Readings — From the April 2013 issue

Parenthood Revisited

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By Claude Lévi-Strauss, from a 1986 lecture at the Ishizaka Foundation in Tokyo, included in Anthropology Confronts the Problems of the Modern World, published last month by Harvard University Press. Translated from the French by Jane Marie Todd.

The first imperative of a human society is to reproduce itself, to maintain itself over time. Every society therefore possesses a rule of filiation defining how each new member belongs to the group; a kinship system determining the way that relations will be classified, as kin by blood or by marriage; and rules stipulating whom a person can and cannot marry. Every society must also possess mechanisms to handle sterility.

The problem of sterility has become a pressing issue in Western societies, ever since the invention of artificial methods to assist in reproduction. It is now possible — or, for certain procedures, it will be possible in the near future — for a couple, one or both of whose members are infertile, to have children through the use of various methods: artificial insemination, egg donation, the use of surrogate mothers for hire or free of cost, the freezing of embryos, in vitro fertilization with sperm from the husband or from another man and with an egg from the wife or another woman.

The child born of such procedures may have one father and one mother as usual, or one mother and two fathers, two mothers and one father, two mothers and two fathers, three mothers and one father, or even three mothers and two fathers, when the sperm donor is not the father and when three women participate: the one donating an egg, the one providing her uterus, and the one who will be the child’s legal mother. We are also faced with situations where a woman asks to be inseminated with the frozen sperm of her deceased husband, or where two lesbians have a child together by taking the egg of one, artificially fertilized by an anonymous donor, and implanting it in the other woman’s uterus. There is also no reason, it seems, why the frozen sperm of a great-grandfather could not be used a century later to fertilize a great-granddaughter. The child would then be his mother’s granduncle and his own great-grandfather’s half brother.

The problems that have arisen are of two orders, one legal in nature, the other psychological and moral. In terms of the first aspect, what will the respective rights and duties of the social and the biological parents be, now that they are different people? How should a court decide in a case where the surrogate mother delivers a disabled child and the couple that employed her services rejects it? Or if a woman inseminated by another’s husband changes her mind and decides to keep the child as her own? Finally, can any of these practices, once they become possible, be freely employed, or must the law authorize some and prohibit others?

From a psychological and moral point of view, it seems that the essential question is one of transparency. Must sperm donors, egg donors, and surrogates be anonymous, or can the social parents, and possibly the child herself, know the identity of those involved? Even countries that allow transparency seem to agree on the need to separate reproduction from sexuality, and even, as it were, from sensuality. To limit ourselves to the most simple case, public opinion judges sperm donation allowable only if it takes place in a laboratory and through the intervention of a doctor, an artificial method that excludes any personal contact, any sharing of emotions or eroticism between the donor and the receiver. And yet this preoccupation with having things take place anonymously seems to run counter to the universal situation, even in our own societies, in which that type of service is rendered “close to home” — albeit discreetly — more often than one would think. By way of example, let me cite an unfinished novel by Balzac that he began in 1843, a time when social prejudices were much stronger than they are in present-day France. Significantly titled “The Petty Bourgeois,” this very documentary novel recounts how two couples, one fertile, the other infertile, make an agreement: the fertile woman produces a child with the infertile woman’s husband. The daughter resulting from that union is surrounded by equal affection from both couples, who live in the same building, and everyone around them knows the situation.

It is therefore the new reproductive technologies, made possible by the progress of biology, that have caused the recent confusion. In a realm essential to the maintenance of social order, our legal notions and our moral and philosophical beliefs prove to be incapable of finding ways to respond to new situations. How are we to define the relationship between biological kinship and social filiation? What will the moral and social consequences of the dissociation between reproduction and sexuality be? Does a child have the right to gain access to essential information concerning his sperm donor’s ethnic origin and general health? To what extent and within what limits can one violate the biological rules that the followers of most religious faiths continue to consider divinely instituted? On all these questions, anthropologists have a great deal to say, because these problems have arisen in the societies they study, and these societies offer solutions. Of course, they know nothing of the modern techniques for in vitro fertilization or for the removal, implantation, or freezing of eggs or embryos. But they have imagined and put into practice what are equivalent options, at least in legal and psychological terms. Allow me to give a few examples.

Insemination by donor sperm has its equivalent among the Samo of Burkina Faso, who have been studied by Françoise Héritier, my colleague and my successor at the Collège de France. In that society, every girl is married off very early; but before going to live with her husband, she must have a lover of her choice, officially acknowledged as such, for a period of at least three years. She brings her husband the first child produced by her lover’s good offices, and it will be considered the firstborn of the legitimate union. A man, for his part, can have several legitimate wives, but if they leave him, he will remain the legal father of all the children they bring into the world subsequently. In other African populations, the husband also has a right to all the children to come, provided that this right is reinstated after each birth by the first postpartum sexual relations. That act determines who will be the legal father of the next child. A married man whose wife is infertile can therefore, in exchange for payment, reach an understanding with a fertile woman, who will designate him as the father. In that case, the infertile woman’s legal husband is the biological father, and the other woman rents her womb to a man or a childless couple. The burning question in France, as to whether the surrogate mother must provide her services free of cost or whether she may receive remuneration, does not arise.

