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Does a child need a father?

2008 April 18
by Paul Vallely

Does a child need a father? At present the law requires that fertility clinics take account of the “need for a father” when deciding on whether a woman is suitable for IVF treatment. That is about to change. The draft Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill wants to replace the need for a father with a requirement for “supportive parenting”.

In contemporary culture this is perhaps the least controversial part of the bill. The Christian and political right point to the social indicators which show that children are healthier, happier, and do best when they live in stable families where their mother and father are married. The evidence seems clear on this. But should we make the best the enemy of the good? Experience also shows that there are same-sex couples who make excellent parents.

Sexual politics rears its head here. Some clinics have a blanket ban on same-sex couples. Others routinely accept lesbians but not gay men. But things are changing. In Spain, Canada and the United States a birth certificate no longer says Mother and Father but Parent A and Parent B. The prevailing social norm is that it all really doesn’t matter so long as the child is loved. The question is seen to turn around the equal right of any adult to have a child. But adults’ deep emotional and biological urge to have a child cannot overwhelm the right of a child to have a father.

The IVF debate diverges from the gay adoption debate here. Even some who see heterosexual marriage as the ideal concede that for a child in care living with lesbian parents is infinitely preferable to being in a children’s home. Indeed some children may, early in life, have been so damaged by their experiences with one gender, that they may be better placed with a couple of the opposite gender.

But these arguments do not have the same purchase in the case of IVF where the potential child has a right to the best available, to know both her parents, and to make sense of his identity in the light of both male and female role models. This goes well beyond health arguments, about a child being able to trace their genetic identity in case of inherited illnesses.

It is only now that the first reports are emerging of the coming to adulthood of the first generation of children conceived by married heterosexual couples using sperm donors. They can now be found on the internet, talking about their search for identity, their yen to know their biological fathers or their quest for half-siblings. They have dubbed themselves “lopsided” or “half adopted.” A law passed in Australia in 1984 will this year, for the first time, mean that young adults may receive a letter from their biological father wishing to contact them.

The evidence on all this is far from clear-cut. Paediatric research has shown that children of lesbian or gay parents have similar upbringing experiences to children in heterosexual families. There is no difference in levels of child mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, behavioural problems, ADHD or autism. And common prejudices – that children of gay fathers will become gay themselves, or be molested by their fathers – have been countered by detailed research. Most child sex abusers are heterosexual men.

There are some differences: gay fathers were found to be more consistent about setting and enforcing limits on their children’s behaviour; lesbian mums were found to have more imaginative play than single heterosexual mothers; smacking was less common. On the other hand some children of lesbian couples had lower self-esteem where they perceived stigma attached to the family. And 20 per cent of children of gay men had experienced discrimination.

More long-term studies are clearly required. But a massive social experiment is underway and legislators should proceed with care.

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