The new revolution in parenthood: Does biology matter?

Posted: Sep 26, 2006 10:01 PM

Do mothers and fathers matter to children? When adult rights and desires clash with children's needs, how should the conflict be resolved?

"These are the questions raised by this report," says Elizabeth Marquardt, the principal author of a stunning new essay, "The Revolution in Parenthood" (available at and co-published by the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, where I am president). Hard on the heels of redefining marriage, legal elites are rapidly moving to change the very meaning of the word "parent," and in ways that disconnect parenthood -- not to mention children -- from biology, from the man and woman who together make the child.

Marquardt points to some of the obvious reasons, good and bad, for this new legal development: family fragmentation, child abandonment, the blessings of adoption, new reproductive technologies, cultural movements endorsing adults' rights to form diverse families of choice -- all of which call into question the "old" model connecting sex, love, marriage, babies, and mothers and fathers.

But I think there are subtler reasons for this culture shift as well: We live in an incredibly powerful and productive society that got that way primarily by unleashing the talents of the mind. In science, technology, academia, media, financial markets -- everywhere, it is the immense and amazing productive capacities of symbolic analysts that are recognized and rewarded, with increasingly lavish returns. These are our governing, culture-making elites. In such a society, the power of the body to generate something as magnificent as new life appears a strange anomaly. The parents are the people who play "Baby Mozart" to the child. Does physically making a baby really matter? If no graduate degrees are required, how important can it be?

How important? Let me tell you a story. It's not the single most important story I could tell you, just the one I happened to read in the paper this morning:

In 2000, one of the foremost symbolic analysts in the country, neuroscientist Paul Greengard, won the Nobel Prize. He used the $400,000 award to help establish the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize for outstanding work by a female biomedical researcher.

Why? He wanted "to create something in honor of my mother." Well, don't we all? Except in this case, Dr. Greengard never even knew Pearl Meister existed until he was 20 years old. His mother died giving birth to him, and when he was just 13 months old, his father remarried. "I don't have a single photograph of my mother," Dr. Greengard says. "When I married, my wife, Ursula, put a picture of a woman we thought was Pearl Meister above our mantelpiece. Ten years later," he says, "we discovered this was someone else's mother."

So Dr. Greengard, (a Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist, remember) gave away $400,000 to create a new $50,000 science prize in part to honor a woman he can't remember because "Since there's not a shred of physical evidence that my mother ever existed, I wanted to do something to make her less abstract."

How do we make sense of such powerful, irrational longing?

"Certainly, biology is not everything," states Marquardt. Adoption, for example, is a wonderful form of parenthood that protects children when natural parents fail them. Biology is not everything, but the question we now increasingly face is: Is biology anything at all?

Can we make any room in our highly technocratic, rational celebrations of market values and adult choices for the longing of children to know and be loved by the man and woman whose bodies made them?

Elizabeth Marquardt isn't certain. But she does know one thing. "Our societies," she writes, "will either answer these questions democratically and as a result of intellectually and morally serious reflection and public debate, or we will find, very soon, that these questions have already been answered for us."

(Readers may reach Maggie Gallagher at