The Fragmenting Family

BioCentre :: BioRead :: The Fragmenting FamilyBrenda Almond
Oxford University Press (2006)
ISBN: 0-19-926795-2
RRP: £12.99

As Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy at Hull University, and with experience with both the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) and HGC (Human Genetics Commission), Brenda Almond brings a refreshingly broad perspective to this assessment of changing conceptions of the family.

Part 1 reviews philosophical influences that have driven and informed contemporary social opinion and family law. Classical liberal philosophers, such as Locke, Kant and Mill, are discussed with attention to the tension between individual freedom and exclusive committed relationships. The discussion is illustrated with accounts of the turbulent love lives of such famous philosophical duos as William Goldwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, JS Mill and Harriet Taylor, and Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoire. Part 1 concludes with a review of changing and conflicting feminist attempts to claim liberal freedoms for women. Cross-cultural comparisons are employed to demonstrate that neither political rights nor economic autonomy provide automatic panaceas for women’s oppression. On the contrary, Almond argues that feminists need to reinterpret the family in a way that reflects the needs of both women and children.

In part 2, Almond discusses the impact of reproductive medicine on family and children. Addressing contraception, abortion, IVF, and ‘designer babies’, she argues that, ironically, greater reproductive control can have family-unfriendly consequences. Her arguments are diverse: contraception makes short-term cohabitation a viable alternative to marriage; delayed motherhood may induce avoidable infertility; children may be denied knowledge of their genetic heritage. Drawing on the discussion of the liberal tradition in part 1, Almond suggests that adult rights to procreative autonomy are often asserted at the expense of children’s interests such as secure upbringings. A discussion of atypical families – lesbian, gay, motherless, and fatherless – finds that putative adult rights to found a family must be balanced against the rights of children to a mother, a father, and a stable home. It is argued that the simple fact that such parenting arrangements can be successful, does not make it appropriate for the state to positively collude in creating situations which have been statistically shown to generate poorer outcomes for children.

Part 3 discusses the legal and policy implications of earlier chapters. Returning to the theme of competing individual rights, Almond argues that secure families are in the interests of children. The family as an institution, she alleges, has children as its primary purpose, and is only secondarily there for the pleasure of adults. Excessive attention to the existential freedoms of adults may compromise the needs of the spouse and children to whom they are committed. In terms of policy, Almond argues that government cannot take a neutral view of different parenting options, but rather has a responsibility to use law and financial incentives to stabilise marriage as far as possible. No-fault divorce is criticised for undermining meaningful commitment through marriage.

A surprising new track introduces the fourth and final section of the book. Population collapse, facilitated by contraception and abortion, may compromise the future of Western culture. An apparently tangential defence of particularism is used to introduce the claim that we have social obligations not only to one another but towards the survival and continuity of our community. To conclude the book Almond argues that, unlike much early liberalism, the allegedly liberal modern family ideology is characterised by the demotion of marriage through weakening of contractual element, a separation of parenting from parenthood, and the constructivist rewriting of parenthood as legal/social convention. Renewed attention to the rights and interests of children, and the procreative purpose of marriage would, she claims, engender the stability that is in the interests of all.

Almond’s 1998 introduction to philosophical ethics, Exploring Ethics: A Traveler’s Tale, demonstrated her commitment to make philosophy publicly accessible. The Fragmenting Family goes much further, and is an explicit attempt to use the power of philosophical argument and debate to shape and inform public opinion and public policy. However, it does not fall into the trap of being narrowly partisan in political terms. Strongly based in the tradition of liberal philosophy, the book advances conservative arguments whilst rejecting the libertarian tendencies she sees in conservatism and liberalism. With its emphasis on social outcomes, and its critique of recent UK policy direction, it may prove as attractive to New Labour liberals as those involved in ongoing Conservative policy reviews. Although tax incentives for marriage may perhaps prove popular among voters, it would take skilful handling of the media for any political party to successfully campaign for an end to no-fault divorce.

The book provides a timely contribution to debates around new reproductive technologies. Almond’s attention to the rights of children resonates with current policy direction in some aspects, for example by supporting the right to knowledge of one’s genetic heritage, but contests it in others, for example she challenges the extension of the right to found a family into a right for homosexual couples to assisted reproduction. It is her arguments against assisted reproduction in such circumstances that are most at odds with the current political climate. However, as Almond argues that philosophy can drive social opinion, then this book must be seen as a reasoned attempt to reshape the liberal tradition back in line with the defense of traditional models of marriage and family.


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