OWNERSHIP

There are alternative accounts of a biological parent’s prerogatives, of course—accounts that revolve around very different concepts. One thing you could conceivably say about parental rights is that parents have a child in something like the way they have a house or car. The child is sheer property: the baby I gave birth to is jointly owned by me and the child’s father. And one story we could tell about why we own our children is rooted in John Locke’s classic account of property ownership. Suppose you gather stones on a public beach and then labor for nine months, creating a statue of a baby. The labor would make Stone Baby yours, says Locke, so long as you left "as much and as good” on the beach for others. Applying Locke to real babies, the idea would be that we come into possession of our children as a result of our bodies contributing crucial ingredients and doing the critical work of growing a baby. (Though this story has Lockean elements, Locke didn’t subscribe to it himself; he held the view that children are possessions of God.)

Clearly there are lots of problems with the ownership account of parental prerogatives. To begin with, this account will certainly not recognize much of an ownership right for new fathers. Even the most generous father bears a burden that is a tiny fraction of the mother’s. A father-like figure would make an initial contribution to conceiving Stone Baby, but do little of the gathering or building; the statue wouldn’t be his nearly as much as the mother-like figure’s.

Furthermore, the entire analogy is forced. You build a statue, making a deliberate, conscious effort, and exercising your own personal creativity, but your body builds a baby. Would ownership rights really emerge out of both sequences of events?

And finally, in what sense is a baby really owned? Certainly a baby is not commercial property, to be exchanged in the market. If they are property at all, children belong to a rare category of property: the sort that can be transferred to others—as in adoption— but can’t be bought and sold. Is there really such a category?

If we reject the ownership story, we are nevertheless looking for something that ties a child to his biological parents just about as tightly, and the second-self story gives us that. According to the second-self account, giving me the wrong baby is in some sense splitting me from myself. I am entitled to the self-like baby in the nursery, and no baby-hungry nurse is, no matter how well-qualified she is to be a parent. The ownership story and the second-self story converge on this assessment, but it’s important to recognize that the second-self story isn’t just the ownership view, slightly disguised. (As already noted, David Archard sees it this way.)

How are the two accounts different? One major difference involves symmetry and asymmetry. An owner is entitled to her property, but the property isn’t entitled to its owner. The relationship is completely asymmetric. There is more symmetry in a self- to-self relationship: a child comes from, and is thus self-like to, the parent; the parent is source of, and thus self-like to, the child. Or at least, retrospectively, and in the fullness of time, the child will see the parent that way, and that is so partly because the child will attach significance to the parent’s being her source. In the context of a hospital nursery, where parents are paired up with babies, it makes sense to speak of biological parents being entitled to their children and children being entitled to their biological parents. As sheer property, children wouldn’t be entitled to one adult caregiver more than any other; all the entitlements would accrue to owners.

Considerable symmetry continues in the way the parent-child relationship works over time. To preserve an owner-property relationship, an owner just has to hold on to the property, keeping it in his possession. But to preserve a self-to-self relationship, two people have to preserve and refresh the continuities that bind them to each other. The sheer fact of a child coming from the parent creates an initial bond, but over time, more is needed. The two must share activities, interests, and concerns. On the property account, but not the second-self account, a parent will always impose his values and interests on the child. That will be as natural as homeowners imposing their tastes on their homes. In contrast, to treat my child as a second self, the most effective thing is often not to impose my own preferences, but rather to be open to a child’s own activities and interests. If your child is self-like to you, you may be drawn into the world of Thomas the Tank Engine (for example) because you think that will be good for your child, but also because you’re open to sharing your child’s passions and interests. Sign of the latter: you find yourself working on the model train track even after they go to bed. Yes, parents will also pass on their interests and values to a child, but this direction of influence isn’t dictated by regarding your child as a second self.

The ownership model and the self-to-self model converge on seeing parents as entitled (at least initially) to their biological offspring, but that’s not because they amount to the same thing.

 
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