Two parents?

What is a parent? Is it a biological relationship? Or is it someone who raises and nurtures a child? In the UK, we have tended to assume that the two things mean much the same.

  • People with a biological relationship are expected to take responsibility for their children; people whose relationship is social are not.
  • Someone can show they are a parent by a DNA test. They can show they are not a parent by a DNA test.
  • Where a biological father has nothing to do with a child, that parent can be pursued. Recently, this has been extended to cover anonymous sperm donors, who have been arraigned for child support.

There is nothing inevitable about the idea that parenthood is biological. In France, parenthood is understood in social, rather than biological terms. When a child is born, it can have no parents, one parent, or two. If the mother or father do not accept the child, the child will have only one parent. If both of them withdraw, the child is treated as having no parents, and may be adopted.

One of the central assumptions behind the structure of family law in the UK is that children have two parents. The norm is both an expectation, and a rule. Where it does not apply, it is treated as if it ought to apply. So,

  • When a couple separate or divorce, there is a general presumption that both partners will have access to the children. This applies not only for biological parents, but for subsequent partners, who may be able to establish rights of access.
  • Where a child has no parents, people who want to adopt are expected to be young couples – which means that most of the people who hope to adopt are not allowed to do so.

The assumptions behind these policies are increasingly questionable in practice. The first, and most obvious thing, to say about them is that many children do not have two parents. In a society where many children are born to unmarried couples, and many marriages end in divorce, they tend to have a relationship with one carer, rather than two. About 40% of all children do not see the absent partner at all two years after a divorce. The preoccupation with biology, the insistence that children must have two parents, and the under-estimation of social relationships, is at odds with experience. More importantly, they are often at odds with the interests of the children.

There is little prospect of bringing about a fundamental cultural change, and no prospect at all that a law modelled on the French idea could be implemented directly in the UK. But there are several principles we ought to consider. They would include

  • the acceptance that a child can have only one parent.
  • the consequent normalisation of adoption by single parents, or by one person within a couple. The central principle should be the child’s best interest, and it is not in a child’s best interest for there to be a custody battle when couples separate, and
  • the identification of parenthood as a social responsibility.

We need also to balance the position of children who have more than two people in parental roles – mainly through step families. The law has been gradually amended to recognise the importance of these relationships, and partners may have rights of access; but we should not be confusing those rights with the rights of parenthood.

Old people in crisis

The maintenance of old people in their own homes for as long as possible has been an objective of community care policy since at least the 1960s. A Ministry of Health circular stated in 1962 that:

“Services for the elderly should be designed to help them remain in their own homes for as long as possible.” (1)

There is, however, a concealed implication in the policy. The implication is that the time may well come when it is not possible. The idea of care in one’s own home is based in a dichotomous model of care, in which people receive care either in their own homes or in some kind of institution. The effect has been to postpone relocation into residential care or purpose-built accommodation until the old person faces some kind of crisis, when it is difficult to adjust to changes in circumstances. For many old people, the effect is the reverse of promoting independence: they are forced into situations where they have no option but to become dependent. Half the people coming into residential care come from hospital, because they cannot return to their own homes; decisions to enter residential care are largely taken not by the old people themselves, but by professionals or carers.

There is a dilemma in the aim of promoting independence. Independence is generally taken to mean non-intervention and non-dependence; people are independent for as long as they do not depend on others for their care. People preserve independence, consequently, by refusing services until they can refuse them no more. There is something deeply wrong with this concept of independence, and it might be helpful to start using another, slightly less tainted word: the idea of autonomy. People act autonomously when three conditions are satisfied: they are able to make decisions for themselves, they are not constrained, and they have options to choose from.

We should not be looking, then, to keep people in their own homes for as long as possible, because that is the route to crisis. We need to be thinking, instead, about how people’s autonomy can be maintained to the greatest possible extent. One option is not to offer care in someone’s original home, but to think of more flexible and varied residential provision. Core and cluster units, or “very sheltered” housing, bring people close enough to services to make it feasible to deliver long-term continuing care without a further move. If old people are encouraged to relocate, not at the latest possible point, but at the earliest, they can settle, form relationships and communities, and have a reasonable chance of maintaining their situation without having to move on later. Moving as early as possible is the exact opposite of care in one’s own home for as long as possible. It is not right for everyone – no policy ever is – but it has a great deal to commend it. Moving early increases independence, broadens choice and minimises disruption of the most vulnerable. Moving late reduces independence, denies options and puts people at risk. This policy is long overdue for a rethink.

