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The First Harm is the Biggest Harm


A bioethics expert argues that laws ensuring that every child knows its mother and father are unethical.


Britain's first same-sex marriages will take place this coming weekend.  In May Sir Elton John and his partner David Furnish plan to exchange vows, making them spouses as well as parents to their two sons, Zachary and Elijah.  Jubilant campaigners say that fears of an impending social calamity are nonsense.

In The Conversation, a law lecturer at Cardiff University, Leanne Smith, comments: "Ultimately, no institutions, religions, lifestyles or individuals have been harmed The advent of gay marriage changes virtually nothing — but by validating gay relationships, it will transform lives and spread happiness."

But something has changed: Elijah and Zachary do not know which of the two men is their father and they do not know who their mother is.  The California birth certificates list Sir Elton as the legal father and Furnish as the legal mother.  The biological mother and the surrogate mother may or may not be the same person, but they have been excluded from the boys' lives.

The UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child guarantees both that "a child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother" and that "the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration" in all legislation.  Same-sex marriage not only violates these rights, but institutionalises the injustice.  Children living within these partnerships are cut off from their mother or father, or even from both.  Of all the harms flowing from the legalisation of same-sex marriage, this is the first and most inevitable.

There is a movement to give children a legal right to access information about their sperm or egg donor parents.  But this will obviously make same-sex parenting more difficult.  So it is not surprising to find another academic arguing in one of the world's most prestigious bioethics journals that laws banning anonymous sperm and egg donation are misguided, unnecessary, socially harmful and "morally problematic":  in short, unethical.

Writing in The Hastings Center Report, bioethicist Inmaculada De Melo-Martín, of Weill Cornell Medical College, in New York, says that there is no desperate need for children to connect with their genetic parents.  She attacks supporters of a child's right to know the identity of their biological mother and father on three counts.

It is argued that secrecy could harm family relationships.  But, she counters, the empirical evidence is ambiguous.

"It is not clear that secrets are prima facie wrong or even that all secrets are in need of justification.  Secrets can protect important aspects of human life, even when they can also invite abuse.  Indeed, rights proponents are not proposing an end to all family secrets, or even to all secrets that relate to mode of conception."

It is argued that children need to know their genetic origins for the sake of their health.  But says Melo-Martín, this overstates the role of genetics and biology in a person's life.  Clinics screen donors for genetic diseases, so the process should be safe.  In any case,

"Even if people had accurate information about their genetic relatives, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that access to family history improves risk prediction, changes people's risk perceptions, and leads to better health outcomes."
It is argued that we have a natural need to know our genetic forebears and that people who do not know their genetic parents suffer from "genealogical bewilderment."  But, Melo-Martín, argues, there is no robust empirical evidence for this.  In any case,
"People have all kinds of interests that we would be reluctant to say must be satisfied.  Unless one presupposes — problematically — that knowledge about genetic parentage is necessary to develop healthy identities, then it does not seem that the legitimate interest of donor-conceived people in identity formation is thwarted by lacking such knowledge."

The bottom line of her argument is that banning anonymous sperm and egg donation upsets the same-sex parenting applecart.  Ensuring that children know their biological mother and father could be socially harmful, she contends.


Children like Zachary and Elijah who do not know their genetic parents could be stigmatised.  Worst of all, perhaps, says Melo-Martín, "Emphasizing the importance of genetic relationships might also encourage problematic beliefs about the superiority of biological families."  The non-biological families formed by gay and lesbian couples might be treated as "pathological deviations."

Turning children into "genetic orphans" is an integral part of the campaign for same-sex marriage.  Marriage implies the right to have children.  But gay and lesbian couples need someone outside their relationship to provide the eggs and the womb or the sperm.  Often the identity of the donor is kept secret.  Gay couples who hire a surrogate mother in India have no desire whatsoever to involve her in their child's life.  Sperm donors for lesbian couples (or for women in heterosexual relationships) often provide their contribution on the express condition that they will have nothing to do with the child.

Melo-Martín's startling defence of withholding children's genetic history from them — in clear violation of common sense and an international covenant — is further confirmation that same-sex parenting is more about satisfying the emotional needs of the partners than caring for the young lives.  If its supporters are prepared to trample on the fundamental rights of children, what else is in store for supporters of natural marriage?

This is Meaghen Gonzalez, Editor of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

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Michael Cook. "The first harm is the biggest harm." Mercatornet (April 1, 2014).


Reprinted with permission of under a Creative Commons Licence. Find the original article here.

MercatorNet is an innovative internet magazine analysing current affairs and key international news and trends which touch its readers' daily lives. If you enjoyed this article, visit for more.

For regular updates on sperm donation, surrogacy, IVF, euthanasia and other controversial bioethical issues, consider subscribing to BioEdge, a news magazine edited by Michael Cook. 

The Author

cookMichael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He did a BA at Harvard University and a PhD in literature.  He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia. Currently he is the editor of BioEdge. He  writes a bioethics column for Australasian Science and contributes occasional op-ed pieces to newspapers and websites in the US, UK, and Australia. He lives in Melbourne.

Copyright © 2014 Mercatornet

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