Until recently it all seemed quite simple. A man and woman had sex, a child was conceived and later born. The parents were the biological parents. If they were married to each other or lived in some legal relationship of that kind, they were also one’s social parents.
Now, however, with test tube babies, artificial insemination, surrogate mothers and soon, possibly, cloning, it is getting very complicated. What is my relationship to the stranger who has donated the sperm from which I was conceived, to a woman who nurtured the foetus in her womb for a payment and handed it over to another, to the family which paid for and adopted me?
In this relatively simple case there are just four people involved, each of whom can claim to be a ‘father’ and a ‘mother’ in a certain sense. But the cases can get more complicated and the law is having great difficulty in sorting out all the rights and obligations. Likewise, with little formal guidance, individuals are having to adapt and invent new relationships, categories and terminologies to deal with this.
In facing these apparently new problems we can take some comfort from the fact that even before artificial insemination, humans had developed some ingenious ways of dealing with similar patterns. A classic example was found in North Africa.
Among the Nuer people it is essential to have children. Blood-relatedness flows only through the male line. So what happens if there are no sons in the family? A rich daughter will be provided with the wealth to pay for a ‘marriage’ to another woman. The new ‘bride’ will be impregnated by another man. By paying for the bride, the rich daughter has become a social father to any children that are born. So a child when asked who is his or her ‘father’, may point to a woman. In other words, biological and social fatherhood are split and one can have a ‘female’ father, or a ‘male’ mother.
Another variant is ‘ghost’ marriage, where a dead male’s ghost is married off to a woman after his death. She has children (by another biological partner) to this ‘ghost’, whose family have paid for the bride. So the line is continued even though the father is dead at the time of conception. This gives models for what is now happening with frozen semen.