Multiple Parents in a “Brave New World”

This new world began not in the scientific laboratory, but in the minds and desires of men.


Recently, the California governor signed a law whereby children could legally have not just two, but three parents at the same time. This is the fifth state, plus the District of Columbia, to have such legislation. The law is proposed, naturally, under the rubric of “helping the child,” of keeping him out of a foster home. Whether giving a child two “parents” of the same sex is good for the child in the first place is likewise not brought up. The bill was not clear about who will have authority when there is a conflict among the three parents about some course of family action. Will it require a unanimous vote or only a 2-1 majority?

Nor was there argument over the dubious notion that a single person, or even a couple, has an individual “right” to a child. The first question is not about a “right” of a single person or of parents but of their duty to the good of a child. The focus of our thinking on this issue should be on marriage and its nature. Children are gifts, not results of “rights.” “Rights” look to something supposedly inherently “due” to an individual—something that one can demand others to provide. A man and a woman are free to marry each other. What marriage is means that their relationship can result in a child. But the child is his own being. He is not simply a “planned product” of parents with “rights” to him. The child must be considered at all stages of his being to be for his own good, to which parents are ordered. The parents’ good is a result, not a cause, of this good.

The issue behind the new law had to do with a lesbian couple who decided to have a child, something they obviously knew they could not have by themselves. Needless to say, they had, as such, some insurmountable difficulty in carrying out this “intention.” Their relationship, such as it is, can never result in a child who is the produce of their exchanges. They can only have a child by an “imitation” of what a real marriage between a man and a woman is. The lesbian couple thus contracted with a male sperm donor for one of the two women to be impregnated and subsequently to conceive and bear the child. (Presumably both women could have been impregnated by the same man at the same time or each by a different man). Later on, after some dispute arose between the two women, one was sick and the other in jail. So who was to take care of the child? No mention of kin of either lady was available for this care.

Originally, a court assigned the child to the biological father, who was obviously not anonymous. The question of his financial and moral responsibility to the begotten child, no matter what the lesbian couple did, was not clarified. Obviously, he had some concern and obligation here. So he was given custody of the child. But a later court over-ruled this arrangement on the grounds that a child could only have two parents (though not necessarily a mother and a father). The new law is looked upon as protecting the child. No issue is raised about whether any child needs both its own father and a mother in the first place. The law today evidently assumes that it makes no difference. The three-parent arrangement was made by the law so that the child would not have to go to a foster home, but would have title to at least one “parent.”

With three parents, however, the child is now to be directed by three lines of authority. He can always play one parent off against the other two, just like playing a mother against a father. And within the three-parent arrangement, who does have the final authority? Do they vote in controverted cases? Does the law enforce this vote? As I noted above, what decides, unanimity or 2-1 voting?


Needless to say, such cases cause us to speculate. What if the couple are both male? What if each wants to have a child (his “right”)?  To exercise his “right,” each man hires a surrogate mother and impregnates her. Now we have a four-parent family, with two babies. And for the sake of seeing where things are going, let us suppose, after the two each have a child, they want another child. The first two donors or surrogates are not available or desirable. So two more providers are employed. Now we have a family with six parents, and so on ad infinitum, with all sorts of half brothers and sisters.

Whatever we might think of the “intention” of this case and the law to cover it, we cannot help but wonder about the inner “logic” of it. “Intention” does not change the nature or reality of what is acted on. The “intention” of a doctor in removing my appendix may be to make money or to gain honor at the skill of his hands. But what he is doing—whatever he intends—is what counts. The doctor at least has to know how an appendix is removed; otherwise he is not a doctor. Likewise, what the legislators may “intend” is one thing, what they allow or permit is another with its own logic that, once put in place, has its own history and dynamism. Someone will, sooner or later, show where the principle on which the law was made leads. There is no principle to stop four-, five-, six-, or seven-parented families, or more.

If the logic of an act brings about something we did not “intend,” the real issue is not in the order of intention but in the what-it-is we are doing. The initial problem in these cases of multiple parents is in the fact that same-sex couples, whether they have legally what is or is not called a “marriage,” cannot have children. They are bound by a reality that they are claiming a “right” to defy. They have to resort to some natural or artificial means to achieve their “intention.” One lesbian woman has either to sleep with a man to become pregnant or she has to find or purchase a service from a sperm bank facilitated by a doctor.