Among the Tupi-Kawahíb Indians of Brazil, whom I visited in 1938, a man may marry, simultaneously or in succession, several sisters or a mother and her daughter from a previous union. These women raise their children in common, showing little concern, it seemed to me, whether the child for whom a woman is caring is her own or that of another of her husband’s wives. The reverse situation prevails in some parts of Tibet, where several husbands may share a single wife. All the children are attributed to the eldest, whom they call “father”; the other men they call “uncles.” In such cases, individual paternity and maternity are unknown or are not taken into account.

Let us return to Africa, where the Nuer of Sudan make an infertile woman the equivalent of a man. In her capacity as “paternal uncle,” she therefore receives the livestock representing the “bride wealth” paid for the marriage of her nieces, which she uses to purchase a wife, who will provide her with children thanks to the remunerated services of a man, often a stranger. Among the Yoruba of Nigeria as well, rich women can acquire wives, whom they impel to pair off with men. When the children are born, the woman, the legal “husband,” claims them, and the biological parents must pay her handsomely in order to keep them. In all these cases, couples composed of two women practice assisted reproduction in order to have children; one of the women will be the legal father, the other the biological mother.

Societies without writing also have the equivalent of postmortem insemination, which is prohibited by the French courts. The levirate, an institution that has been employed for millennia (having already existed among the ancient Hebrews), allowed and sometimes obliged a brother to father a child in the name of his dead sibling. Among the Nuer, if a man died a bachelor or without descendants, a close male relation could take from the deceased’s livestock the means to purchase a wife. That “ghost marriage,” as the Nuer call it, allowed him to father children in the name of the deceased, who had provided the matrimonial compensation that creates filiation. In all the examples I have given, although the child’s familial and social status is determined as a function of the legal father (even if that father is a woman), the child nonetheless knows the identity of its biological father and is attached to him by bonds of affection. Despite our fears, transparency does not cause the child to feel any conflict about the fact that his or her biological father and social father are different individuals.

These societies also do not experience the sort of anxieties raised in our own by insemination with the frozen sperm of a deceased husband or even, theoretically, of a distant ancestor. For many of these peoples, a child is supposed to be the reincarnation of an ancestor, who chooses to live again in that descendant. And the “ghost marriage” of the Nuer allows for a further refinement in cases where the brother, as a substitute for the deceased, does not father children on his own behalf. The son fathered in the name of the deceased (and whom the biological father considers his nephew) will be able to render the same service to his biological father. Since the biological father is the brother of his legal father, the children the son brings into the world will legally be his own cousins.

All these options provide metaphoric images that anticipate modern technologies. We therefore see that the conflict we find so troubling, between biological reproduction and social paternity, does not exist in the societies anthropologists study. These societies unhesitatingly give primacy to the social, and the two aspects do not clash in the ideology of the group or in the minds of individuals.

I have dwelled at length on these problems only because it seems to me that they show very well the kind of contribution contemporary society can hope for from anthropological research. The anthropologist does not propose that his contemporaries adopt the ideas and customs of one or another exotic population. Our contribution is much more modest. First, anthropology reveals that what we consider “natural,” founded on the order of things, actually amounts to constraints and mental habits specific to our own culture. Second, the facts we gather represent a very vast human experience, since they come from thousands of societies that have succeeded one another over the course of centuries, sometimes millennia, and that are distributed over the entire expanse of the inhabited earth. We therefore contribute toward drawing out what can be considered “universals” of human nature, and we are able to suggest within what frameworks as yet uncertain changes will come about, changes we would be wrong to denounce in advance as deviations or perversions.

The great debate currently unfolding on the subject of assisted reproduction is whether one ought to make laws about these matters, and if so, in what areas and in what direction. In several countries, representatives of public opinion, jurists, doctors, sociologists, and sometimes anthropologists sit on commissions and other organizations established by the government authorities. It is striking that anthropologists everywhere take the same tack: they oppose undue haste in making laws, in authorizing this and prohibiting that. In answer to overly impatient jurists and moralists, anthropologists advise liberality and caution. They point out that even the practices and aspirations that most shock public opinion — assisted reproduction in the service of single women, bachelors, widows, or homosexual couples — have their equivalents in other societies, which are none the worse for it. Anthropologists therefore wish to let things be. They want all individuals to submit to the internal logic of their own societies, in order to create familial and social structures that will prove viable, and to eliminate those that produce contradictions that only custom will prove to be insurmountable.

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