We can usually sympathize with one or another party to a dispute: one is usually more in the right—or less in the wrong—than the other. But with the breakdown of accepted conventions, it increasingly happens that neither side arouses our sympathies.

Take a recent case in Sweden, where a lesbian couple wished to have children. An understanding and liberal-minded male friend agreed to donate his sperm, and three children were born to one of the two women between 1992 and 1996. But then relations between the two women deteriorated, and they split up.

The mother of the children found herself alone and in difficult straits. Who would support her, in her—and her children’s—time of need? Her former lover was unwilling, because—after all—she was no relation of the children. The sperm donor had made it clear from the first that he had no wish to be a father in any but the most literal biological sense; he thought he was merely doing the couple a favor. He therefore felt no moral obligation to support the children, and his conscience was clear.

Nevertheless, the government’s department of social security—the potential surrogate parent of every child—sued to force the sperm donor to pay. After a case lasting four years, he found himself obliged henceforth to support the mother and children financially.

The president of the Swedish Federation for Sexual Equality declared the legal decision an outrage. “It is scandalous,” he said. “The man has been condemned to be a father even though he did not take the decision to have the children. Above all, one of the women who took part in that decision has been absolved of all responsibility. If one desires equality of rights for lesbians, it is anomalous that it should not be she who was obliged to support the children financially.”

It would take considerable space to elucidate all the errors in the president’s statement. But I think that the language of rights, and above all of equal rights, is what leads us into this sordid legal and moral swamp. If women have a “right” to children, in the sense that not having them if they want them is an infringement of their rights, then of course lesbian women can no longer accept childlessness as the natural consequence of their condition. Let it not be said that new medical technology is responsible for this change in attitude, incidentally: the kind of artificial insemination offered in a domestic setting by the sperm donor has been possible for a very long time. No, the culprit here is the idea that the fulfilment of our desires, no matter what our condition, is a right. As for the well-being of the children in this case—beyond the provision of sufficient financial support for them—that seems to have entered into no one’s thnking.

A plague on all their houses, then: the idea that one “condemns” a man to support children is in itself both revealing and chilling.


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