Who Is A Mother When Same-Sex “Marriage” Arrives?

A headline in the 2 January 2013 The Telegraph ran:

First baby born in France in 2013 has two mothers

The story informs us the birth mother is named Maude, while her live-in companion is called Delphine. The ex-fetus, miraculously made a human being at birth, is christened Sacha.

This headline, and the story which follows, is based on a false premise. A person cannot have two mothers; which is to say, the thing itself is impossible.

A child has but one mother and one father. This is not opinion, but the necessary scientific, biological conclusion given the sexual procreative nature of human beings. A man was involved in the creation of Sacha, just as her mother Maude was. The man we do not know; we are only informed he left part of himself at a “Belgian sperm bank.”

Now it often happens that a child will find itself in the company of a woman who is not its mother, but who cares for the child as if she were its mother. We have words for these people: step-mother, adoptive mother, aunt, nurse, guardian and so forth, all of which indicate the truth that the child’s birth mother is absent (through decease, flight, or mishap), and all of which mean, in the strictest sense, not-mother.

These are not quibbles if words are to mean something. If a word means just what each of us says it means, then communication becomes impossible, and each of us is transformed into a walking Tower of Babel. The dangers of allowing language to become a mere tool of politics are too well known to reiterate here.

France (at this writing) recognizes marriage as being possible only between a woman and a man. But suppose this were not so, and that the French government labeled the living arrangements between Maude and Delphine a “marriage.” Further suppose that on governmental paperwork Delphine is to be called (suitably translated) “mother.” Delphine would still not be Sacha’s mother. Nobody but Maude ever could be, if the word mother is to have any meaning.

If you think not, calling Delphine mother would be like if the government decided to call a spending increase a spending cut, and by this label hope everybody believes outlays have decreased. Such a crude tactic would only fool the simplest of minds; but even if this ploy conned every living soul, it would not change the reality that government outlays are now larger. Language must refer to reality as it is, not how we wish it to be.

Another strategy is to deny the word mother to anybody, and to call both Maude and Delphine (and, hey, whomever applies for the position) parent. The noun has no gender (in English). This excision works, to some extent, in that it removes the ability to form the thought of mother. If we want to refer to that now illegal and antiquated concept, we would have to invent tortuous phrases like female supplier of genetic components. Yet even with the word surgically removed, Maude would still be Sacha’s mother, even if nobody knew how to say it.

Some claim it is “hateful” to call a thing what it is; for instance, to say that Sacha has only one mother. This claim is nonsense (it is also circular). It may be (in some unfortunate scenario) best to keep the information from Sacha about who her mother is, but this furtiveness would not remove motherhood from Maude.

It may be the case that Delphine, or even some third woman, could love Sacha more than her mother. Doubtless this is so, but love does not make one a mother: nature does. And this argument is in any case on treacherous ground, for the moment you condition motherhood on love (or parental aptness) you are powerless against the argument that the State itself makes the best “mother.”

Still more claim that it makes them “feel good about themselves” to call Delphine a “mother” to Sacha, and who are we to deny them happiness? That people have the right to call a thing what it is not is granted. I may, in a fit of sheer jollity, call a 1987 Buick Skylark a scrambled egg. But that doesn’t mean I could eat the car with a side of bacon. The absurdity reaches its full height if I insist that you must also call the car breakfast, lest you hurt my feelings.

What of cloning? Well, there are no artificial human clones, which is the right answer. But what if I (a man’s man) could take a skin scraping and produce another wonder such as me? Who is its mother? Biologically speaking—and we have been speaking biologically since the beginning—it would have to be my mother, for she is the woman who supplied half of what is me, and my clone is genetically me. The argument that my mother did not actually carry my clone in her womb also carries no weight, for that (for example) would make the father of Sacha not her father because he did not consummate his relation with Maude.

But what if “science” could mix-‘n-match genetic material, or even create from constituent components, say from some advanced chemistry set, a human being? I don’t think they could, but what if they did? There is no human contributer to the genes which comprise this creature. It has no mother, and no father, neither. That is the answer, I think: no mother, no father. But this does not mean that those people naturally created are also motherless and fatherless.

Update The word artificial added where Micha Elyi suggested. Thanks.


  1. MattS

    “If you think not, calling Delphine mother would be like if the government decided to call a spending increase a spending cut, and by this label hope everybody believes outlays have decreased. Such a crude tactic would only fool the simplest of minds;”

    Unfortunately “Such a crude tactic would only fool the simplest of minds” is in error as this tactic used regularly by the US congress seems to regularly fool most well educated economists as they never call the government on it.

  2. jdbutters

    I have recently subscribed to your blog, thinking it was about stats. Not so it seems. I am afraid this piece is drivel. You are dressing up inhumanity as grammar.