The result is that one of the women is the biological mother of the child. The father is whoever the source of the sperm was. The third “parent” is an on-looker, with no real genetic interest in the child begotten by others. The resultant child really does not have three parents. The child also lacks what it ought legally and morally to have, namely one father and one mother. To deprive a child of this unique relationship as a matter of law opens the gate to the kind of absurd relationships that we are now seeing. In a “three-or-more parent” family, we still must have, visibly or invisibly, both sexes represented. Otherwise, nothing can happen on the child front, except adoption. But single-sex adoption still deprives the child of a father and a mother, which is what is really best for him. None of these arrangements are for the real good of the child. They all are for the selfish interests of those who refuse marriage as it must be and claim “rights” to have what they cannot have.


The question of marriage and parenting has a long turbulent history, beginning with Adam and Eve. I once had an older African student in a class in which the issue of tribal polygamy came up. He humorously explained to an astonished group of students how a “family” with one husband and 10 wives, with their children, works. Generally there is a “first wife” who has authority over the compound. But each wife cares primarily for her own children. The chief, of course, is the final authority. The issue of how one man’s 10 wives deprive other young men of wives is usually left in silence. Sometimes such polygamy is justified on the grounds that many of the young men were killed in battle.

The Old Testament tells us of the many wives of the Hebrew kings. It was not always an easy arrangement. Even though this system violated the one man, one wife rule, still it did not confuse paternity. The children knew their father and mother, however things worked in the compound. I once had another student, a Chinese girl, who was the 26th child of her father. He had two wives, each with 13 children. Chinese law at the time allowed bigamy—polyandry, on the other hand, was considered wrong because it was not possible to tell for certain who the father of each child was. Modern DNA methods can now identify more exactly who is father and mother.

The Guinness Book of Records tells us that an American woman by the name of Linda Essex had 23 husbands, which seems to be the record. Brigham Young was said to have had 55 wives. I read somewhere that Osama bin Laden was the 51st child of his father. We see the potential for dynastic struggle here, something that came up also in the Old Testament. Muslim law, as we know, permits four wives. Muslim law also permits or even requires the marriage of cousins, a practice that often leads to serious genetic ills. The classic prohibition of incest arises in part from this fact, something we also know from the marriages of European royalty.

In addition, with divorce and remarriage, we have what might be called serial polygamy or polyandry, where one man or woman has multiple legal or illegal partners for a time but with identifiable children from each union. With divorce, we have families with half- or step-brothers and sisters. Records of child abuse within families most often involve step or in-law issues. Adoption is also a method of legally assigning parents to children either without parents (orphans) or who are not otherwise cared for. Adoption remains the best way for non-fertile couples of man and woman to include a child in their family. These multiple forms of family are designed to do what marriage is supposed to do, arrange for the begetting and education of children in a stable family-like situation over the time of the child’s growing up. We are only beginning to deal with cloned or extra-womb begotten children whose lineage is not clear and for whom no one is really responsible. One might add, however, that certain strands of political theory are opposed to the family as such, because they are seen as impediments to full state power. Hence we see the begetting of children outside of the family or in factory-like circumstances to be the proposed alternative. This idea was found even in the writings of Plato.

In laboratories, all sorts of imagined combinations might be produced. We also talk of “designing” babies so they will look like we want. This planning means giving them genes or other inputs that would change the child’s visage or brains. In England, there is also a three-parent law being considered to prevent a certain kind of genetic disease connected with a cell’s mitochondria. This procedure would require a donor, which would technically violate the law against tampering with a genetic strain. One suspects that these issues are only becoming more and more complicated.

One cannot help think, on learning of these things, that the “brave new world” began quite some time ago. And it began not in the scientific laboratory, but in the minds and desires of men, generally in those striving to improve nature and to enable us to do what we want. When all of this began, no one thought that one of the things that we would “want” was a world in which our children had “multiple parents.” We begin to suspect that it is not an improvement.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).