There's something bigger to being a father figure
By Sam Crane(China Daily)
Updated: 2006-10-27 09:10

Here's a peculiarly modern concern: is a sperm donor a "father?"

This odd question was raised in a newspaper article I chanced upon recently. It recounted the story of an American mother who had conceived a child with the help of anonymously donated sperm at a reproductive therapy centre. She noticed that the child had symptoms of autism and she was desperate to discover more medical information about the biological "father."

The business responsible for managing the insemination (yes, it is a profit-making business) has a strict policy of confidentiality to protect the identity of its paid sperm donors. So, the mother used what little information she had, including an identification number 3066 of the donor, and set up a website seeking information from other mothers who may have used the same sperm.

The story has a happy ending of sorts. A support group was formed to share medical information about the various children involved, and some of the kids actually met each other. They called each other "brother" and "sister."

Now, there are several points about this story that bother me. For one: should we really be relying on profit-driven companies to manage such delicate reproductive issues?

But let me focus on another matter here: the definition of a "father."

It seems to me that sperm donors are not fathers and should not be considered fathers in any sense. That is, at least, what I believe a Confucian consideration of the issue would conclude.

A father, for Confucius, is not simply a biological role. It is an immediate and continual personal responsibility. Fathers must be involved in the life-long care and cultivation of their children. This may not mean changing every diaper (I doubt Confucius himself did that!) but it does entail orienting ones thoughts and actions toward the integrity of the family, children included.

There are a number of places in The Analects where Confucius tells fathers to care for their children. Perhaps most famously, in passage 13.18, he suggests that fathers should protect sons, even when they may have broken a law, just as sons should protect fathers. He also says that we should "hold the young in awe" (9.23) and "cherish the young" (5.25).

But most interesting is passage 8.6, where one of his leading disciples, Master Tseng, says: "A man who can be entrusted with a small orphan or large state, who faces a great crisis and remains unshaken is he not noble-minded? He is indeed noble-minded."

The care of a young child is thus equated with the management of a large state. A man who can fulfil that duty is "indeed noble-minded," just as is the leader of a great state.

That fatherly responsibility entails more than just bringing home some money and letting the mother do all the work. A father should not be his son's school teacher, according to Confucius, because that might introduce ill will into the filial relationship.

Fathers must, however, exemplify moral behaviour, and that is a daily task that requires constant attention and care.

So, providing a bit of sperm does not make a father. The various offspring of a common sperm donor are not "brothers" and "sisters." Although it is a good thing for sperm donors to be forthcoming about their medical histories for pragmatic medical reasons, they have no obligation for the children conceived with their genetic material, and should be given no special consideration in regards to the children's educational or economic accomplishments.

Parental rights and responsibilities are personally and socially performed, they are not biologically determined.

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Sam Crane teaches Chinese philosophy and politics at Williams College in US.

(China Daily 10/26/2006 page15)