Is the Child Wronged by Same-Sex Parenting?

Published at August 15th, 2004

Knowing that you are the product of two people, two families, two lineages which come together in a unique manner to form you gives you a more complete understanding of who you are and where you came from.

The gay community is again calling for the legalization of gay marriage. We should resist any such extension of the term marriage to include gay couples not as a matter of principle but, because it will be inextricably linked to same-sex parenting, in which the child is harmed in a very significant way.

The question of same-sex parenting raises a plethora of ethical issues, from the morality of homosexuality and the reproductive rights of the parents to the welfare of the children involved. It causes us to reassess the very meaning of the terms “family,” “father,” “mother” and “offspring.”1 Changing social mores and advances in assisted reproductive medicine have made the impossible, possible; the unthinkable, available and the unimaginable, viable. It has transferred techniques which were previously the subject of science-fiction very much into the realm of science and commerce.

Of all the perspectives considered when discussing the ethical dilemmas offered by such changes, there is one which is often overlooked -- that of the child. Take the scenario reported in the documentary Two Men and a Baby, which was aired on the Special Broadcasting Service in Australia in September last year. A homosexual male couple wish to have a child. The sperm of one of them is impregnated into a surrogate mother. She conceives and gives birth to the child. The couple then remove the child from his mother and raise the child themselves. It is their intention that, as far as possible, that the child has no mother but two fathers. The question is, is the child morally wronged in this situation?

Here the child is wronged in a very real and significant way. The relationship of a child with his biological mother is unique, and that it is a natural good. The child is being denied the natural good of the aforesaid relationship and is therefore wronged. Furthermore the truth about one’s biological origins is a basic human good and the child is denied this truth and is therefore wronged.

To many people, the thought of a child being reared solely by males is rather repugnant. If we do not find it repugnant we at least pity the child and feel that he is missing out on something very significant. The Declaration of the Rights of the Child issued by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, which draws its principles from a broad spectrum of cultures and beliefs, declares in strikingly decisive terms the central role of the mother. “The child … shall be entitled to grow and develop in health; to this end, special care and protection shall be provided both to him and to his mother. … A child of tender years shall not, save in exceptional circumstances, be separated from his mother.”2

This repugnance is not simply a result of old-fashioned conservative thought. It shows a deep-seated intuitive understanding of what is natural and what is not. We would not wish a person’s mother to be reduced to the status of a mere logical deduction, the product of the syllogism that runs: all humans have mothers, I am a human, therefore I have a mother.3 Leon Kass has put forward a convincing argument that such feelings indicate an innate wisdom of that which is conducive to human flourishing and that such feelings should be respected as meaningful and indicative of human nature, not merely ridiculed as prejudice.4 As Kass admits though, repugnance in itself is not an argument, and so in what follows I will attempt to show why such feelings warrant serious consideration.

Biological uniqueness of blood relationships

It is obvious that an individual’s blood relations are biologically unique. Each individual has exactly one biological mother and one biological father. This will remain the case for the foreseeable future (unless the Raelian vision of a cloned society is realized more quickly than seems feasible at the moment). Although the modern conception of the human being celebrates individuality, our biological makeup reminds us that we are not isolated beings but that each of us springs from two other people: a biological mother and a biological father. Its very universality means that our parents also have parents, as do their parents, and so, whether we like it nor not, each of us is part of a lineage of blood relations whom we did not choose and whom we cannot deny. When we are born we are willy-nilly linked in a very significant way to a long line of blood relations. With respect to an individual, these blood relations are uniquely different from all other people. They are his family.

Not only are these blood relations unique, there is a natural genetic hierarchy among them. With respect to any given individual, some blood relations have a large number of genes in common with them -- others fewer. The largest proportion of genes a blood relation can have in common with an individual is one half, and this is achieved only by the individual’s children (should they have any) and their mother and father. Since the individual in question in this essay is a child we may dismiss the individual’s offspring and concentrate only on his parents. And thus, for the purposes of this essay, for any given child there are two biologically unique people who stand at the top of the hierarchy of blood relations -- the father and mother.

