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by Mary L. Shanley
Beacon Press, 2001
Review by Paul Roazen, Ph.D. on Sep 4th 2003

Making Babies, Making Families

Political theorists have long regarded themselves as the elite of the profession of political science, and Mary Shanley's excellent new book supports the claim of political philosophy's pre-eminence when it comes to dealing with issues of family life.  While political theory usually concerns itself with the great books of the past, starting with ancient Greece, Shanley demonstrates how a good traditional education leads to special sophistication when dealing with such contested issues concerned with what modern reproductive technologies can mean for understanding the ethics of family life today.  Whereas much public discussion of so-called family values amounts essentially to partisan ideology in behalf of endorsing heterosexual, patriarchal family units, Shanley genuinely tries to extend imaginative feelings about parenthood towards issues that appear novel yet can be included within the umbrella of humane social theory.

Chapter 1 concerns itself with new forms of family relationships occasioned by open adoption that extends beyond ethnic and racial lines.  Shanley proceeds from the moral premise that we should recognize the legitimate existence of different kinds of families in which parents and children are not genetically related, and also that "we cannot avoid judgments and policy choices that will favor one side or the other..."  (p. 14).  Shanley is in particular sensitive to the ramifications that legal thinking and the conclusions of courts have entailed.  Children are not properly anybody's "possession," and Shanley proposes that at an appropriate entrance into adulthood those who have been adopted be entitled to learn about their biological origins.  Chapter 2 continues with the subject of adoption, focusing on the rights of men and women, as well as the needs of children.  Shanley rightly insists that what constitutes a family deserving of the state's protection is a matter of considered argument, and not something self-evidently defined either by "nature" or customary family law.

Chapter 3 deals with the vexed issue of the buying and selling of eggs and sperm.  Artificial insemination, now called "alternative insemination by donor," has been around for about half a century, and egg transfer became more possible after the first successful in vitro fertilization in 1978.  Shanley calls for both an end to anonymity as well as the abolition of open-market buying and selling.  Shanley insists that "truth is better than either falsehood or obfuscation, and openness is better than secrecy..."  (p.90).

Chapter 4 takes up the matter of so-called surrogate motherhood, and the limits of contractual freedom.  Shanley believes that any such contracts should not be legally enforceable, and that payments for gestational services (beyond expenses) should be prohibited.  Shanley is worried that economic necessities might lead to such contracts reinforcing pre-existing racial and class privileges.  Shanley cites the emotional momentousness of the whole experience of pregnancy, as well as the danger that women's bodies might become commodified by such transactions.  Chapter 5 deals with the issue of lesbian co-mothers, sperm donors, and the place of fathers.  Shanley raises the problem of what gives anyone the right to be recognized as a legal parent, and proposes that placing the child at the center of analysis leads to better thinking about all parent-child relationships.

Shanley has admirably succeeded in exploring various nontraditional family situations, as she searches for "an ethical grounding for a pluralistic vision of family that suffers from neither the male-centered and heterosexual norms of the traditional model nor the overly individualistic and voluntaristic norms of some proponents of diversity"  (p. 148).  Although Shanley seems to me at least to be middle-of-the-road in the ethical principles she advances, I do wonder whether in her well-meaningness she has not avoided what surely is the most statistically important issue -- custody disputes between divorcing parents.  Shanley's bibliographical inclusiveness is impressive, but I wonder whether the ivory tower of academic life can really have focused on something as exotic as gamete donation or contract pregnancy without the bread-and-butter of family law, namely the standards guiding the placing of children after the breakdown of marriage.  Also, it seems to me that Shanley assumes too much the conventional American view that values can be made harmonious, as opposed to a more European conception that would emphasize the inevitability of tragedy and conflict.  Although Shanley is aware of the significance of psychoanalytic thinking, she has not quite absorbed the implication in Freudian thought that, for example, suggests that motherhood can be at odds with sexuality, and what we achieve in one area has to be at the expense of other human possibilities.  It seems to me also that American family life would be enhanced if, especially in two-career families, the necessary role of servants were to be acknowledged.  None of these reservations should detract from our admiring all the Shanley has accomplished in her model over-view of this most important new subject.


© 2003 Paul Roazen


Paul Roazen is most recently the author of Cultural Foundations of Political Psychology (Transaction, 2003) and On the Freud Watch: Public Memoirs(Free Association Books, 2003), and Professor Emeritus of Social and Political Science, York University, Toronto.