Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

8 March 2008

New Labour, Brave New World: Equality for all – except children, fathers and conscientious objectors

Are we witnessing the start of ethical mono-culturalism? I had a mini-debate on ‘mono-culturalism’ with Gareth Young on OurKingdom the other day. For me, this term refers to the would-be imposition and engineering of a new secular-liberal Britain and understanding of Britishness, as part of the creation of a unitary British national identity and its supporting value system. This involves potentially riding roughshod over conscientious objections – often but not always based on religious conviction – to things like adoption by gay couples or abortion, both of which are proclaimed as ‘human rights’.

Without wanting to get into the whole argument about whether or not such things are indeed rights or not, another intimation of the rise of mono-culturalism has come in the last couple of days with the news that the parliamentary Labour Party was intent on ‘whipping’ the vote on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill: forcing Labour MPs to vote in favour of the government-sponsored bill, even though it contains measures that many MPs object to on conscientious grounds. These contentious provisions include allowing the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for the purpose of medical research, and removing a legal obligation to respect a child’s ‘need for a father’ so as to allow both partners in a Lesbian relationship to be registered as the parents of children born through assisted conception.

The nature of the conscientious objection to each of these provisions is different. In the former case, it involves reference to concepts of the sanctity and integrity of the human person, which extends even to the embryo. In the latter instance, this involves reference to a child’s ‘right’ to have a father, based on an understanding of human nature and, for religious persons, of humanity’s place within a divine order of creation. It’s this particular topic I’m interested in discussing here because it involves a secular concept of equality and the attempt to impose this concept over and above the moral objections to it.

The heart of the matter, from the ethical and egalitarian perspective, is the bill’s proposal that licensed agencies providing IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) and other fertility treatments to women in same-sex relationships (whether civil partnerships or not) no longer need to take into consideration the ‘need for a father’ on the part of the resulting child. The intention behind this is to enable lesbian couples or individuals to have equal access to this form of fertility treatment to that afforded to straight couples.

You could argue that the removal of the reference to the child’s need for a father is merely a legal technicality clearing the way for Lesbian IVF. But can something so fundamental be literally written out of the legislation simply to facilitate an extension of ‘reproductive equality’? Do children not in fact need a father? And do they not have the right to a father founded on this basic human need? This belief, in essence, is the basis of the conscientious and / or religious objection to the measure.

In addition to the ethical arguments, which are highly complex in themselves, there are at least two problems from the egalitarian perspective with this effacement of the ‘need for a father’:

1) it sets a legal precedent, whereby a piece of legislation explicitly minimises – even discounts altogether – what could be seen as a universal human need. Subsequent legislation or legal cases could draw on this precedent to discredit the notion of a child’s need for a father in other circumstances; for instance, in child custody cases where a bias in favour of the view that children’s need for a mother is naturally greater than their need for a father could be unfairly decisive

2) the proposed legislation actually goes further than merely expunging the reference to the need for a father: it creates a right for the lesbian partner of the woman who gives birth to the child to replace the genetic father on the child’s actual birth certificate. This means, potentially, that two women (and at least one of the women) could be registered as if they were the child’s biological parents, even though it’s possible that neither of them are the genetic parents (in the case of IVF involving donor ova from a third woman, for instance). Indeed, should the donor ova come from the lesbian partner who is not carrying the baby (genetically, the mother), it is not her but the birth mother who will be registered as the real mother. The second parent in both cases – the one who fills the vacated space of the father on the birth certificate – is not registered either as ‘the father’ or as a second ‘mother’ but as a ‘parent’.

While the different possible birth-registration scenarios are mind-boggling with respect to their twisted terminological logic and ontological distortions, the point in relation to the child is not only that it is considered to not have a valid need for a father but, in legal terms, not to have a father at all. This is, contradictorily, despite the fact that the law also continues to recognise that children resulting from lesbian IVF do have biological fathers and, once they reach the age of maturity, they have the right to learn who they are and to try to contact them if they wish. But the difference is that, officially, this donor of the sperm that has created the child is just that: a sperm donor and not a father in either an emotional / social sense (such as with an adoptive father, for instance) or genetic sense: where the lesbian partner is registered as the ‘parent’, the genetic father loses his right in law to be considered even as the genetic father.