Social uniqueness of blood relationships

Maternal and paternal genes have a standard social meaning.5 The undeniable uniqueness of our biological relations has a profound impact on us as social beings. Such relationships “go beyond the contractual and the voluntary, in them we incur responsibilities not of our own choosing.”6 It is these blood ties which prevent us from descending into a solipsistic isolation and society disintegrating into the “dust and powder of individuality.”7 Blood relationships are not only physically unique but they are also socially unique because they are not subject to personal choice but are given to us by powers beyond our control. They are not matters of opinion but are matters of fact with which we must live -- they cannot be willed out of existence. Of all the people with whom an individual has some sort of relationship, his blood relations are not subject to personal selection. They do not come and go. They do not change with time. In a world where every other relationship may be formed and broken by human will, blood relations are a fixed point. This enlarges the individual’s self concept beyond the immediate confines of the body and its needs for pleasure and gratification and expands his awareness to something larger -- the family. By remembering our ancestors, recognizing our obligations towards them and treating them as part of our living family we acquire a sense of our identity.8

The biological parents also have a unique obligation to rear and nurture their offspring because they, and only they caused the offspring to be born. The fact that one has made something immediately obliges one to care and take responsibility for it. As H. L. Nelson and J. L. Nelson put it:

Those who contribute genetically to a child can be said to cause that particular child to exist, and if the ethics of the family adopts a causal rather than a contractual model of responsibility, then the child’s genetic parents would seem to have a prima facie obligation to remain in the child’s life.9

Uniqueness of relationship with biological mother

Thus far we have discussed the uniqueness -- both biologically and socially -- of an individual’s parents. We now turn to the thorny issue of gender differences to distinguish the mother from the father.

One liberal conception of the sex and gender is that sex is biological but that gender is socially constructed -- that girls only act like girls and that boys only act like boys because they have been taught to do so by the people they grew up with.

On the other hand there is, predating this conception of humanity, and boasting a long and respected tradition in many cultures, the idea that the nature of a man and woman are inherently and fundamentally different and complementary. Such thought is now described as “stereotyping” but it is hard to dismiss the notion, observable in virtually every aspect of nature, that species are naturally divided into male and female and that members of the two sexes have distinct roles.

Are men are men and women really different? Consider the extreme case of a child raised in the company of men only. Can we really suppose that a community of men could raise a child as well as a community comprising both men and women? Could we honestly say that the child would lack nothing so long as he comes into contact with a broad cross-section of men from different backgrounds and of different personality types? Surely we must admit that the absence of women would constitute a serious omission in the child’s upbringing. Does this not indicate that there is a significant difference between men and women?

Not only is the natural division of roles observable in nature, it is also embedded in the mythology and culture of the major civilizations. The primeval division of male and female is one of the fundamental dualities used to symbolize universal forces: Purusha and Prakriti, Father Heaven and Mother Earth, Yang and Yin, Zeus and Demeter.

It may be argued that these representations of the male/female duality is merely mythological or symbolic and tells us nothing about human nature. Joseph Campbell and others have argued extensively that these myths exist in culture precisely because they do reflect human nature and the human experience.10 It is not my intention to undertake a full discussion of the vexatious issue of the differences in the nature of man and woman and into the roles most suitable for them to fulfill, but merely to point out that there is a difference between the sexes -- a real, significant, fundamental, non-arbitrary difference which is recognized by the traditional male/female duality.

One variation on this essentialist view of gender has been proposed by Carol Gilligan who argued that “women are more ‘care orientated’ while men are more ‘justice orientated.’”11 Gilligan’s findings are controversial and she has been attacked by Christina Hoff Sommers and others, not so much for finding a difference between male and female, but for the poor light in which she casts young men and for the changes she believes are necessary to the way in which children are taught.12, 13

It is worth noting that the assertion that men and women have different natures does not imply that one is superior to the other. They may be different, complementary and equally valuable.14

This fact, together with the fact of the uniqueness of the biological parents, indicates the uniqueness of the child’s relationship with his biological mother.

