Biological Bonds and Gay Marriage

First published at 365gay.com on May 6, 2011

I’ve spent the last two weeks helping my sister care for my 5-month-old niece, Tess.

I have two nieces: my sister’s baby, Tess, and my partner’s sister’s baby, Hadley. They were born a few weeks apart, and Mark and I have been reveling in the joys of unclehood.

When my sister and Mark’s sister were pregnant, I told myself that both of these babies would be “our” nieces: not “my niece” and “Mark’s niece,” but “our nieces.”

I still feel that way: we are “Uncle John” and “Uncle Mark” to both of them—or will be, when they’re old enough to talk.

Yet I’d be lying if I denied that the fact that Tess emerged from my sister’s body—a body I remember from when it was the same size as Tess’s—moves me in a special way. Or the fact that she “looks like a Corvino”—that she shares the DNA of my parents and grandparents.

The same holds true for Mark and Hadley. Even though Hadley is most certainly “our niece”—which makes her, by implication and by my own conviction, MY niece—Hadley is “Mark’s niece” in one particular way in which she will never be mine.

I suppose I’d feel similarly even if Mark and his sister (or I and my sister) were not biologically related. We have histories with our respective sisters that we don’t have with each other’s sister; we’ve known them our entire lives. For a baby to emerge from “my little sister” would be awesome and special even if that sister shared no DNA with me.

Still, that this baby is literally the “flesh of her flesh” is part of what inspires awe in me. There’s something special about biological bonds.

Some would dismiss this specialness as “merely sentimental”—as if sentiments were unimportant. We are human, we feel emotions, things matter to us viscerally. Of course it’s sentimental: where else could “special” reside?

Moreover, to claim that biological bonds are special is not to say that they’re the only special bonds, or that they matter to everyone, or that they can’t be overridden or obscured by other factors. I have relatives who—because of distance or disinterest or their general assholishness—matter less to me than the average stranger.

Rather, I’m making a general point: all else being equal, biological bonds tend to matter to people.

I bring up this obvious point because of an occasional troubling pattern in the marriage-equality debate.

Our opponents often argue that same-sex marriage “deprives” children of a mother or a father. Despite its gaping holes, this argument gets rhetorical traction, especially when buttressed by emotional accounts from donor-conceived adults of the loss they felt from never knowing their biological fathers (or mothers).

There are many problems with this argument, and many good ways to respond to it. What we shouldn’t do is to respond by discounting these donor-conceived adults’ stories and denying that such bonds really matter. Clearly, for many people, they do.

If they didn’t matter, it would be difficult to explain fully why so many people (straight and gay) go through the considerable effort and expense of reproductive technology to produce “their own” biological children, rather than adopting.

Yes, there are other explanations, including the fact that children seeking adoption sometimes have challenging medical histories, or the fact that many states place considerable hurdles in front of gays and lesbians seeking to adopt. (The latter fact suggests that those concerned about donor conception should be MORE inclined to support gay-rights measures—especially adoption rights—not less.)

But one big reason that people want “their own” biological children is that they feel that biological bonds are special. And it makes little sense to concede that point while simultaneously claiming that, because “love makes a family,” biological parenthood is therefore irrelevant. It may be outweighed by other factors (especially love), but it still has weight.

As I’ve argued before [https://www.365gay.com/news/corvino-my-daddys-name-is-donor/], the marriage equality debate should not hinge on the donor-conception debate. By substantial margins, most people who use donor conception are heterosexual, most same-sex couples never use donor conception, and most reproductive technology providers don’t require clients to be married. We shouldn’t confuse the issues.

What we should do is to find a way to acknowledge the special bond many people feel toward biological kin without thereby downplaying other kinds of bonds, and in particular, without stigmatizing alternative family forms as somehow less than “real.”

Happy Mother’s Day to my sister, my sister-in-law, my mother, Mark’s mother and all mothers—biological and otherwise—who love their children.