Wednesday, September 06, 2006

From The Files Of The "Biology Is Not Destiny" Department

Harry at Crooked Timber links to a paper by David Velleman arguing against having children via anonymous donors. His basic thesis seems to boil down to the following:
Much as we love disadvantaged children, we rightly believe that people should not deliberately create children who they already know will be disadvantaged. In my view, people who create children by donor conception already know -- or already should know -- that their children will be disadvantaged by the lack of a basic good on which most people rely in their pursuit of self-knowledge and identity formation. In coming to know and define themselves, most people rely on their acquaintance with people who are like them by virtue of being their biological relatives.
Firstly, though this is not the primary source of my objection to the argument, recent debate here has demonstrated that not everyone accepts as self-evident the proposition "that people should not deliberately create children who they already know will be disadvantaged". My concern is with the assertion that children will necessarily be put at a disadvantage by not knowing their biological relatives. David is correct in asserting that most people rely on their biological relatives in forming their self-identity. I maintain, however, that biology has relatively little to do with this process; it is simply the pre-text that brings a group of people together in a permanent community. Once the people are brought together biology doesn't matter all that much. Consider, if you will, the situation of an adopted child. Further assume, as sometimes occurs, that this child is not aware that they are adopted. They have a family unit which helps them construct their personal narrative and identity in the same fashion as a child who is surrounded by their biological family. If the child doesn't know that they are adopted then this process would, in fact, appear to be identical to that of a child who is biologically related to their family. This, in turn, would seem to demonstrate that having a biological relation to the people who make up your family is not a necessary component for normal psychological development. Now consider that same adopted child, all grown up, who suddenly finds out that they are adopted. A natural reaction may be to seek out their biological parents. But why, I ask you, does this reaction occur? The adopted child has already constructed their personal narrative. The biological parents, having had no contact with the child, were not a part of the process of identity formation. The child's personal identity is in no way informed by the their parents. Again I'll ask why is it so important that they get to know their biological parents? From where I'm sitting it looks to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. We live in a society which places inordinate value on biological relations, even when those relations have, at most, a tenuous influence on identity and personal development. It becomes important for the adoptee to find their biological roots not for any rational reason, but because they've been told that its important. The feeling of loss at not knowing your biological parents is socially conditioned rather than the result of some inherent deficit. Consider now the child who knows from their earliest years that they are adopted. Assume also, if you will, that the child has been brought up to believe that personal bonds are far more important that mere biology. How will this child grow up? Will they be at a deficit, as David argues, or will they construct their personal identity based on their adoptive family in much the same way as an ordinary child? Restated briefly, my fundamental objection to David's argument is that biological ties are only important because we deem them so. The thought experiment featuring the adopted child who is unaware of their condition demonstrates as much. What really affects a child's self-image and personal narrative is the family grouping, something which has an existence independent of biological relation.

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