So I was challenged to examine my thinking recently as I was reading a blog that opposed gay marriage. The basic gist of the argument was that gay marriage can never be the same as straight marriage since a gay couple cannot have a baby. This got me thinking about the language of gender and the language of “having babies.” In the interests of full linguistic and philosophical fairness let’s tackle the gender issue first, and then deal with the notion of “having babies”.
Whenever someone asks “Can two men have a baby?” They believe that the obvious answer to their little question must be a resounding NO. But let’s step back for a moment and examine what is truly problematic in that question, the idea of what a “man” is.
The traditional understanding of a man is a person who has a penis, shaves their face, talks in a deep voice, has a generally rectangular shape, has greater upper body strength (than say a non-man), has 2 testicles, has excess body hair which they do not shave, and has short hair on the top of their head.
The traditional understanding of a woman is a person who has a vagina, has no facial hair, talks in a high pitched voice, has a generally oval shape, has less upper body strength (than a man), has 2 ovaries, has some fallopian tubes, has a uterus, has little to no body hair (traditionally none) which they occasionally shave or wax, has long hair on top of their head, sheds their uterine lining at least once a month during the fertile years of their life, is capable of becoming impregnated by the sperm of a man, and is prone to be more emotional than rational.
Both of those traditional understandings are straight-up idiotic, and come from a deeply Eurocentric, Western viewpoint. I would even go so far as to say that these are the differences which people imagine when they think about traditional marriage, and traditional gender roles.
The problem with either of these caricatures, is that I only need to point out one person, who would otherwise fit one of these categories but is somehow unable to do so, in order to show that these categories fail. It is also troubling that a traditional woman is defined based on her ability to reproduce, whereas a traditional man need not reproduce in order to prove his manhood. Basically the problem with traditional gender roles is that the notion of gender seems to be tied to things that are arbitrary, social, random, and change from society to society.
But wait! Isn’t it true that men produce sperm to impregnate the eggs that a woman carries in her ovaries in order to become pregnant with a fetus in her uterus? Isn’t this just an obvious biological fact?
Why? Well let’s try to answer that by looking at male gender.
Man designates a person who is identified as male within certain cultural, traditional, and linguistic boundaries determined by one’s society. That is the definition of a man, but a male is a more biological term. A male is basically one half of the sexual reproductive pair in a biological species, the one half which produces sperm. Whether or not one has a penis, and whether or not that penis is functionally capable of ejaculating sperm which one has generated within one’s testicles, is not the sole, nor even the most important designator of manhood. To be fair lots of societies will revoke your man card if you are unable to get an erection, although they might revoke it if you get an erection from the wrong stimulus. All this to say that man is a gender, and genders are defined differently in different times, places, and among different groups of people. Gender has everything to do with public perception, and relatively little to do with one’s personal physiology, which is not often on public display. After all consider the difficulties encountered by a person who is transgendered, a person who is homosexual, or a person who lets it be known that their testicles are non-functioning. Although all 3 of these people should be able to call themselves men, if all that man designates is the having of a penis and testicles, yet society invents other kinds of designations for them.
The same difficulty applies to woman, and woman is likewise a person who is identified as female within certain cultural, traditional, and linguistic boundaries determined by one’s society. The female is also one half of the sexual reproductive pair in a biological species, the one half which produces eggs. This is why seahorse males get pregnant, carry the young to term and give birth. The biological justification for calling them males is that they produce sperm rather than eggs, and in seahorses the female impregnates the male using her penis to lay her eggs in the male’s egg sac. So at least according to science, maleness or femaleness depends entirely on whether one produces eggs (female) or sperm (male). Persons who are unable to become pregnant, who identify as transgendered, homosexual, or who engage in social activities traditionally reserved for men often find their woman card revoked and themselves reclassified.
My point is that gender has everything to do with social, classification, and it has relatively little to do with one’s biological sex.
So can 2 men have a baby? Yes. They can even have a baby biologically speaking, where one produces sperm which impregnate the egg of the other and where the newly formed zygote then develops (within the confines of the uterus) into a healthy embryo which implants into the uterine lining and then becomes a fetus, which will eventually develop into a full grown infant. In this case all that is needed is that one man have functioning male reproductive organs, and that the other man have functioning female reproductive organs. That is to say that two persons who have the “man” gender may reproduce with each other, so long as they have the properly compatible (and fully functioning) sexual organs to do it.
But now this brings us to our second and more complex notion, what exactly do we mean by “having a baby?”
Having a Baby
Often the discussion of human reproduction makes it sound like the biological process of procreation, whereby sperm and egg fuse to become zygote, zygote develops into embryo, embryo implants in uterine lining and develops into fetus, fetus develops throughout all of the key stages of growth without any difficulties or complications, and infant travels through the birth canal and exits the vagina during the event of live birth, is an easy one. It’s not, and there are a whole freaking bunch of things that can go wrong along the way. After all according to the National Institute of health “Around half of all fertilized eggs die and are lost (aborted) spontaneously, usually before the woman knows she is pregnant. Among women who know they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is about 15-20%. Most miscarriages occur during the first 7 weeks of pregnancy. The rate of miscarriage drops after the baby’s heart beat is detected.” Miscarriage is called spontaneous abortion, and most miscarriages occur because of a failure in the chromosomes. In other words 50% of zygotes do not develop into fetuses because of a spontaneous abortion, or miscarriage.
