John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
Many years ago, I attended a lecture to which the late Father Matthew Lamb was the respondent. He began his response by calling the lecturer’s remarks “cryptic,” acknowledging he did not know whether their “cryptic” nature was accidental or intentional. But, plumbing the etymology of “cryptic” and doing his own digging, he pulled out what was down there in “the crypt.”
Like opening a whitewashed sepulcher above a moldering grave, the outside might look pretty but, as Martha politely put it at Lazarus’ tomb, “there will be an odor” (John 11:39).
I was reminded of what happens when you poke around in crypts while reading a recent article by Jennifer Finney (AKA James) Boylan in the New York Times.
“The Surprise in My Dog’s DNA Test” was ostensibly about the author’s dog, Chloe. The author bought a DNA test for the dog (no comment). The DNA test upset the author’s expectations, because it turned out that the hound, presumed to be a Labrador retriever, was – TRIGGER WARNING: please hold on to something solid – a flat-coated retriever.
I can imagine the stunned silence up and down Morningside Heights, where Finney Boylan works at Barnard.
Now some might comment that the New York Times’ taking up op-ed space to write about this subject suggests its editorial policy is going to the dogs. But, like Father Lamb, I find something “cryptic” in that piece. I don’t think the Times gave Finney Boylan valuable column space to lament the hound’s pedigree. Allow me to do some excavating in the crypt.
Could the piece be a backhanded “who cares” to the continuing controversy over Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims of American Indian blood and her October DNA results that were less than fulsome in corroborating those claims? Was this Finney Boylan’s way of saying: “Move on? Who cares?”
Perhaps. But I don’t think that’s really why this column appeared, either.
No, I think the motivation is more invidious, if cryptic.
Finney Boylan also muses about an Irish fourth cousin, wondering if that relationship would be any different if it was discovered they were not blood relatives. “Would it really be so unlike the situation with Chloe, if the person I love turned out to be someone other than I had thought?”
No, opines the author in the end. So why is there this primeval desire to find a blood bond, a genetic link with another? Because “it has something to do with connection, with the wistful hope that learning about where we come from will help us understand who we are.”
Except that modernity says “who we are” is my wish. Not reality. Not biology. Velleity.
Finney Boylan is a “she” because the author says so, because the New York Times publishes “her” so, and because in theory the New York City Commission on Human Rights (AKA the pronoun police) can fine someone for not acceding to one’s personally chosen personal pronouns.
So far, old hat.
But I don’t think that’s where this story ends.
Sure, gender theory wants to subvert biology by insisting that chromosomes and their physiological expression do not the man or woman make. The reaction to the Warren DNA test suggests there is still a reservoir of thinking that says, “Genes don’t lie,” hence, biology matters. And THAT is the problem.
Finney Boylan announces elsewhere in the article that a former student, who was a sperm donor 25 years ago, has now discovered he’s father of 67 “biological” children.
Note the qualifying adjective? It’s not enough to say he fathered 67 sons and daughters, whom he never knew, i.e., abandoned. The qualifier presumably exempts him from the paternal obligations one would normally expect towards one who is one’s “flesh and bone.” (We’re gonna just have to fix this language. I see some verbicide coming on).
Because the fertility industry is largely cloaked in anonymity and outright lies, artificial insemination by donor is not terribly well documented. When this was an outlier method for infertile husbands to feign fatherhood, most states were complicit in the lie by affording a “presumption of paternity” to the husband when birth occurred in marriage, even if everybody knew the husband was not the father. Wink, wink, nod, nod.
That presumption, once enacted out of more benign motives, has come back to bite most states because, in the wake of Obergefell, jurisdictions that refused to apply the same “presumption” to a same-sex spouse who claimed “parenthood” to an artificially inseminated child—notwithstanding the inability of same sex “spouses” to “procreate” —were held to be “discriminating.” See here and here.
The saga of Finney Boylan’s student stud doesn’t end with finding out he has given life to approximately five and half dozen children. It takes a further “wonderful” (Finney Boylan’s word) twist. “[H]e is now dating a woman who gave birth to one of his daughters. Or to put it another way, the mother of his child, after 13 years, now has her daughter’s father as her boyfriend.”
Perhaps, with the denigration of marriage and the rise of cohabitation, we are inured to “her daughter’s father as her boyfriend.” But what if he happened to be dating his daughter?