This means that the child that is being deprived of its right to have a genetic father that they do not know, even during childhood. This is in contrast to the circumstances of IVF children who have parents of both sexes where the genetic father is not the social father, or adopted children. In these instances, the child is still entitled and able to know that they have a genetic father even if they know next to nothing about that person. The child with two registered female parents, however, does not even have this right and existential possibility. Setting aside the fact that this makes the law not just an ass but a liar (because the child in question does have a genetic parent), this is also an inequality compared to other children who don’t know their biological father. Who knows what psychological harm could be caused by this sort of officially sanctioned deceit? It’s surely far more likely that children in this situation would be damaged by the absence of a father than if the existence of a biological father can at least be acknowledged. So in the name of equality to lesbians a potentially egregious inequality towards IVF children is to be legally sanctioned.

In addition to treating lesbian-IVF children unequally, the proposed bill is also grossly unjust towards the fathers concerned. Admittedly, children resulting from such procedures retain the right to seek out their genetic fathers when they reach adulthood. But even then, the fathers have no legal right to call themselves fathers, even though they are so in biological terms. Their status remains that merely of sperm donors. Of course, these are highly exceptional cases; but they could have huge ramifications for the legal status of fathers in general. I’ve suggested one example above (reference to the rights of fathers in child-custody cases). But how about male gay couples becoming parents through assisted conception? Could it not be argued that, in the name of equality, they should have the same ‘right’ to be considered as the two legal parents and that, accordingly, the law should include no formal recognition of a child’s ‘need for a mother’. Similarly, why should donors of sperm to lesbian couples be treated differently to donors of sperm to straight couples, where the sperm donor retains his legal right to be recognised as the biological father?

But clearly, something such as the removal of legal recognition of children’s ‘need for a mother’ would not, and should not, be accepted: children do need mothers and have a right to know that they have a mother, even if they do not know who she is. But why does the reverse not apply equally? If fathers can be legally relegated to the status of mere sperm donors, why shouldn’t women be legally relegated in analogous circumstances to the status of mere ovum or womb donors? The unequal provisions of the proposed legislation do indeed appear to imply that motherhood is deemed to be somehow more integral to the processes of conception, birth and child rearing, and their associated emotional needs, than fatherhood. In the specific context of the bill, the ‘need’ to be a parent on the part of lesbians is accordingly recognised as being at least equal to that of straight couples also seeking IVF and other fertility treatment. But as a consequence, the ‘right to motherhood’ of lesbians is being prioritised over the child’s ‘right for a father’ or the father’s ‘right to be recognised as the father’. And so, in the name of equality, notions of the sanctity of fatherhood (its sacred character as decreed by God) or simply of father’s human rights are being overridden, as are the sacred / human rights of children who need fathers.

But defenders of the government would point to the fact that Catholic MPs who object to aspects of the Bill have been given a get-out clause that enables them to refuse the whip and vote with their conscience. Well, maybe; but this does in fact apply only to Catholics, not to members of other Christian denominations, of other faiths or of none who have ethical objections to the Bill. So not only are some women’s rights to equality greater than the rights of the children and men affected by those women’s choices to be treated equally to other children and men in similar circumstances not involving lesbian parents; but also, some conscientious objections (those of Catholics) are considered as carrying more weight than others.

Apparently, then, under New Labour, some women are ‘more equal’ than some children and some men. And the secular concept of equality that is behind this unequal egalitarianism proceeds from an assumption that if an individual has a ‘need’ that society recognises (e.g. lesbian women’s ‘need’ to be mothers), this need must accorded equal ‘treatment’ by society and the medical profession. But in the recognition of these needs, the equal needs or conscientious objections of others are overruled. Unless you’re a Catholic, that is: the New Labour secular-liberal orthodoxy has not (yet) decided to tackle the Catholic Church head on. Doubtless, many of the most ardent advocates of New Labour’s British-secular-liberal orthodoxy would like to see it do so.

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