Note 1. 2/62, Development of Local authority health and welfare services.

Genetic arguments and social policy

This is drawn from arguments posted on the Radical Statistics mailing list.

Genes are not a blueprint for the way we live. Biologists distinguish between genotype – the underlying pattern – and phenotype, the observable outcomes stemming from the interaction of genes, environment and the combined process of development. The argument has been made that environmental factors can make genes more important. For example, myopia, a condition rooted in genetic makeup, has been exacerbated by the development of reading. Variation in height, which is clearly governed by genotype, is nevertheless largely produced by environmental factors (which is why height has increased in succeeding modern generations). To illustrate the point, we know that two centuries ago, even if they were drawn from the same genetic pool, people were much smaller and lighter than we are now. One French study records that 79% of male recruits in 1792-9 were below 1.5 metres tall. The difference between that range and the range of heights in contemporary society is large enough to move people with a similar genetic endowment from a relatively low position to a relatively high one, depending on the developmental environment (primarily, in the case of height, on nutrition). A similar comment can be made about obesity. Estimates for the hereditability of obesity vary between 40% and 70%; but anyone who imagines that recent increases in obesity are due to changes in genetics isn’t living in the real world.

Despite nearly 150 years of trying, no-one has produced any good evidence that genes affect developed social behaviour in humans. With about 42,000 genes, it is easy to find statistical associations – at the conventional level where p<.05, there will probably be 2100 genes associated with any given character trait – but that does not demonstrate any causal link. Beyond that, however, most studies making claims about genetic origins of behaviour do not even try to show that there is a general association between the gene and the behaviour. They have simply relied on the occurrence of behaviour in specific families (1), and families have shared environments as well as shared genes. To the best of my knowledge, no study has ever shown that any social competence, personality trait or pattern of behaviour, of any kind, is shared by people with a common genotype or combination of genes while it is not present in others without that genotype. This is the minimum data that would be required to show that genes determine such issues.

Many studies rely, instead, on twin studies, in the belief that the similarity between identical twins must be genetic. This has three obvious problems. Firstly, any similarities within families may well reflect similar environmental factors. Second, identical twins generally have social environments which are very similar, and certainly more similar than fraternal twins. That’s why past studies tried to concentrate on identical twins reared apart – the problem being that (a) not enough twins are reared apart to make for a valid study, and (b) that even when twins are reared apart, social services agencies try to match their environments to the greatest possible extent. Third, identical twins are only relevant if one begins from the proposition that their genetic endowment is crucial. In other words, the studies assume the phenomenon they set out to prove.

The argument is not just bad science, It was used at the end of the 19th Century to justify the isolation of “degenerates” from the rest of the community. It was the basis for eugenics. It was closely associated with fascism, because it is an argument that was made by fascists for political reasons and offered in justification of the extermination of inferior humans. (2) The argument is sinister, and it deserves to be treated with deep scepticism.

Update, 24th November 2012. New Scientist reports this week about Mendelian randomisation, and that serves as a reminder to me that this criticism is beginning to be dated. The genetic linkage studies that were just being developed when I wrote this (e.g. Lancet, 2005 Sep 17-23;366(9490):1036-44) have started to bear fruit. A new epidemiology, described in Palmer et al’s Introduction to genetic epidemiology, has moved away from the old fallacy that behaviour is simply determined by genes; it begins, instead, with the proposition that different environments affect people with different genetic endowments differently. That makes it possible to distinguish the circumstances of people with certain genetic patterns from others – which is just what I was complaining here that studies hadn’t done to date.

Note 1. S Jones, 1993, The language of the genes, London: Flamingo, ch 12.
Note 2. See R Lerner, Final solutions, Pennsylvania State University Press 1992.