Yet it is not my goal to say that pregnancy is impossible, or that it is unnatural, or dangerous. It’s not, although there can be mitigating factors which can make a pregnancy more or less dangerous. But all that aside my point is that reproduction fails about half of the time just at the zygote level. This is not even taking into account all of the complications and problems which come into being at later stages.
So when we talk about “having a baby” we need to be clear that just because a male produces sperm, and female produces an egg, and that egg becomes fertilized by the sperm and develops into a zygote, does not mean that a fertilized egg will become a baby. Most zygotes do not become babies, and this is due to entirely natural causes.
It is also important to point out that in the process of “having a baby” a male brings either an y or x chromosome to the equation. This is important since the presence of the y chromosome will cause the zygote to eventually develop into a male, and the presence of the x chromosome will cause the zygote to develop into a female. I am oversimplifying things so go here for more information.
Having provided the chromosomes via the sperm the male then makes an additional biological donation of…absolutely nothing.
In other words, the “having of a baby”, the different stages of fetal development, the nourishment of a fetus, and even the essential environment in which an embryo must exist in order to become a fetus is absolutely dependent on the female. What does this mean? Females actually have babies, males simply provide some genetic material and determine the baby’s sex.
In the grand, and small, scheme of things the female brings almost everything to the development of a fetus into a baby, and the male brings relatively little. Now the male contribution is important, but given how little the male biologically contributes to the equation the idea that the male is co-equal, or co-responsible in the having of a baby is just statistically ridiculous. Of course then we do also have the social institutions of marriage and relationships which inculcate in the male a sense of moral responsibility to make up for their almost complete lack of biological responsibility.
What is my point? Only the partner who is ACTUALLY carrying the fetus to term is really having the baby, in the strictest biological sense of the term. The other partner may have contributed genetic material, but this does not mean they too are having the baby, except in a social and cultural sense.
Yet if we broaden the social context to include all those who will be responsible for the raising of the baby after it is born, then friends, family, society at large, and even the media are all responsible for the influences and factors which help to form a personal identity in a child.
On the positive side if we broaden the social context then adoptive parents can be said to have babies especially insofar as they are primarily responsible for the care, feeding, and raising of the child after it is born.
So, “Can 2 men have a baby?”, Yes. They can adopt a baby and thus be socially and culturally responsible for the raising of that child (even if they are not biologically responsible for it). For that matter 2 females can have a baby (for which one of them is biologically responsible). In the social context a sperm donor, gives up their sperm so that others may use that sperm to have their own baby. Also a surrogate mother agrees to give up her body and her time for about 9-10 months so that other people may have a baby for which she (the surrogate) is mostly biologically responsible (even in cases where the egg for the baby was also donated by another female). Even further, an entire community of people may have a baby, in the sense of being responsible for its care and upbringing.
In the social sense any number of people may be said to have a baby insofar as those people are directly responsible for the baby’s health, raising, and general well-being.
In the biological sense, only the female mother may be said to have a baby insofar as she is the only person who is directly responsible for the health, development, and general well-being of the fetus.
Also in the biological sense, although a male may contribute sperm, this is not sufficient for the male to claim the biological responsibility of having the baby, since the contribution is temporary and singular.
In the social sense a biological father may be responsible for a baby by caring for and providing for the baby’s mother, while the baby is going through the fetal stages of development. After the birth the father may become directly involved in the care, health, and development of the child, and thus become biologically responsible for the baby’s continued existence after birth.
But you may claim that without that sperm there is no baby, and since the sperm is an essential contribution to the existence of the fetus then the biological father may be said to be rightfully having the baby.
My response? Possession is nine tenths of the law. Also in almost all other similar cases, even if a person provides an essential ingredient to the completion of a project they are entitled to rights which are proportionally equivalent to the size of their contribution, not its significance to the project.
In fact most legal cases which decide guardianship of a child decide it based not on the biological contribution of the parents, but on the capability of potential guardians to care for and maintain the health and well-being of the child after birth. That said different courts, (being social rather than biological institutions) often award guardianship based on social and cultural assumptions about the rights of fathers or mothers over their children. This can and does result in many biological fathers being awarded rights of visitation, and even full guardianship. Go to this page for more information.
However, in cases where the rights of fathers are being upheld these rights are only being upheld on the basis of whether or not the biological father in question is establishing a “substantial relationship.” In other words, fathers have rights to their children insofar as they are willing, and able, to act as parents and take a care and interest in their children’s well-being. That is to say, merely providing 50% of the genetic information necessary to bring about the existence of a person does not entitle you to legal guardianship of that person unless you are going to establish a substantial relationship. The legal issues in the United States at least do not consider mere biological fatherhood to be on the same level as biological motherhood.
My advice is that males need to be content with the cultural options which allow them to be fathers in the social sense, or else they should pursue legal avenues which give them more power and control over the rights to their biological offspring. Perhaps then males could be said to be co-equal in having a baby, at least in the social and legal sense.
I like to close with the idea of how our society would be different if we had evolved from some common ancestor we shared with sea horses. Think on that.