Showing the excellent ethical instincts that frequently characterize his blog for the Wall Street Journal (though not always), James Taranto accurately identifies blatantly callous and unethical conduct by the New York Times, its reporter, and the adult subjects of a Father’s Day feature called”And Baby Makes Four.” The story, intended to highlight the proliferation of non-traditional family structures in modern America, focused on a 3-year old boy whose mother conceived him using the sperm of a gay friend.
The Times named and interviewed both the mother and the friend, who often babysits the toddler but professes no desire to ever be a father to him in the parental sense. The Times story describes how the sperm-donor watches the clock in boredom, waiting to be relieved of his child-care duties, and how observing the child—his son— play sometimes fill him with “profound despair.” The gay man notes that the child “looks just like me when I was little,” but says, “I don’t feel paternal toward him,”and that he certainly doesn’t want to be the boy’s parent. Still, the mother tells the Times reporter that she intends to tell her son the truth when he’s older, that his “uncle” is really his father. Taranto’s ethics alarms are ringing loudly even if the mother’s are not:
“Fine, but will she also tell him that caring for [the boy]. causes [the biological father] ‘a profound despair,’ that [the father] doesn’t ‘feel paternal toward’ [him] and “certainly” doesn’t “want to be the child’s parent”?
“Because [the child] will find these things out in due course. This isn’t the 1950s anymore, when to find old newspaper stories one had to spend hours going through library stacks or microfilm reels. Unless the New York Times goes out of business and its website is shut down, this story will live forever on the Internet.
“That means that as soon as [he] can punch his name and his parents’ names into Google, he will be able to read the cruel things his father said about him when he was 3. So, by the way, will his school friends–and enemies. That’s why we left the names out of this column. We don’t want him to find out from us.
“One may sympathize with a middle-aged woman who desperately wants to be a mother and lacks the time and options to become one in the usual way. But there is no excuse for what [the mother] and [the biological father] have done by allowing the Times to tell their story, which is to invade their son’s privacy and compound his future emotional challenges.
“Didn’t any of this occur to reporter N.R. Kleinfeld or the Times’s editors? Or are they so enamored of “alternative family structures” that an actual child who has to live with the consequences is in their minds a mere abstraction?”
My guess, though not kind, is that whether this occurred to the Times and its reporter or not, they just didn’t care. They had a juicy story with Pulitzer potential, and it wasn’t their responsibility to protect the three-year-old if his own parents preferred publicity to privacy. It would be nice and admirable if journalists occasionally placed human welfare above getting a juicy story, especially when children are involved, but that isn’t the profession’s mission, and instances like this one, in which a helpless child is collateral damage, demonstrates the ethical carnage of tunnel vision.
Reporter N.R. Kleinfeld didn’t have to use this couple or their names; an editor could have chosen to protect the boy and taken the names out, too. They just didn’t care, and either that made the boy’s future privacy issues irrelevant to them, or caused them not to consider them at all.
As for the boy’s egg and sperm donors, they are irresponsible, self-obsessed, or fools, most likely all three. They were so eager to get their names in the Times that they set up their vulnerable offspring for future pain and embarrassment unnecessarily. Taranto, a blogger who has never met the boy, much less contributed DNA to him, showed more compassion and concern for his welfare than his own father and mother by withholding the full names of everyone concerned.
I suspect that unwelcome Googling discoveries are far from the full extent of the disadvantages the child will suffer from having to depend on this couple for his care and upbringing. The best hope for the boy is that he will encounter enough people in his life who have fully functioning ethics alarms to at least partially compensate for the fact that his parents do not.