A Fascinating Reproduction Story in the New York Times, Part II: Creating a Family with a Stranger

About 10 days ago, the New York Times had two fascinating stories about reproduction (on back-to-back days) that I wanted to highlight and comment on. I discussed the first one here. In this post, I will take about the second story about “co-parenting” (though that term has a separate set of meanings related to divorce) through modamily.com. Modamily is a website (one among a series of such websites according to the story) that allows non-romantically affiliated people (i.e., strangers to start with) get together to produce a child and co-parent it, sort of match.com for parenting without any romantic relationship. The story centers on one couple, Ms. Hope and Mr. Williams and reports:

“Neither Ms. Hope nor Mr. Williams is interested in a romantic liaison. But they both want a child, and they’re in serious discussions about having, and raising, one together. Never mind that Mr. Williams is gay and that the two did not know of each other’s existence until last October, when they met on Modamily.com, a Web site for people looking to share parenting arrangements. Mr. Williams and Ms. Hope are among a new breed of online daters, looking not for love but rather a partner with whom to build a decidedly non-nuclear family.”

I find the convergence of assisted reproduction and web 2.0 fascinating. Here are a few thoughts: First, some sub-set of readers will say “well, what about the children” of these liasons? They will express a fear that the interests of these kids will have been set back. I have two responses: how different is this from single parent reproduction, or reproduction by couples likely to divorce? Further, as I have written about some countries’ attempts to limit the use of reproductive technologies as a single individual as well as a number of other kinds of restrictions on reproduction (see this and this and this and this). there are deep intellectual problems with these kinds of Best Interests of the Resulting Child arguments.

Second, there are some interesting, fairly subtle, eugenic impulses expressed (perhaps unintentionally) by the writer of the story in the Times. The story begins by describing “A 6-foot-2 former model who loves animals, Mr. Williams is athletic, easygoing, compassionate and organized.” If I can be slightly info-mercial/Sex and the City about it, the sub-text appears to be along the lines of “Gee, ladies, wouldn’t you like a piece of that for your kids!” This is of a piece with some of the other academic work I have discussed in earlier posts on the sperm ‘donors’ chosen in reproductive technology practices and their uber-mensch characteristics. That said, as I have written elsewhere, under what circumstances such eugenic impulses are wrong as opposed to being the reproductive technology equivalent of some of what many of us do in sexual mate selection remains very much contested ground.

Third, I think the article raises interesting questions about the unbundling of romance and reproduction. One might think that in the current world of “hook-ups” among our youth, that we have already begun to decouple sex and romantic relationships, and anonymous sperm donation uncouples romance and reproduction (through non-sex), but this takes it further still. One interesting wrinkle here is the non-commodified nature of the non-intimate form of reproduction. There are no arms-length doctor and bank mediated relations between the gamete providers, rather they are trying to become intimately involved in a non-sexual way without any money involved.

Fourth, I am interested in how this plays into trends towards DIY reproduction. As the story reports one one of the couples “While Mr. Blue and Ms. Pieke plan on sharing parenting responsibility for Indigo equally, they never drafted any kind of legal agreement, which they both agree was unwise. ‘there were so many things I didn’t anticipate — like, how much should I be responsible financially? What happens if I lose a job? What happens if he does? It’s not a marriage,’ she said.” As those of us who write in this area know all too well,  things sometimes go wrong in family formation. There have been a series of cases holding known sperm donors liable for child support despite agreements to the contrary, and this seems much much messier in terms of legal relations between the child and parents than those cases. I think of it as against everyone’s interest to try to do this without significant lawyering. That seems apparent to the couples reported on here as well, so the question I have is: why are they not using lawyers? Is it lack of resources to enable them to hire someone? Or, is it (and this reflects some of the conversations I have had with those who have gone without lawyering in these areas) some sense that introducing lawyers here will signal distrust to the other? Or is it, perhaps, a kind of pastoral for reproductive technology? Could this stem from the same set of worldviews leading some to challenge FDA’s regulations that medicalize sperm donation in favor of a much more “homespun” or “DIY” approach to reproductive technology?

I. Glenn Cohen

I. Glenn Cohen is the James A. Attwood and Leslie Williams Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and current Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center. A member of the inaugural cohort of Petrie-Flom Academic Fellows, Glenn was appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty in 2008. Glenn is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics (sometimes also called "medical ethics") and the law, as well as health law. He also teaches civil procedure. From Seoul to Krakow to Vancouver, Glenn has spoken at legal, medical, and industry conferences around the world and his work has appeared in or been covered on PBS, NPR, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the New York Times, the New Republic, the Boston Globe, and several other media venues. He was the youngest professor on the faculty at Harvard Law School (tenured or untenured) both when he joined the faculty in 2008 (at age 29) and when he was tenured as a full professor in 2013 (at age 34).

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