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.