With New Fertility Techniques, Middle Class Becomes its Own Grandpa

Today’s New York Times reports that families who obtain children through new and unconventional means are finding themselves flummoxed when it comes to defining relationships:

When Ms. Ashmore and her husband, Lee, learned a few years ago that they could not conceive a child, Ms. Williams stepped in and offered to become pregnant with a donor’s sperm on behalf of the couple, and give birth to the child. The baby, Mallory, was born in September 2007 and adopted by Ms. Ashmore and her husband.

Then the sisters began to ponder: where would the little girl sit on the family tree?

“For medical purposes I am her mother,” Ms. Williams said. “But I am also her aunt.”

Many families are grappling with similar questions as a family tree today is beginning to look more like a tangled forest. Genealogists have long defined familial relations along bloodlines or marriage. But as the composition of families changes, so too has the notion of who gets a branch on the family tree.

Some families now organize their family tree into two separate histories: genetic and emotional. Some schools, where charting family history has traditionally been a classroom project, are now skipping the exercise altogether.

Adriana Murphy, a seventh-grade social studies teacher at the Green Acres School in Rockville, Md., said she asked students to write a story about an aspect of their family history instead. At Riverdale Country School in the Bronx, KC Cohen, a counselor, said the family tree had been mostly relegated to foreign language class, where students can practice saying “brother” or “sister” in French and Spanish.

“You have to be ready to have that conversation about surrogates, sperm donors and same-sex parents if you are going to teach the family tree in the classroom,” Ms. Cohen said.

For the last six years, according to United States census data, there have been more unmarried households than married ones. And more same-sex couples are having children using surrogates or sperm donors or by adoption. The California Cryobank, one of the nation’s largest sperm banks, said that about one-third of its clients in 2009 were lesbian couples, compared with 7 percent a decade earlier. Even birth certificate reporting is catching up. New questions are being phased in nationally on the standard birth certificate questionnaire about whether, and what type of, reproductive technology was used, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Tracing a family tree, though, is more than just an intellectual exercise. There are medical and legal implications, particularly when it comes to death and inheritance. Families, said Melinde Lutz Byrne, president of the American Society of Genealogists, are mostly concerned with who inherits property when a biological relative dies.

These people need to get a grip. It doesn’t take a Jake Gittes to unravel this geneological mystery. For that matter, these snarls are nothing new — at least in society’s less self-conscious strata. In a Rolling Stone interview, Dolly Parton once condescended to explain how double first cousins are made. Trust me, it doesn’t involve a surrogate. Certain of my African-American friends haev shared with me the various honorifics awarded to their mothers’ successive husbands — one might be “Daddy,” another “Papa”; or the first “Papa,” the second “Papa-Father.” The sense always seems to be of a diocese governed by a bishop and co-adjutor bishop.

There are also terms to distinguish a man’s issue from various women. In The Devil and Sonny Liston, Nick Tosches reports that, among African-American Arkansawyers in the early part of the 20th century, children conceived in the conjugal bed were designated “inside”; those outside were called — logically enough — “outisde.” This isn’t so far from the feudal custom of marking the arms of illegitimate children with a bar sinsiter, or awarding them the title of “Fits” — a corruption of the French fils, or “son” — plus the patronymic.

Reginald FitzUrse, one of the knights who murdered St. Thomas Beckett, must have been the outside child of some guy named “Urse.” If he lived long enough to sire any outside kids of his own, they’d all have been known as “FitzReginald.” When you think about it, this is a lot more polite than calling any of them “Bastard, Son of a Silly Bastard Who Took His King Literally When His Majesty Was Throwing a Royal Hissy Fit.”

Among the medieval horsey set, illegitimacy seems to have carried little stigma — except when it came to inheritance, and that could be rectified. When Henry Bolingbroke deposed Richard II and had himself crowned Henry IV, he scored a point for the outside Plantagenets over the inside Plantagenets. This wasn‘t altogether a bad thing; the outside Plantagenets seem to have gotten most of the family brains.

Upper-class ingenuity doesn’t end there. If, instead of playing up and making outside babies with demimondaines, a crowned head insisted on being a bloody bore and marrying a commoner for love, the marriage was ruled morganatic. Such a ruling kicked all issue completely out of the line of succession to the throne. If they were lucky, they’d inherit hemophilia, but they’d better have bled quietly, or else they’d have been getting above themselves.

I confess, I’ve always had a special fondness for the term “morganatic”; it’s always sounded like a portmanteau of “morbid” and “melodramatic.” This may be because I first read it in connection with Sophie, wife of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated along with her husband in Sarajevo, in 1914. I automatically associate the name “Sophie” with Alexander Portnoy’s mother. “Franz Ferdinand — look! LOOK! Some Serb is pointing a gun at us!” “Jesus, Sophie! Do you always have to be so morganatic?” “BLAM!” And with that, the lights go out all over Europe.

This should all come as a great comfort to today’s bourgeoisie, whose members’ passion for aping their betters has always been proverbial. (Recall that Little House episode where Mrs. Olson allows herself to be talked into an appendectomy, in the hopes of sharing a scar with Queen Victoria and Empress Eugenie.) If permanent residents of college towns scored a generation ago by importing the hyphenated surname from the UK and assigning it new feminist significance. Tangling up their family trees represents an even greater upward leap.

One problem, though: Fertility pioneers are far too careful with their genes to produce the rarest and surest of all class signifiers — congenitally crazy kids. Instead, they’ll have to drive perfectly normal kids crazy.


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