal point of view, it may be difficult to defend current laws against polygamy, given the success of the gay marriage movement. "Once you redefine marriage and remove the essential component of a man and a woman, it becomes more difficult to defend [against] other deconstructions or deviations from that model," says Jim Campbell, legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom.

And what about the impact of polygamy on children? Dr. Michelle Cretella, vice president of the American College of Pediatricians, said in an interview that children want consistency.

They want to know that the bond of love between them and their mother, them and their father, and their father and mother is solid. It seems to me they're being set up for psychological and emotional confusion. Do they wonder, "Gee, does Dad love my half-brother's mom more than mine?"

Marquardt describes yet another variation in the brave new world of family and parenting: the "bothies" movement. Similar to co-parenting, this configuration specifically involves a lesbian mom and a gay dad having a child together. The case of Bevan Dufty, a well-known gay rights activist, and lesbian Rebecca Goldfader made big news in San Francisco a few years ago when they decided to have a child together and share parental responsibilities. According to a story in the Bay Area Reporter, "both envision[ed] that their long-term partners would have parental roles and rights as well." The piece went on to say that, according to the executive director of Children of Lesbians and Gays Everywhere (COLAGE), the group "has several member kids known as 'bothies,' meaning they have two gay dads and two gay moms. Some of those families began as four-way agreements."

Similarity to Divorce Situations

As the author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Marquardt unsurprisingly sees these arrangements through the prism of divorce. She writes:

After three or four decades of divorce, this is where we have arrived. Our society has so normalized the divorce experience for children that nice people . . . do not bat an eye about setting up a split life for their child before the child is even conceived. And even if they manage to keep their four-parent units together, the children in these scenarios will never actually live with their biological mothers and fathers at the same time.

Dr. Cretella agrees with the comparison Marquardt makes to children of divorce. "We know that children carry the wounds from divorce for 25 years out. These new family structures are similar to and potentially worse than a divorce situation," she explained in an interview. When asked about children living in a stable household with two moms or two dads, she replied,

The objective fact is that two women or two men are depriving that child of either a mother or a father. Mother love and father love are qualitatively different. The way mothers and fathers parent is different and also complementary. Boys who grow up without fathers have higher rates of delinquency, violence, aggression and incarceration. And daughters without fathers have higher rates of dropping out of school and teen pregnancy. The gender of a parent matters. And the marriage status, which typically reflects the commitment between both mother and father, matters.

Government Intrusion

In a recent study published in the journal Social Science Research, University of Texas professor Mark Regnerus compared children raised by homosexual parents with those raised by heterosexuals. He found that children of homosexual parents are at higher risk for a wide range of problems, from suicide to unemployment to sexual abuse.

Cretella finds the proliferation of "intentional families" frustrating, given the evidence that exists about what family structure is best for raising children. "The best environment is a biological mom and dad who are in a loving, committed lifetime marriage. That has been the consistent finding of decades of social science research. It's the gold standard family structure against which all others are measured."

In an interview, Jim Campbell also raised the issue of increased involvement by the state.

From a legal perspective, we have a concern that, as the family breaks down, the state is going to come in and be more involved. Not only in terms of who is and who is not a legal parent, but in making determinations about what's in the best interests of children in terms of raising them. We're concerned that children will be more subject to oversight and regulation by the state in areas in which the state should ideally remain uninvolved.

The Children Who Suffer

Marquardt believes that while the phrase "intentional parenthood" originated in legal cases from the 1990s, its roots go deeper. The pro-abortion slogan, "Every child a wanted child," could just as easily be applied to today's "intentional families." She writes, "Some leaders in the gay and lesbian community like to say proudly: 'None of our children are accidents.' What is there possibly to be concerned about? They're all intended." But Marquardt's research as a co-investigator for the study, My Daddy's Name Is Donor: A New Study of Young Adults Conceived through Sperm Donation, makes it clear that it's not as simple as that.

That study looked at three groups of young adults: 485 who were conceived through sperm donation, 562 who were adopted, and 563 who were raised by their biological parents. As she explains in One Parent or Five?, the children of sperm donors make up "a sample of entirely planned, intended, and presumably fiercely wanted children." She adds that, since about half of the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned, it's reasonable to assume that at least some of the children in the other two groups were not "intended."

But as a group, the children of sperm donors fare the worst. "Compared to those who were adopted, they are hurting more and are more confused," she writes. "They feel more isolated from their families. And compared to those raised by their biological parents, they suffer more often from addiction, delinquency, and depression."

Intentional Deprivation

While the battle over redefining marriage rages, what's really at stake is the redefinition of family and what that means for children. And what's really happening is that adults are putting their wants ahead of children's needs.

It's widely accepted that pregnant mothers should not smoke or drink alcoholic beverages. New parents are advised that babies are safer when they sleep on their backs instead of their stomachs. Campaigns are launched to prevent childhood obesity. Parents are arrested if they don't use car seats for their children or otherwise put their children in harm's way.

Meanwhile, studies on children of divorce, children of sperm donors, and children raised by homosexual parents have all come to the same conclusion: those children are at significantly higher risk for a wide range of emotional and physical problems. Yet few question these modes of parenting, and in some quarters they are positively encouraged.

If intent is what's at issue here, why are children intentionally, knowingly being deprived of the chance to grow up with the best chance to live the healthiest, happiest, and safest lives possible?


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