But the uniqueness of one’s relationship with one’s biological mother does not rely on the traditional male/female duality. Even if you reject this understanding of human nature and insist that gender is a social construct, the fact that such social construction has been going on for millennia means that today, men and women are very different, but for a different reason. Socio-biology argues that the “current gender roles are adaptive features resulting from natural selection during hominid evolution.”15 You must then admit that women have been conditioned to be better nurturers (say) than men and that that conditioning cannot be undone overnight. It may be galling to “pander to the stereotypes” and thereby reinforce them, but the question under discussion is not “Are stereotypes being reinforced?” but “Is the child wronged?” Psychological androgyny may be an ideal at which a homosexual couple may aim but it is not the current state of human psychology.

It may be objected that the social role of mother only exists when the biological mother explicitly assumes that role. This view ignores an obvious fact about human nature, which is that the concept of motherhood (and all close familial relations) is deeply implanted into the human psyche and cannot be erased by mere thought or will. Witness the impelling drive for adopted children to discover their birth parents, or the sense of loss experienced by many women who have abortions.

Relationship with one’s biological mother is a natural good

Such a unique relationship is a natural good because women have evolved over millennia to love and protect and nurture their biological offspring more than any other child. Societies throughout history have utilized the “love of one’s own” to ensure that children are nurtured. This strong natural tendency of love from mother to child is so deep-seated that it cannot be categorized as a mere social construct. Since women are the ones whose bodies actually give birth to the child, they are compelled to be present at the birth of the child, whereas the father may or may not be present when the child is born. For the survival of the species women have naturally evolved to care and protect their offspring. Richard Whitfield, former Dean of Social Services and Humanities, Aston University describes a mother caring for her child thus:

Throughout the months of fetal development, and from the moment of birth, the baby’s hope is hugely invested in its mother. Relatively helpless compared with many other new-borns in the animal kingdom, and having a much longer period of dependency, baby relies on mother to be the first mediator of a strange world. If secure and nurtured herself, the mother is able to give early meaning to her child through the first glimmers of physical then verbal language; also a sense of joy in life from providing rewarding body contact, including satisfying feeding. Mother’s capacity to mediate warm, focused and sensitive concern is vital, the child’s hope and potential mirrored in her countenance and demeanor. She is indeed baby’s ‘mother of hope.’ At this stage the main caring role of father, extended family and neighbors is to give practical and emotional support to the mother.16

Having a mother and knowing who she is a natural good because it is central to one’s ontology. To establish one’s place in the world one needs to know one’s kinship, ancestry, and lineage. Having a father is only half the story. Every human is the unique result of a familial nexus. Knowing that you are the product of two people, two families, two lineages which come together in a unique manner to form you gives you a more complete understanding of who you are and where you came from. This cannot compare to the shallow concept that you are the product of your father’s sperm and some other mysterious person who was used only as a tool to produce you. Knowing that you are the product of a financial agreement between your father and an anonymous women whom he did not love, in fact hardly knew, but with whom he had an financial agreement cannot and does not compare to the knowledge that one is the product of the loving union of your father and mother. Leon Kass explains this co-mingling of the mother and father to inform the child’s ontology thus:

Through children, a good common to both husband and wife, male and female achieve some genuine unification (beyond the mere sexual “union” that fails to do so): The two become one through sharing generous (not needy) love for this third being as good. Flesh of their flesh, the child is the parents’ own commingled being externalized, and given a separate and persisting existence; unification is enhanced also by their commingled work of rearing.17

Furthermore, truth is a natural good -- in particular the truth about one’s origins. From adoption we know that many people have a strong urge to know about their biological origins and to discover their genealogy.18 The truth is that the child has a mother. When the child is denied this truth, it is being wronged.

I have argued that a child is wronged by being brought into the world with the explicit intention that he be raised by two men and not by his mother. I will now explore some of the implications of this.