If genes and biology are irrelevant, if they have nothing decisive to say about “whom we love,” then is incest just another social taboo, awaiting demolition in the name of fighting “discrimination?”
Finney Boylan assures us, “we are so much more than our genes. There is no one who can tell us who we are except ourselves.”
Please reread that last sentence.
Obergefell was decided as it was, in part, because the federal courts rejected that there was any inherent nexus between marriage and procreation. The idea that marriage as an institution existed at least in part to provide stability to women who became mothers and children was riffed by the courts, partly because American culture has been separating marriage and parenthood for decades, through contraception, abortion, surrogacy, concubinage, fornication, etc. If marriage is not inherently connected to procreation, then states had no justification to appeal to sexual differentiation as an essential characteristic of spouses. Marriage and procreation were two different things, and Obergefell presumably dealt only with marriage.
Or did it?
Not everybody who wants to marry wants or can have children. But most people do. It’s not unusual, even today, to hear people say that “I wanted John to be the father of my children” or “I wanted Mary to be my children’s mother.”
So, if this is a normal aspiration of married people, in a post-Obergefell world, is there no obligation to enable same sex “couples” to procreate, the “discriminatory” designs of nature notwithstanding? And if the ability to “have children” is to be the cultural norm, notwithstanding biological impossibility, does not the culture and law need a new paradigm for parenthood?
In other words, is biological relationship out and desire alone in? After all, “we are so much more than our genes.”
Regarding the mutt, Finney Boylan coos: “You really don’t know who you are, or why you’re here? she says to me with her soft brown eyes. We are here to love one another, and to be loved.”
Mutatis mutandis, why doesn’t the same apply to kids? (It least it gives new meaning to Elvis’s observation: “You ain’t nothing but a hound dog”). Please get over the genetic stuff, the biological hang ups about “where we came from.” Even if it’s borderline incestuous (after all, what are “borders” but obstacles to our full “documentation” as humans? And, anyway, it’s all in the family). All that matters is “we are here to love one another.” It even sounds Biblical.
Yes, nice, soothing, and . . . cryptic. Except that it presupposes a fundamental redefinition of what civilization has hitherto understood as the parent-child relationship. Are we returning to pagan Rome and its patria potestas, where every child’s status was determined by the thumbs up or down of his putative father incorporating him into the family?
Our society is, of course, more egalitarian, more “democratic.” Except in cases of abortion, where patria potestas has become matria potestas to the exclusion of a father’s “interest” in his unborn child (see Planned Parenthood v. Danforth), it will be up to two “spouses” to decide about children, biology notwithstanding.
Just as sexual differentiation as an attribute of marriage is now derogated in elite opinion as discriminatory “heteronormativity,” so I predict biological relationship to children will be characterized as unjustified, discriminatory “privileging” of a particular form of relationship. “Unprivileging” biology is, after all, what is necessary to realize the Obergefell’s full “promise” of “marriage” independent of sexual differentiation, with all the rights and privileges hitherto understood as belonging to the “constellation” of marriage. Yes, as Virginia Governor Northam put it (in a frankness that extends far beyond discriminating against the lives of handicapped newborns): it’s all a matter of “discussion.”
So please don’t sweat the small stuff, like genes and biological relationships.
Of course, don’t ask the kids who are the products of artificial insemination, who have found out they are not whom they always thought they are. (Watch this excellent film, “Anonymous Father’s Day”). They still haven’t been enlightened enough to understand it’s not about a child’s wishes for a mother, a father, and the truth, but a parent’s wants, enabled by clinical technology.
After all, “you really don’t know who you are or why you’re here.” And does it matter?
In Scripture and in society, being an orphan was a tragedy because an orphan lacked what a child should have: a mother and a father who beget and raised him. But if we are to shift the burden from “what children are due” to “what parents want” (which disconnecting “parenthood” from biology entails), then we in fact make every child a de facto orphan, because biology alone may prove insufficient to ground a claim of relationship. Relationship depends on choice—adult choice. That is what adoption involves. But when children become what Paris Archbishop AuPetit has called “parental projects,” all children lose their intrinsic dignity and become objects of adult choice. Because “you really don’t know who you are.” And there’s a pretty strong current in modern bioethics that says that, if you are conceived from donor gametes, you have no right to know the truth of your genetic origins.
Yes, like Fr. Lamb, I recommend rustling through the crypt. You might find in it the dystopian “Utopia” of tomorrow’s “Brave New World.”
All views expressed herein are exclusively the author’s.