Civil Liberties

Mary Cheney Meets Mr. Spock

Parenting in uncharted territory


The pregnancy of the vice president's daughter is not usually political news—except when same-sex marriage is a divisive social issue, and the vice president's daughter plans to raise her child with her longtime female partner.

The news of Mary Cheney's impending motherhood has caused a heated controversy on the right. Some social conservatives have unabashedly blasted Cheney and her partner, Heather Poe, as destroyers of traditional values. Janice Crouse of Concerned Women for America called their decision to have a child "unconscionable"; anti-gay crusader Robert Knight asserted that the baby was conceived "with the express purpose of denying it a father."

As blogger Andrew Sullivan has pointed out, the cruelty of this rhetoric is especially evident when directed at an actual, flesh-and-blood loving couple. And yet are there legitimate, non-bigoted reasons to worry about fatherless parenting?

The absence of fathers has been a growing trend in America in recent decades—ironically, parallel to the trend of fathers in two-parent families being more directly involved in child-rearing. More children are also being raised by single fathers and gay couples, but their numbers are dwarfed by the increase in children without fathers.

Lesbian parenting is, of course, a tiny part of this trend, which is driven primarily by out-of-wedlock births and divorce among heterosexuals. (When some champions of "the family" focus obsessively on gays, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that their true motive is bigotry.) While there is much talk of irresponsible men, it is usually mothers who initiate divorces, and more and more women embrace unwed motherhood by choice—often through artificial insemination.

Is this a bad trend? Some arguments for the importance of fathers rest on rigid gender stereotypes—e.g., dads push toward achievement and growth, moms give unconditional love and comfort—that often don't match the individuality of actual men and women. Still, a male presence contributes something unique to a child's world, and a single mother's support network can rarely replace a father. Most research shows that, all else being equal, children with two parents tend to fare better in everything from academic achievement to psychological well-being. (Comparisons of child-rearing by heterosexual and same-sex couples remain inconclusive.)

Of course, a child's well-being is a product of many complicated factors. But there is another issue here: Single parenthood by choice almost inherently reinforces gender inequality: because of biology, it is far less available to men. (Partly for the same reason, gay male couples are far less likely to raise children than lesbian couples.) Celebrated by some as an expression of female autonomy, solo motherhood actually enshrines the sexist stereotype of child-rearing and family as a female domain—a modernized version of Victorian "separate spheres." It also radically alienates men from the family.

Where does the Cheney-Poe household fit into this debate? In a way, the two women are upholding the ideal of the two-parent family. From a moral standpoint, I find a committed lesbian couple vastly superior to some single straight women who seem to prefer motherhood via sperm bank to the compromises and power-sharing of marriage. But if the cultural link between parenting and procreation is weakened, who's to say that a two-parent family shouldn't consist of two female relatives or best friends raising children together without fathers?

Similar questions are raised by a trend described recently in the New York Times Magazine: lesbian couples having children fathered by gay male friends who have some involvement in the children's lives, so that a child has two mothers and a father who is more like an uncle. What effect will such arrangements have on the children? Will they, as same-sex marriage foe Stanley Kurtz warns, lead to a push for legalizing some form of multi partner marriage? No one can say; social history is full of unforeseen consequences.

Sullivan notes that most people who condemn Cheney and Poe for "denying their child a father" would not advocate taking away the children of single mothers. Even legislative attempts to bar unmarried women from seeking artificial insemination have been quickly abandoned. True enough: Americans have an instinctive respect for individual freedom and privacy, and the majority will readily agree that discrimination and coercion are wrong. But, while respecting choices, can we also agree that some choices are less beneficial than others—and that liberation often has its costs, some of them still unknown?