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.

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