Plato's Offspring Print
By James V. Schall, S.J.   
Monday, 28 June 2010

Books have been written on Book Five of Plato’s Republic, with its discussions of whether its account of the “communality of women, children, and property” is meant to be serious or ironical. I have argued that Plato’s Guardians, who were denied wives, property, and children in the name of perfect rule, reappear in Christianity as the monastic vows. Revelation found a better way to accomplish what Plato wanted than by destroying eros and family.

In trenchant words, Aristotle said that Plato’s system simply does not work. Wives, children, and property are not well taken care of when held “in common.” The Christian point is that the vows do essentially what Plato wanted but without the horrendous effects on families and society. Both family life and life without family are good. They are to be preserved, but each separately. Monastic life and family life depend on each other, but they are not the same.

A friend called my attention to a Washington Times article (June 2) about children born of anonymous sperm “donors.” The woman is artificially impregnated from sperm, the source of which she does not know. The later born child has a “father” unknown both to the mother and to her child. This “donation” seems to be a thriving business as a “service” to “womankind.”

Evidently, children born of such donors develop certain not entirely unexpected worries. Incest with half-brothers or half-sisters is one of them. How does anyone know that someone he wishes to marry is not his half-sister? Other interesting issues come up. How many anonymous donors do we need? (Correct answer: none).

Evidently, a single enterprising male, using different names, could father vast numbers of “anonymous” children by different women. Neither father nor mother knows the origin of a specific child. The child does not know its parentage. All of this “benevolence” is done in the name of privacy, service, and perhaps vanity.

Do the donor’s children have any legal or natural right to know who their father is? After all, if one’s father turns out to be very rich, why cannot the natural offspring sue him for child support? Laws that do require such information, when passed in England, suddenly see a marked drop off in numbers offering to be “donors.” They too can see the logic.

The female version of this process also exists. A man I heard of decided that he had a “right” to a child he could not beget with his wife. He hired an unknown co-ed to provide an ovum. It was then impregnated artificially and implanted it in a third woman to carry it to birth. He then asked his own wife to bring it up! I call it “the case of the three-mothered child.”

Most of the actual children born of “donor” fathers or of ova transplants, when asked, want to be born, as we might expect. Few people want not to exist. But it is complex. In this situation, they can never really be normal. They do not know who they are. They were deliberately born in obscurity, not in light as in the case of marriage.

The Washington Times article ends this way: “It seems that it doesn’t matter how you break the norm (of a known father and mother in a marriage). . . .When kids are brought up outside intact, married families, their risks’ for problems go up.” Theory is thus confirmed by practice. If we try to “improve” on the essentials of marriage and family, we end up making things worse.

In Plato’s proposed communality of wives and children, no parent knew his offspring and no offspring knew his parents. But there was worry about incest. The state decides who is to beget in a context of genetic breeding to “improve” the race. No one will know who his father or mother is, except because of the unavoidable fact that most children look like their parents, not like someone else.

We have the very same Platonic worry today that actual children of “donor” fathers or mothers have. If it does not make any difference, if we have a “right” to beget even outside a family, what is the problem? The problem is misplaced charity. We are not dealing here with what might be normally called lust or infidelity.

Rather the child is begotten in cold “scientific” or medical circumstances. No eros is involved. The child is not a “gift,” but a “product” of a planned, anonymous “service” to someone’s “desire” or “right.” The child comes outside the proper conditions that make its life secure and known to all as the child of specific parents. Those born of “donor” parent exist but lack a human relation they were meant to have. They lack a good due to them, for which lack both parents are responsible.


James V. Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is
The Mind That Is Catholic.

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