News outlets that picked up on the story hailed it as offering "new hope" to otherwise infertile women. But while the findings would certainly represent a breakthrough in our understanding of how a fetus develops -- and perhaps in the process alter our perception of fertility treatments and surrogacy -- do we risk missing the real point about what family is?
True, the revelation that infertile women can still have biological input into the genetics of their offspring is a positive for fertility clinic clients. In the past, donor eggs have been a notoriously difficult sell to prospective mothers thinking about fertility treatment because they want to have biological offspring. Indeed, fertility clinic websites frequently recognize the "grieving" process that accompanies the realization that a woman's native eggs are no longer viable.
It is therefore easy to understand why the results of this study, which show how so-called MicroRNAs that are secreted in the womb can augment the genetic information of the child, have been presented as "good news" for infertile couples using donor eggs.
So far, there has been little to no discussion of how this new revelation affects the legal rights and biological destiny of surrogates that have been contracted to carry the offspring of other couples. Of course, this study focuses on those using donor eggs, rather than surrogates carrying the biological children of others. Yet the implications for those involved in surrogacy -- both intended parents and gestational carriers -- has been overlooked. (The fertility industry is hardly likely to want to publicize the idea that surrogates contribute to the genetic code -- it doesn't want to displace the idea that surrogates are simply vessels.)
But what is perhaps most interesting about the way the results of the study have been presented is the idea, intrinsic to the fertility industry and prevalent in society at large, that "authentic parenthood" is biological parenthood. Having a genetic stake in an unborn child, even one that is currently gestating in the womb, is seen by many as somehow "better" than not. In the nature-versus-nurture debate, there is no doubt that nature is the winner.
This view should change.
The reality is that family today is not simply about biology. In fact, it rarely ever has been. Among the elite of the Roman world, for example, adoption was often privileged even above biological procreation. And although Julius Caesar had a biological child with Cleopatra, it was his adopted son, Octavian, who was understood to be his legal heir. Issues of inheritance and legal status outweighed genetics. Back in 18th- and 19th-century India, court eunuchs created networks of kinship among themselves and their servants through formal ceremonies and rites of symbolic naming.
The inability to prove paternity was actually a fact of life throughout most of human history. This in part explains the widespread cultural anxieties regarding female virginity and fidelity. But it also means that until the modern era, the very concept of "parenthood" was not, and could not be, exclusively or even primarily biological. Families have always been built on more than genetics. And yet too often today we maintain the illusion that kinship somehow comes down to a biological fact rather than social realities.
There is no better evidence of the power of this illusion than the selective treatment of this latest study -- and how the awkward issue of surrogates having a genetic impact on a fetus is being overlooked in favor of reassuring those who might be seeking fertility treatment. This is despite this new evidence clearly complicating the picture of surrogates as "just" vessels or uterine nannies.
Clearly, surrogates need to be fully informed and counseled about the fact that they are contributing to the genetics of the children they are carrying. But it isn't just surrogates who should be having this conversation -- these findings raise important questions for all of us.
That we are willing to treat this story as relevant only to couples using donor eggs is evidence of the way in which we, as a culture, read the science of family quite selectively.
Kinship is about more than the genetic relationship of parent to child. This latest research is a reminder of what we should really be talking about.