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The naming of names

22 December 2016

Robin Gill explores the implications of parental identity on birth certificates

The Art Archive/Superstock

Great with child: The Visitation — Mary and Elizabeth meeting (Castilian Master)

Great with child: The Visitation — Mary and Elizabeth meeting (Castilian Master)

Joseph went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. Luke 2.5-6


REGISTRATION for non-Romans in the Roman Empire was con­cerned primarily with taxation rather than birth and identity. But, apart from that, some of the mys­teries surrounding the birth of Jesus do have odd symmetries with com­plexities that surround birth regis­tra­tion today.

Various experts contributed to a recent symposium on birth registra­tion in the context of IVF and surfro­gacy. All were aware that, although the formal questions asked on birth registration forms differ little today from those that were first issued two centuries ago, actual practice is different.

Most significantly, two parents of the same sex can now be entered on a birth certificate. For example, two men whose sperm have been mixed together to enable an unnamed woman to conceive and give birth can now be recorded on the result­ing child’s birth certificate. And two women, only one of whom is gene­tically related to the child, can both be recorded, with no mention of the male who provided the necessary sperm.


Elsewhere in the world there are so-called three-parent children (with the third parent providing mitochon­dria): how have they been recorded?


FOR one of the lawyers who spoke at the symposium, there was no problem: “Birth records are simply administrative evidence of a child’s current legal parentage. They are not, in and of themselves, legal deter­mination of parentage.” From this perspective, there is nothing new about putative fathers appear­ing on birth certificates when (with or without their knowledge) some other male provided the sperm. The Archbishop of Canterbury has just such a birth certificate. And adopt­ive parents have long been able to add their names to birth certificates.

Another lawyer, who was also a family expert, was more ambivalent: “Is it the registration of an event, a person, legal relationship, or a mix­ture of all three?” A social worker also took a wider view of birth registration beyond the narrowly legal: “Birth registration is an official record of our parentage. Or is it? Which ‘parents’ shall it include: those who contributed their genes to us, those who carried us in their wombs, or only those who are our legal parents?”

Significantly a donor-conceived person also contributed, and she asked: “What is a birth certificate for? Is it a record of a birth? An identity document? A legal state­ment of bio­­­lo­gical parentage?” Ask­ing the ques­­tion in this way points beyond inten­tion to practicalities that many of us face at times, and their im­plica­tions for family rights and entitle­ments, and for citizen­ship rights.

Because my father and paternal grandfather were born in Gibraltar, I, my wife, and my children and their spouses can all claim citizen­ship there. We now have full Gibral­tar citizenship identity cards, which allow us to visit the monkeys at the top of the Rock without being charged (at least by the humans). Theoretically, the cards also allow us to travel around Europe without a passport (although I do not recom­mend this: even before Brexit, as few officials have ever heard of Gibraltar identity cards).


SOME New Testament scholars argue that there are hints in the Gospels about Jesus’s birth identity, especially in Mark 6.3: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.” What is the “offence” here? That a local man is teaching in the synagogue at Nazar­eth? But the previous verse says only that they were “astounded” by his teaching, rather than offended.

Or is that he has demonstrated “deeds of power”, or that he claims to be a “prophet”? Possibly. But why did the offended people mention only his mother (and brothers and sisters), and not Joseph? Might it not be a question about his birth legitimacy that was causing such offence here? Local communities have long memories.

In addition, there is the well-known oddity of Matthew 1.16. Mat­­thew goes to great lengths to trace the Davidic genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, rather than via Mary’s family tree, concluding: “. . . Jacob the father of Joseph the hus­band of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah”.

Matthew, of course, did believe that Mary was “with child from the Holy Spirit” (1.18), just as we affirm today in our Creeds. But his use of the word parthenos, or “virgin” — found in the later Greek version of Isaiah 7.14 rather than the Hebrew version’s “young woman” — has been debated by scholars since Irenaeus and Origen.


A GENERATION ago, some theo­logians speculated about the possi­bility of parthenogenesis as a natur­ally occurring phenomenon. Since asexual reproduction is possible in plants and single-cell creatures, could more advanced forms of animal life also reproduce asexually? Worms chopped in half were often mentioned at this point.

Eventually, it dawned on most of us that any examples of naturally occurring parthenogenesis were entire­ly irrelevant to the birth of Jesus, born spontaneously of Mary. He would have had to be female, since Mary had no Y chromosomes.

Fortunately the Creeds make no mention of chromosomes. I have always considered it anachronistic and impertinent to speculate about the origins of Jesus’s Y chromo­somes. Theologians need to tread carefully here, in order to avoid an account of Jesus that presents him as not fully human. Today, it also seems anachronistic and impertin­ent to enquire about the origin of a donor-conceived person’s chromo­somes or DNA, if he or she chooses not to enquire beyond the informa­tion given in the birth certificate.

Those people of Nazareth who were offended by Jesus obviously knew nothing about chromosomes or DNA, but their suspicions about his birth legitimacy (if that is what they were) seem equally impertin­ent.


BEYOND such impertinence, we might show compassion for those embarrassed about having non-standard birth certificates. And we might show understanding for those who love and care for children who are not genetically related to them, but whom they do wish publicly to affirm.

I have no idea how, or whether, this should involve a change in legislation, or what by-products such legislation might entail — al­­though at least some conse­quences are already obvious. For example, the new practice of not nam­­ing sperm or gamete donors on birth certificates carries a risk, how­ever small, of consanguinity. (That dan­ger, of course, was there from the introduction of birth certificates, since some putative fathers named on them were not in fact the bio­logical fathers.)

In addition, the 20th-century prac­tice of anonymous sperm-dona­­tion carried a similar danger of consanguinity (today, at least, regu­lated sperm or gamete donation in the UK can no longer be anonym­ous, although even now parents are not legally obliged to tell their children that their conception de­­pended on such a donation). Law­yers will doubtless be alert to other off-target consequences, relat­ing perhaps to inheritance or poli­tical rights; so I will trespass no further in this area.

But we can, in my view, avoid theological impertinence by going no further than Matthew in affirm­ing that Mary was indeed “with child from the Holy Spirit”. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is surely an affirmation about God’s unique initiative in Jesus Christ, rather than a statement about the origin of Jesus’s Y chromosomes.


Canon Robin Gill is Editor of Theo­logy and Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.

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