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Germaine Greer on Elton John and David Furnish: the mother of all furphies

It’s none of our business what Elton John and David Furnish’s kids’ birth certificates say. EPA/Daniel Hambury

There’s nothing to start a debate like Germaine Greer letting fly. This time it was about Elton John’s family:

Sometimes I think that really the problem is the concept of motherhood, which we can’t give any real structure to. Sir Elton John and his “wife” David Furnish have entered on the birth certificate of their two sons that David Furnish is the mother. I’m sorry. That will give you an idea of how the concept of motherhood has emptied out. It’s gone. It’s been deconstructed.

It’s none of our business what these kids’ birth certificates actually say.

But Greer’s assertion that Furnish is listed as “mother” is somewhat misleading. In California, where the children were born, it has been possible since 1999 for two men to be listed on a child’s birth certificate. There are two spaces for parents’ names: “name of father/parent” and “name of mother/parent”, which is where the confusion may have arisen.

As far as UK law is concerned, once a parenting order is made both parents are the children’s legal parents, whatever their gender, and can be listed as “parent”.

Birth certificate details aside, Greer is voicing a common complaint about the uncertainty about parentage created by recent developments in reproductive technologies and the law’s recognition of families created by them.

There is a grain of truth here: structural definitions of “mother” and “parent” are breaking down. It is becoming increasingly difficult to identify one structure (such as giving birth or marriage) which conclusively defines motherhood (or indeed parenthood).

Part of this is due to increasing use of reproductive technologies (Greer’s current bugbear) but part of it is due to increasing legal recognition of the diversity of families.

The bigger furphy which Greer is peddling is that this deconstruction of motherhood means that motherhood is now “emptied out” of meaning.

Rather, this deconstruction is an opportunity for us to think seriously about what being a mother or parent really means and to check that the law is operating in a progressive and protective way. If we can’t rely on structural or biological facts to determine legal parentage, what can we look to?

The standard which defines Australian Family Law, at least when it comes to parenting orders, is the best interests of the child.

The Australian Family Law Council recently recommended that parentage laws be harmonised between the Commonwealth and states and territories and amended to create a much more inclusive definition of “parent”. This would allow for better recognition of Indigenous family practices, and “where that supports the child’s best interests”, recognition of more than two legal parents.

If Australia followed that advice, it would join jurisdictions such as British Colombia, California and Argentina in allowing three or more legal parents. (The UK recently legislated to allow for three person IVF, but it is unclear whether this would be reflected on the child’s birth certificate.)

For legal parentage to reflect the best interests of the child, we need to acknowledge the social science data that indicates it is the quality of parent-child relationships, rather than family structure or genetic relatedness that most affects children’s well-being.

Susan Golombok’s work evaluating empirical data on children’s well-being across non-traditional family forms (such as same-sex parented families and those created via donor conception and surrogacy) shows children’s well-being does not depend on structural factors such as the gender of parents and whether parents are biologically related to children.

The final furphy was Greer’s speculation that abortion was legalised in the UK to allow the fertility industry to “manipulate the process of conception”. Greer herself admits this is just “a suspicion”, so I’ll defer any comment until she substantiates the claim.

But in regard to IVF, she queries egg donation and its impact on women, asking

Did we talk about this? Did we sit down and talk about what eggs mean to women?

Like Elton John and David Furnish, I have relied on IVF and donor gametes to form my family.

Nonetheless, I think it is vital that we are willing to question the role of the fertility industry. This is particularly important because reproductive technologies have the potential to separate some of the risk inherent in pregnancy, birth and egg-harvesting (through surrogacy and egg donation) from the joys of parenting, and to make a profit from doing so.

This makes it all the more vital that law’s response to the deconstruction of parentage prioritises the well-being of the child, healthy parent-child relationships and the human rights of all people who contribute to the reproductive process.

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