Skip to content

The Pregnant Man, And Other Conceptual Curiosities

Recent weeks have given us several occasions to reflect on the nature of parenthood. First we had the unavoidably salacious reports about the first pregnant man, Thomas Beatie—who turned out to be a woman who has had a sex change operation (in fact, the operation only involved the removal of breast glands to flatten her/his chest). Thomas Beatie’s wife Nancy apparently inseminated him using sperm from an anonymous donor—after first being refused medical assistance by eight different doctors. In an interview Beatie said, “It’s not a male or female desire to have a child,” he said. “It’s a human desire. I have a very stable male identity.” And Mrs Beatie explained that “He’s going to be the father and I’m going to be the mother,” she said.


Less widely reported is a recent court case in Israel, where a lesbian couple, one member of which donated an egg for insemination while the other carried the child to term, petitioned the Tel Aviv Family Court to receive joint recognition as the child’s biological parents. Both women were married in a Jewish Conservative ceremony and had undergone the joint parenting process with the Health Ministry’s approval. Their son was born 10 months ago, but the Interior Ministry refused to register them both as the child’s biological parents. In their petition, the couple claimed that the biological and legal right to parenthood is a fundamental human right, and that it is in the child’s best interest to be legally recognized as the biological son of both his birth mother and her partner. However, an opinion written by Israel’s Attorney General revealed that he strongly objects to the whole notion of “joint biological parenthood”, denying that there could be more than one biological mother. He recommended that only the birth mother be recognized as the child’s parent, while the egg donor settle for formal adoption.


Meanwhile, in another part of the world, Maria Sampallo Barragan, a thirty year old woman whose parents disappeared during military rule in Argentina wants the couple who raised her to be jailed for kidnap and concealment. She only discovered her true origins in 2001, as a result of DNA tests. In a press conference, she said "These are not my parents… They are my kidnappers . . . there is no emotional bond that binds me to them. These are my parents,” she said, picking up photos of her biological parents. Her lawyers said they would seek the maximum 25-year term for the couple.


These cases raise more questions that I could even begin to address here. I would like instead to make some remarks about our concepts of parenthood. Wittgenstein long ago noted that many of our concepts presuppose certain contingent background conditions. There aren’t many concepts more central to our form of life than the concepts of father and mother. And these concepts really presuppose so much: mundane facts about reproduction and gender and child development and human attachment. But these assumptions can no longer simply be taken for granted. When Thomas Beatie bears a child, will he be the father or the mother? Could a child have two biological mothers? And are Maria Barragan’s adoptive parents really not her parents?


The concepts of father and mother are ‘thick’ concepts both in the way that their use presupposes all of that empirical background, but also in having a rich evaluative dimension. They are more than labels or roles but the locus of a range of distinctive emotions, patterns of behaviour, practices. If you set out to construct some imaginary society, and the ethics that would govern it, you would probably start with far ‘thinner’ concepts, general concepts like well-being, rights, duty, dignity. These are concepts pretty much any ethical system would need to employ. But thick concepts like ‘father’ are not fundamental in that way. Not all conceivable societies need them. Of course, despite some precedents (think of Plato’s Republic) nobody is proposing to drop the concept (let alone the practice) of parenthood. But its ‘thick’ character affects the way many of us think about it. We judge it in light of thinner notions. What does it matter, we think, whether Thomas Beatie is a father or mother, biological or adoptive, so long as the child will have a good life. And so long as no one is harmed, people should have a right to shape their life in whatever way they see fit.


Of course it is not so easy to say how the life of Beatie’s future child would be affected by the distinctive circumstances of its family—the Beaties are engaging in what J. S. Mill called ‘experiments in living’. But there is no special reason to think that this ‘experiment’ would not go well. But as we see more such experiments (some would go better than others), the empirical background which has so far sustained practices like that of parenthood would no longer be obvious, putting pressure on these central concepts.  Of course nothing prevents us from revising and updating our concepts. We can think of parenthood as a legal matter, as a cluster of duties and rights, determined by, say, considerations about the interests of existing and future people. The problem is that as we move from ‘thick’ to ‘thin’, we lose some of the richness that is needed to sustain a meaningful life, leading to tension. Think of the controversy about gay marriage. Many gay couples do not want just the legal status of a civil union. They want the full ‘thick’ thing, with all of its associations and resonance and history. The Beaties and the Israeli lesbian couple do not just want to be parents—they want to be father and mother (or mother and mother). And Maria Barragan does not merely say that her legal parents for nearly thirty years—the two people she called father and mother—have turned out to be complicit in a terrible crime. She denies they were ever really her parents. Barack Obama, who has barely known his biological father, has written a book called Dreams from My Father. Nobody would write a book called Dreams from My Legal Guardian.


So we have on the one hand a move towards legalized, thin conceptions of relations between humans, and, on the other, still powerful desires and needs expressed in terms of the older, thicker notions. The two can probably co-exist, at least for a while. But ultimately, they may not be compatible.

Share on