Monday, 29 October 2012

Are you my Mummy?

Without words to mean what we say, how do we say what we mean? In her last post, our guest blogger Rebecca Bollard discussed new reproductive technologies that create the space for ‘three-parent babies’. In this post, she talks about the linguistic gymnastics required to clearly convey what the notion of three-parent babies might mean.

The word ‘mother’ is typically used to refer to a person on whom the biological, legal, and social aspects of parenting rest.  Adoption splits the biological from the social and legal aspects. Egg and sperm donations open up such divides too. Divorce and remarriage can split social and legal parenthood from each other while surrogacy adds another layer of complexity by splitting the biological from the gestational. But now pronuclear transfer (PNT) and maternal spindle transfer (MST) offer ways to further divide the biological down into nuclear DNA and mtDNA donors.

So now the word ‘mother’ has five components – social mother, legal mother, gestational carrier, mtDNA donor, and nuclear DNA donor. Some of these are complex concepts that can barely be conveyed in easily understood plain English words. So, in addition to understanding the relatively complex science behind modern reproductive technology, the public must also grapple with concepts that have no clear semantic expression.

The term ‘mother’ also carries a load of normative values and social connotations, not easily defined. We have long been aware that words are not value neutral. When I write ‘gestational surrogate’, I mean the women who carries a foetus and then gives birth to the baby. This woman is generally the legal mother until adoption procedures are completed. That relationship is considerably more complex than the almost mechanical one suggested by the technical terms ‘gestational surrogate’ and ‘gestational carrier’.

So how do we conduct public debates on issues where there are no words to convey what we are talking about? And can we deal with a situation where words are not neutral descriptors of a common concept, but rather value-laden parts of a broader discourse?
Let us know what you think – in plain English, if possible.