Adoption: It may be claimed that although the child may be wronged by being raised by a same-sex couple, the alternative of living in an institution represents an even greater threat to the child’s welfare. There may be some substance to this argument but in practice it will not often arise because generally speaking the number of children up for adoption is far less than the number of couples who wish to adopt, in which case it is not a choice between a same-sex couple and an institution, but between a same-sex couple and a heterosexual couple. If what I have argued above is true then, in the latter case, generally speaking, the child would be better off going to the heterosexual couple. There would be practical difficulties in legislating for this as it is a clear case of discrimination against homosexuals but, I believe that my argument shows that for the sake of the welfare of child, such discrimination is warranted.

The rights of the same-sex couple. It may be argued that although the child may be wronged in some way by being reared by a same sex couple, the same-sex couple would be wronged if they were denied that chance to have a child and that the rights of the parents to have a child outweighs the right of the child to be reared by both mother and father. By choosing the homosexual lifestyle the men in question choose a relationship which is physically incapable of producing a child and, as I argue above, emotionally inferior when it comes to child rearing. They thereby forfeit the right to reproduce and to nurture children. Bill Muehlenberg argues that “Any couple which seeks to live outside of the means of nature to provide to have children cannot talk about rights being denied, any more than I can talk about the right to be ten feet tall.”19

Furthermore the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that the best interests of the child, as the weaker and more vulnerable party, are to be the paramount consideration in every case.20


Is homosexual parenting conducive to the flourishing of the child or does his welfare come second to the desire of the two homosexuals to ‘have’ a child in some way which their biology will not allow? I have argued that the child’s relationship with his biological mother is a unique natural good which is denied to the child who is raised by two men. The denial of this natural good constitutes a serious wrong to the child. The child is further wronged by being denied the truth of his biological origins.


[i] Muehlenberg, B., ‘Unrestricted IVF: Who Protects the Child?’, News Weekly. 29th July, 2000, p 6.

[ii] ‘Declaration of the Rights of the Child’, Principles 4 and 6, accessed 2 October 2003, .

[iii] Dalrymple, T., “The Starving Criminal”, accessed 2 October 2003,

[iv] Kass, L., 1998, “The Wisdom of Repugnance”, The Ethics of Human Cloning, AEI Press, pp 17 – 24.

[v] Nelson, H. L. and Nelson, J. L., 1995, ‘Family’, Encyclopaedia of Bioethics, MacMilliam, Vol 1, p 805.

[vi] Ibid, p 802.

[vii] Burke, E, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Oxford University Press, 1999 p. 96

[viii] This concept is comes from by an argument developed by Roger Scruton in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, St. Augustine’s Press, 2000, p 8 ff.

[ix] Nelson, H. L. and Nelson, J. L., op. cit., p 806.

[x] Campbell, J., 1972, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton University Press.

[xi] Dodds, S., 1998, ‘Sex Equality’, Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, Vol 4, Academic Press, p. 57.

[xii] Benfer, A., ‘Battle of the Celebrity Gender Theorists’, (accessed 1 November 2003).

[xiii]White, T., ‘Two Ethical Styles: The Debate About Gender’, accessed 1 November 2003,

[xiv] Dodds, S., 1998, ‘Sex Equality’, Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, Vol 4, Academic Press, p. 55-57.

[xv] Howie, G., 1998, ‘Gender Roles’, Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, Vol 2, Academic Press, p. 371.

[xvi] Whitfield, R., ‘Why we all Need Committed Somebodies’, For a Change Magazine, accessed 22 October 2003

[xvii] Kass, L., 1998, ‘The Wisdom of Repugnance’, accessed October 22, 2003, link.

[xviii] Siegel, D., 1998, ‘Adoption’, Encyclopaedia of Applied Ethics, Vol 1, Academic Press, p. 32.

[xix] Muehlenberg, B., ‘Unrestricted IVF, Who Protects the Child?’, News Weekly, 29 July, 2000 p. 6.

[xx] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Part 1, article 3.


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