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Family Law

Parenthood: Meaning And Effects

If it is the case that parenthood is an increasingly important legal status, then what does it mean? It is easy to assume that parenthood is a simple question of biology—that a child's parents are those who have provided the genetic material that created the embryo that grew into the child. Yet there are at least two reasons why this may not be as straightforward as it appears.

The first is that the creation of embryos is increasingly a matter of human intervention and one consequence of this is that a focus on nature or biology may be at odds with the social arrangements one wishes to reproduce. For example, a woman who has had a fertilized egg created from donated genetic material implanted in her womb, which she then carries to term, will usually wish to do so because she (and, often, her partner) wants to be considered the resulting child's parents, legally and otherwise. The legislative regimes governing assisted reproduction in most jurisdictions (where it exists) are happy to assist in maintaining this fictive parenthood, by specifying that the woman carrying the child to term will be deemed the child's mother, whereas her husband—or (male) partner— will be the father. Donors of genetic material will be exonerated from parenthood, and would no doubt be alarmed if it were otherwise.

The second complicating factor stems from the culturally specific nature of biological understandings of parenthood (Dewar 2000). A child has two biological parents, and this mirrors the social expectation that childrearing will be discharged in a nuclear, two-parent household. To that extent, biology underpins notions of kinship, and much of the legal structure of parenthood shares this two-parent premise. Yet this sits uneasily with the childrearing practices of, for example, indigenous or ethnic communities, for whom parenthood may be indistinguishable from subtle and extended notions of kinship, so that a child may be regarded as having many parents, and parenting regarded as a communal rather than individual responsibility. There is a danger that a shift towards parenthood in its crude biological sense will amount to the imposition of one set of cultural values on another.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesFamily Law - The Eras Of Family Law: From Form To Function, The Era Of Complexity, Relationship Definition: Entries And Exits