Who and What Is a Mother? Maternity, Responsibility and Liberty

Michael Freeman, Alice Margaria


Motherhood is no longer a clear-cut concept. Is it a mere biological fact, or does it require a volitional component? This question is answered differently throughout Europe. The French regime of accouchement sous X is more oriented towards the second option. Conversely, the English system identifies parturition as the exclusive determinant for defining legal motherhood.
This debate has an impact on the resolution of another issue, namely whether an individual, preeminently a child, has a right to know about his/her origins. The recognition of an absolute right of a woman to give birth anonymously evidently contravenes France’s obligation to protect the right to know one’s origins, as enshrined in the UNCRC as well as in the ECHR. Furthermore, despite its laudable purpose, the French regime has proved unable to prevent tragic events, such as infanticide, abandonment and abortion. But does English law offer a solution that is more respectful of children’s rights? To all appearances, it does, but not substantially. The denial of accouchement sous X should not be viewed as enhancing the overall protection of children’s rights in England. By providing abortion on demand, a woman’s right to renounce maternity is fully protected and, therefore, the legalization of anonymous birth would be superfluous.
In light of the complexity of the issue whether a child has the right to know his/her origins, categorical positions are not appropriate, since they implicitly postulate hierarchies of rights. To the contrary, the acknowledgement of the competing rights as equally fundamental makes it possible to achieve a fair equilibrium between the interests of all parties involved. In this balancing exercise, the reconceptualization of identity as child-centered has the potential to overcome the culturally-constructed dichotomy of biological connections/social bonds and, therefore, to realize the best interests of every child.

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