Modern families are taking a page from Plato's "Republic" - and that is not good news.
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“Who’s your daddy?” The answer is already difficult for an increasing number of American children to answer in the last several decades. If asked literally, this otherwise simple question is currently facing new dimensions of complexity and confusion. Beyond the established epidemic of fatherless households with children by multiple fathers, today a child’s birth mother, genetic mother, and first socio-relational mother may all be different people – and two of those categories (birth being excluded) may be filled by multiple women at the same time. The same complexity attends to fathers as well; and, of course, any socio-relational parent can be replaced by a succession of de facto or step-parent figures. This all fosters a perilous societal situation; but the most recent aspects, including the popularization of surrogate pregnancy (consider the 2008 film, “Baby Mama,”) and the impending normalization of polyamorous families and human embryos with three genetic parents, mark a distinct new phase in the progression of policies that dilute the bonds of family. This may ultimately diminish the intra-familial dynamics that stand against the State’s inclination to seek dependence from its citizens.
The notion that a government or society would erode family in order to make citizens more beholden to the state is neither science fiction nor a conspiracy theory. It is plainly advocated in the fifth book of Plato’s "The Republic," wherein the leading classes of the hypothetical state briefly have multiple spouses, and children are raised in a collective, with no knowledge of whom their parents are (and vice versa). Though we are far from Platonic circumstances, Western society has inched in that direction with regard to parentage (particularly on the paternal side) for decades. More recently, it has been voyaging on a similar trajectory with regard to even the biological aspect of parentage.
Though there is nothing novel in some children being raised by people other than their natural parents, the socio-relational link between children and biological parents, especially fathers, has been greatly challenged in the last half-century. The no-fault legal regime for divorce, the boom and ensuing ubiquity of contraception, and the welfare state have de-sensitized men to the gravity of marriage, the consequence of sex and child-bearing, and the survival needs of offspring. This is a recipe for pandemics of both out-of-wedlock births and fatherlessness, which create a spiral of socio-economic problems. The resulting families often include a working single mother with children who have different fathers, a succession of father-like figures, either unattended or in after-school care. Paternal bonds are formed weakly, if at all, and Uncle Sam (or Big Brother) fills in the gaps.
It is not only policies of the political Left that weaken families and strengthen the collective. Capitalism and consumerism, aligned with the Right, have risen so that increasingly, households require two parents to be in the workforce in order to provide for the comforts that their families “need.” This leads to children spending less time with parents and more time unattended or in the care of others. Where a second parent is not available or means are otherwise lacking, the State must step in. The modern capitalist economy is mobile–one in which people pursue jobs across the country. This makes the close-knit extended family, in which a broad range of relatives all live in the same community and offer one another emotional and material support, a thing of the past for most. The extended-family system is also affected by programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, which can incentivize middle-aged Americans to put their aging parents “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” in various levels of care facilities.
All of these trends – serial monogamy, diffused child-rearing responsibility, dependence on the State, and diminished bonding between children and two parents – bear echoes of Plato’s "The Republic". Yet, they never dented the long-standing truism that a human child must have exactly one biological mother and one biological father, even if either is absent and unidentified. Today, even this foundational reality is coming undone. And that represents the next stride toward a Platonic family system in a way that Plato himself could not even foresee.
In the modern age, a child can have up to four biological parents – one surrogate birth mother and three genetic parents – and, as science advances, that number will rise. This is a massive shift in the fabric of humanity and it warrants a serious look at what effects this will have on child-parent identities and relationships. (Not to mention individual and collective relationships.)
For the most part, this shift is downplayed and cheered on in the name of social inclusion and scientific advancement. State laws are struggling to keep up with new complexities, sometimes with tragic circumstances. In a case that once would be thought impossible, the case of Crystal Kelley, a non-genetic surrogate mother fled to retain rights over her baby that the genetic father and socio-relational mother had offered her 10,000 dollars to abort.
Yet, courts and legislatures seem constrained in trying to make sense of new familial situations that defy a sense of order. Few in the policy world or the media are actually asking what the broader consequences are for human governance. The questions “Who’s your daddy?” or “Who’s your mommy?” are now difficult because not only is a biological parent often absent, but because a child now has more than two biological parents. Those who do dare ask these tough questions, such as The Center for Bioethics and Culture in the film, “Breeders: A Subclass of Women?,” do not generally generate a mainstream spotlight.
To be sure, fully gestational surrogate pregnancy (in which both gametes are not of the birth mother) has existed for nearly thirty years. But the procedure has a growing social acceptance that is (not co-incidentally) paired with that of same-sex unions and polyamorous unions. Together with human embryos with (at least) three genetic parents, these new forms of unions and reproduction unbind the exclusivity of the biological child-parent bond and bring us closer to the collective family of "The Republic."
One can only wonder whom the child will identify as a parent, and in what ways, if born into a union like that of the lesbian “throuple” in Massachusetts. In their throusehold, three women claim to be “married” and each intends to have one genetic child conceived by in virtro fertilization (IVF), but born of Kitten, the youngest in their trio. No matter how well-adjusted the children are reared to be, their answer to “Who is your mommy?” or “Who is your daddy?” will necessarily be filled with an understanding that is more Platonic (that children are held in common) than natural. That, in turn, may affect their understanding of the place of individuals, families, communities, and the State in society. As more such households emerge (and they will as people like Mark Goldfeder and Emanuella Grinberg push polyamory in the mainstream media with the same arguments that were used for homosexual marriage), their understandings will become more normalized and relationships between parents and children will thin while those between individuals and the collective will thicken.
There is an ancillary but major concern that must be noted. The Massachusetts throuple’s aspiration to have one child for each, though oddly dissimilar to how couples of any orientation generally think, and Crystal Kelley’s saga, are both telling from the reproductive practices in question – the commodification of children and women’s wombs. Rather than being the result of the natural function of human bodies, children in a world of IVF, surrogacy, and same-sex unions are treated as high luxury goods that can be bought for the price of renting a woman’s body when an adult feels “ready.” This reality should not be overlooked.
Our arrival into Plato’s republic is not imminent within the next generation or two. What is imminent, however, has begun. Governments in the West have strengthened their hand over their citizenry while bonds that hold together members of families (as well as religious organizations, local communities, and labor unions, to name a few) have all frayed. To believe this not to be an accident is not a fringe opinion but, rather, grounded in the writings of one of our civilization’s foundational thinkers. The trend itself will continue, but has now changed from a vehicle of the welfare state to sexualized social causes, equipped with scientific procedures, that seek to alter our conceptualization of family itself. The success of this movement represents one step closer to a Platonic reality where family is dispersed into the collective and the State silently vanquishes its chief rival in becoming the Lord of All.
Robert Vega works at the U.S. House of Representatives and serves as the co-ordinator of Young Adult ministry at a parish in Washington, DC. He graduated Harvard Law School in 2011.