Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Died Without Issue

A news story today underlines a problem which sounds like it would come out of some kind of ancient mythology (for instance, when the Egyptian god Osiris was killed and dismembered by his brother Set, Osiris's wife Isis had him put back together and resuscitated so that she could bear him a son to avenge his death someday) but in this case is the result of modern technology:
The Supreme Court ruled Monday that children conceived by in-vitro fertilization after their father's death aren't automatically entitled to Social Security survivors insurance benefits, resolving a question posed by modern fertility methods that has divided lower courts.

Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said Congress intended the benefit not to assist "needy persons" in general, but for the more specific purpose of alleviating a family's hardship upon a breadwinner's death.

To that end, the Social Security Administration was entitled to rely on state inheritance law to determine which survivors are entitled to benefits. And in the case of Robert Nicholas Capato, a Pompano Beach, Fla., resident who died 18 months before the children were born, state law didn't consider them his heirs.
Of course, in this case, these events were the result not of magic or a battle between the gods but of frozen sperm and in vitro fertilization.

The ruling in question is actually very narrow. It doesn't seek to determine whether someone can legally claim someone as a father if one was conceived after his death, it simply holds that social security benefits are determined by state law, which in this case means that the twins conceived nine months after their father died are not considered his legal heirs for purposes of social security.

However, the general topic struck me in relation to a much boarder issue: What exactly does "fatherhood" mean anyway. Given our scientific leanings, there's a strong tendency to define a father as whoever provided the male half of the genetic material for a child. Thus, a little while back there were news stories going around about a prolific sperm donor who had "fathered" dozens of children without ever knowing any of them. I'm inclined to think that, at a minimum, one can't consider someone to have "fathered" a child if he doesn't do so through physical union with the child's mother. Thus, one of the several senses in which conceiving a child with the help of an anonymous sperm donor is wrong is that is deprives the child of having a father.

In a situation like the one related to this legal case, though it appeals to a certain dark romanticism ("Even death could not end their love!") I am actually inclined to think the same. If you were conceived after your father's death, he's not really your father.


Jennifer Fitz said...

It's also an affront to the Social Security system. Which is designed (however poorly) to help widows and orphans. A bit like the proverbial man who murdered both his parents then pleaded for leniency on account of being an orphan.

bearing said...

I strongly disagree with your notion that we shouldn't use the term "father" or "fathered" to refer to those who sold their sperm to fertility clinics or (worse) men who raise children that are biologically theirs and that were conceived via IVF.

If we go with that terminology then it would become literally true that "fathers are not necessary."

I prefer to point out that sperm-sellers are fathers -- "the most absent of all absent fathers." Every child has a father -- it's just that some fathers are AWOL. Mothers who purchase sperm services to conceive children are not depriving their children of having a father -- they are depriving their children of contact with their fathers. Just because they conspired (through intermediaries) with the fathers to deprive the children of that contact does not excuse them of that fact.

Furthermore, to deny that the biological male parent of such a child is the "father" is to deny that the biological male parent has a responsibility toward the child's well-being. Parents normally contract that responsibility, which is a natural responsibility, at the moment of conception. You let these men off the hook too easily, and set a dangerous precedent.

Jenny said...

I have to agree with bearing. If we limit the definition of 'father' to a man with a physical union with the mother, what does it mean for adoptive fathers? Are they not fathers? The term father has a wide variety of applications. These sperm-selling men are indeed fathers, but they are inflicting terrible wrongs on their children.

Also this growing trend of women conceiving children using the sperm of dead mean is so disturbing and grotesque. I think a lot of women have the passing thought wanting to have another baby if her husband has died. One last connection. But to actually follow through?! To deliberately deprive the child of his father with no hope of any relationship and deprive the man the ability to consent is just ghastly. And so I think the judge's decision was correct. Social Security does not exist to financially support inane romantic fantasies.

Darwin said...

Good points.

Obviously, with a concept as important as fatherhood, there are several different meanings out there.

- At a genetic level, fatherhood has a precise meaning, and while I'm not sure how useful it is in describing human ties and relations, I certainly don't dispute it.

- I certainly wouldn't question that an adoptive father is a "real father" to his adopted children. I suppose if one wanted to split rhetorical hairs, one could say that although an adoptive father did not father his children he is a father to them.

What does bother me a lot is the tendency to conflate genetic fatherhood with being a "real father" in some sort of deeper human sense. So, for instance, if a guy found out as an adult that his father (as in, the husband of his mother, the person who had brought him up) was not genetically his father, does that mean his father is not longer "really" his father and that he needs to go establish a relationship with the "real father" that he never knew? My tendency would be to say that the man who brought him up was his "real father" in any human sense.

Similarly, if a single woman decides to get pregnant by using an anonymous sperm donor service, it seems to me that she deprives her child of a father just about as thoroughly (in the human sense) as if she had done so through some even more technologically sophisticated means (say: cloning) such that the child truly did not have a genetic father.

Darwin said...

Also this growing trend of women conceiving children using the sperm of dead mean is so disturbing and grotesque.

I'm unduly reminded of the SF novel Domesday Book in which teenage slang has adopted the word "necrotic" as in, "That's totally necrotic."

Jenny said...

*dead mean* = dead men

I agree that it is likely that a child conceived by a single woman through use of a sperm donor will have no human relationship with his father. However it is not the same as a cloned child that has no father. A single woman cannot get pregnant using a sperm donor without the presumptive consent of the father. Both parents are actively depriving their child of his father's presence. It is not a unilateral decision by the mother.

Foxfier said...

To quote some folks I know and love, biological father ain't "daddy."

You need more than genetics to be a mom or dad. An adoptive parent is that "more."

The lawsuit for survivor benefits for someone who didn't exists until most of a year after their bio was dead is ludicrious on the face of it. They never depended on the person, they just happen to share his genes.

(...I may be a bit angry about this because I count children of rape, kids whose biofather was an abusive SOB who only got the mother pregnant as another form of attack, and folks with bioparents who only care when the kids are useful to them among my friends and family.)