The frail cord that binds

November 2, 2006

Marriage break-ups, scientific advancements and equality legislation threaten the traditional family. Karen Gold meets a philosopher who fears for the children

Can a man be a mother? In an era of civil partnerships and human egg donation, this is not an entirely philosophical question. No wonder a philosopher thought she might be the person to answer it.

A whiff of conservative nostalgia lingers around Brenda Almond, emeritus professor of moral and social philosophy at Hull University.

She is co-founder of the journal Applied Philosophy with the libertarian Anthony O'Hear, and is about to become the darling of right-wing columnists with her latest book, The Fragmenting Family . It offers headline denunciations of selfish parents, thoughtless governments and scary science, plus an underlying message that the family is not what it used to be.

And yet what started out, she says, as "a rather simple message about children, parents and partners" during writing became a more complex and generous book, wrestling not only with accelerating scientific, social and legal change, but also with the painful territory that lies between human hopes, ideals and longings and their inevitable mishaps and failures.

Natural territory, in fact, for philosophers, she points out. In one of her enlightening yo-yos between two millennia's worth of philosophy and tomorrow's society, Almond highlights Kant's argument that a promise undertaken in the knowledge that it may be broken does not exist as a promise at all. So, she says, with modern marriage and prenups: "It's not even legally possible now to say I will stay married for ever, because either partner can go. We have the shell of marriage, but the institution no longer exists." For consenting, unencumbered adults, she argues, that may be nonsensical but fair enough. But once children are involved, the issues change. "What children want is for their parents to stay together.

People should at least not delude themselves about that. Adults haven't got the right to break up children's lives for their own satisfaction."

Robustly throwing in plenty of statistics - unmarried couples will outnumber married ones in the UK by 2011; unmarried partnerships, with or without children, are four times more likely to collapse - she insists that children are damaged by divorce, their lives disrupted in a way no adult would tolerate. Their plight is worsened by a state that claims to be humanising and equalising - offering easier divorce, removing marital tax privileges, paying single parents extra benefits - but that, by those very decisions, undermines children's right to stay in an undivided family.

"Freedom for the pike means death to the minnow," she states.

So far, so relatively predictable. But in a deeper vein, she argues that the family is about more than stability in the present: it is about the past and the future. Her preferred choice for the book cover, rather than the publisher's silhouette of single parent and disillusioned child, would have been a photo of the annual visit by the population of Shanghai to the graveyard where their ancestors lie. She quotes G. K. Chesterton's description of the family as "this frail cord, flung from the forgotten hills of yesterday to the invisible mountains of tomorrow".

Family break-ups shatter generational ties wider and deeper than just those between parents and children, she says: grandparents, aunts, cousins, all socially stabilising forces, are flung apart. This is about blood, not social or legal constructs; yet proposed or actual changes in family law increasingly assert the opposite. Holland, France and Germany are all under pressure to replace birth certificates with documents naming multiple parents, all or none of whom may be biologically related to the child; birth certificates in Massachusetts and Spain now, instead of mother and father, name Parent/Progenitor A and Parent/Progenitor B.

From here, it is a small step to a bigger controversy. Apparently insignificant, tolerance-driven legal changes to combat discrimination against gay and lesbian couples strike at the root of the family's existence, she says. As a member of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority from 1998 to 2001 she could see it coming: along the kindly continuum that permits IVF, disease reduction, saviour siblings, civil partnerships and equal access to reproductive medicine for same-sex couples also travels the undermining of the biological family.

And the biological family, she insists, is better. Statistically, the most murderous place for a child to grow up, she points out, is in a house with a stepfather who is not a blood relative. Adoptive parents who discover their new child is physically, mentally or emotionally damaged are unlikely to feel the same commitment to them as a biological parent: "I'm not saying gay couples shouldn't be able to look after their own children or look after children who have no one to look after them. But I'm not convinced that in this alternative family the bond between parent and child will be so strong." In any case, she continues, "I have a very strong conviction that there are rights involved here. It's a novel form of right, because you can't claim it at the embryonic stage of life. But when children get older they can find that there is a whole slice of their personal heritage everybody else takes for granted that they were not allowed to have. If you use donated sperm or egg, then you have to realise you are depriving a child of its heritage."

A plethora of new arguments follow this one, and she takes a stab at lots of them. What does the biological bond tell us about social forces, for example? It might mean a third way - between the libertarians' everyone for themselves, and the socialists' common interest - or what she calls partiality: the ability of adults to be unselfish in the interests of their blood relatives. (The shadows of Darwin and Dawkins fall here.) Where is the intersection with feminism? Almond is wry about sisterhood - "Would they want me, I wonder?" - but her career has spanned permanent and visiting posts in African universities and a commitment to women's education and emancipation there. Men cannot be mothers because motherhood is an unshiftable biological truth, she argues. Western women are torn between their public and economic role and the biological lure of intimacy: the impact of feminism has made that harder, for mothers and for children.

In fact, children are the lodestone of the book (it is dedicated to her four grandchildren) to whom she continually returns. What would it be like to discover you were the child of the commercial sperm donor in Denmark who was found to have fathered more than 100 children, she asks? To encounter more than 100 half-brothers and sisters? How would you feel to learn that your existence was a result of a decision - in times of donor shortages regularly debated - to allow the removal and fertilisation of cadaver eggs?

I ask her how her book sits on the shelf between Frank McCourt and Dave Pelzer, writers known for their less than rosy take on the family? Blood families are frequently appalling environments for children, as we in this Oprah-disseminated age know only too well. But she does not idealise the family, she insists. The book includes a diversionary chapter on philosophers' marriages - the heartless adultery between Harriet Taylor and John Stuart Mill; the trail of emotional and sexual destruction left by Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. And her childhood was difficult: her mother died when she was two, her father was away in the Army; she was looked after by aunts and was a Liverpool latchkey child before bootstrapping herself up through school and university scholarships. When her own four children were grown up, she and her husband divorced.

Passions in this area may be so strong they leave philosophy behind, she admits. But she wants to try: "I hope some people will read the book and think about their lives; not just in the moment, but where they want their whole lives to go. But if I'm talking to someone who really thinks there's nothing special about the bond between mother and child, then I wouldn't know what to argue. Do mothers matter? Do fathers matter? In the end, if some of us are determined to say that they don't, then maybe you just have to shrug and walk away."

The Fragmenting Family , by Brenda Almond, is published by Oxford University Press on November 23, £11.99.

ALMOND ON THE FAMILY

'We have the shell of marriage, but the institution no longer exists'

'What children want is for their parents to stay together. People should at least not delude themselves about that'

'If you use donated sperm or egg, then you have to realise you are depriving a child of its heritage'

'What would it be like to discover you were the child of the commercial sperm donor in Denmark who was found to have fathered more than 100 children?'

'I'm not saying gay couples shouldn't be able to look after their own children or children who have no one to look after them. But I'm not convinced that in this alternative family the bond between parent and child will be so strong'

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