Dr. David Coleman: Does it matter to a child who their ‘real’ parents are?
A lot of the debate about the Children and Family Relationships Bill seems to centre on how important we consider a genetic link to be in the relationship that is created between parents and their child.
The debate seems to be a question of who can, or should, be considered a "parent" in cases of surrogacy, egg and sperm donation and other circumstances of assisted human reproduction.
It seems to me that there is no conclusive legal determination about who the 'parent' is in such cases. What interests me, however, is not the legality of who the parent is, but the quality of the relationship that parents and children develop. The question is whether it is critical for parents to share a genetic link to their children in order for those children to grow up to be happy and well-balanced individuals?
We have often heard arguments about whether nature or nurture is more important in the development of things like personality or identity and in adult outcomes like achievement, satisfaction and well-being.
If we accept that our genes shape about half of our development, then the assumption is the other half is shaped by our family upbringing and the quality of our relationships with our parents.
But research shows that, in fact, only a negligible amount of our development is correlated with the way our parents rear us, since, for example, identical twin children in supposedly shared family environments typically grow up to be very different. So children with the same parents, living in the same house, going to the same school still grow up to be different.
So things like birth order, different levels of parental involvement or connectedness, the friends we have, the particular social dynamic of our year-group in school all have a more significant role in the kind of person we grow up to be. Within that, the quality of the parent-child relationship only accounts for a small part.
The research from adoptive families, from single-parent families, step-parenting families and same-sex parent families, all suggest that children coming from non-traditional family structures are no more likely to have problems as a result of a lack of relationship with a genetic parent than children born and raised in traditional two-parent families.
Useful though it may be to look at children growing up in adoptive families, step-families and single-parent families, we have to remember that none of these kinds of situations mirror the exact circumstances of children who are born with the assistance of donor eggs or sperm, or through surrogacy. The potential complexity of such surrogacy arrangements could lead to any, or all, of six people claiming parentage of a child.
Will it matter to the child who its 'real' parents are?
A really interesting piece of research has tracked the relationships of parents and children in donor and surrogacy situations. They gathered data from representative samples of oocyte donation families (where the child lacks a genetic link with the mother but not the father), donor insemination families (where the child lacks a genetic link with the father but not the mother), surrogacy families (where the child lacks a gestational link with the mother, and in some cases lacks a genetic link as well) and a matched comparison group of natural conception families.
It found that there were higher levels of warmth and interaction between mothers and their children in the assisted-reproduction families than in the comparison group of families with a naturally conceived child. It concluded that the absence of a genetic and/or gestational link between parents and their child does not have a negative impact on parent-child relationships, or the psychological well-being of mothers, fathers or children.
In answer to my question, it doesn't seem to be critical for parents to share a genetic link to their children in order for those children to grow up to be happy and well-balanced individuals. The child's own genes and their unique experiences of family, friends and society will be the determining factors.
David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, author and television personality