    The false premise is: “Language must refer to reality as it is, not how we wish it to be.” The idea that individual words must refer to particular objects was popular in the early twentieth century but even philosophers in the tradition of Russell have abandoned it as unsustainable (they now talk of expressions having meaning). A recent programme of the BBC’s In Our Time (available for download via iTunes) discusses this stuff (I am on an ipad so afraid you will have to google for it).

    Even these philosophers have it wrong, in my view. The edges of our concepts are generally fuzzy, and concepts are extensible to cover new cases. Is each member of a lesbian couple that together decides to have a child be called a “mother”? Well, this is a new situation. When we call her a mother, or not, what we are doing is not applying a clear concept but making a decision about whether to extend the fuzzy edge of this concept over this particular case, or not. The basis for doing this cannot be logical; it will be practical, or moral, or aesthetic. In this case, I would suggest, for practical and moral reasons, that the edge should be so extended. This is not original thought — it flows from the later philosophy of Wittgenstein, the best philosopher of language in my view, as found in the Philosophical Investigations.

  3. Spellbound

    So a ball is not just a ball, if you feel that a rounded cube might feel better if called a ball?

  4. Josh


    In this case, I would suggest, for practical and moral reasons, that the edge should be so extended.

    It already has been. Motherhood has many different senses, including female foster care. It’s the same as if a beneficent orphanage caretaker referred to his wards as his “children.” Briggs may be equivocating for the sake of critique, because he realizes along with others that a growing group of people wish to rid the word mother of its basic sense, i.e. biological begetting. The important point to consider is whether the sense of mother being applied to the Telegraph couple is secondary to the basic sense. I believe it is, and Briggs’ point stands thereby.

  5. I have to agree with jdbutters. This is really an example of a writer who has extended expertise in one area (stats/scientific method), passion in another (conservative politics), and ignorance in a third (linguistics). Language is an unnatural fit for thought and words have different modes. In this case, at least three: legal, social, and biological. Attempting to enforce “biological mother” as the only acceptable sense of the word “mother” is shouting against the tides–and for that matter several decades too late. I am sympathetic to the idea that “words must have meaning.” However, at the same time, what fool doesn’t understand what “baby has two mothers” means? It seems to me that Briggs is arguing not that “words should have meaning” but that they should have a specific, universal, and permanent meaning, but that has never, and will never be the nature of language. Best to leave your opining to the areas you understand.

  6. Josh


    It seems to me that Briggs is arguing not that “words should have meaning” but that they should have a specific, universal, and permanent meaning, but that has never, and will never be the nature of language.

    Briggs’ claims can be softened, as I attempted to do. The meaning of ‘mother’ applied to this lesbian couple does have meaning, as you note. The sense of ‘mother’ that applies equally to both is female fostering, or somesuch, and the sense that does not apply equally is biological parent. And if the sense of ‘biological parenthood’ is necessary to the concept of motherhood in order to distinguish it from other concepts, then Briggs’ point stands. If this is not necessary, then you’ll have to choose the distinguishing sense that makes the word a relevant/distinct name. “Female foster person” is too generic, as that sense doesn’t distinguish from a whole host of words/concepts; e.g.: nurse, stewardess, Gaia.

  7. Ken

    CONSIDER: “A person cannot have two mothers; which is to say, the thing itself is impossible.”

    THAT IS BS–a lie even.

    The context — the source article — was clear in the sense that ‘two mothers’ referred to the infant’s parents. Not the biological source leading to the creation of the infant.

    Not to overlook how people commonly have “mothers” and “grandmothers” — commonly three “mothers” of such types all at once….

    That is a good example of the philosophical tactic–and it is a “tactic”–of twisting semantics to create a distorted representation of a situation to more easly critique it…all the while pretending (lying to oneself and anyone else so inclined) that the distorted model of reality is accurate when it isn’t. If that’s not bad enough then believing conclusions from such a warped “analysis.”

    In varioius contexts that amounts to “moral relativism,” by the way.

    Why not spend a bit of effort to note the pro’s & con’s … or lack of good study…showing the advantages/disadvantages of the traditional “nuclear family” vs. other forms of childrearing? There are some credible studies “out there” addressing this…the prognosis for children from same-gender parenting situations is showing up to be inferior, in general in some noticable ways, to traditional parenting arrangements. Though, the evidence is still sketchy, and, comparisons depend on “other things being equal” — a same-gender parent arrangement, where those parents exhibit healthy (non-neurotic) interplay will be superior to a traditional parenting household exhibiting dysfunctional behaviors.

    So there’s a lot of significant factors that matter…and parent genders don’t seem to be the dominant one by any stretch.

  8. Eric

    I don’t know the specifics of this case, but I do know several lesbian couples where one woman donated the egg, which was then fertilized in the lab and implanted into the womb of the other.

    Thus, one woman is the biological mother, while the other is the birth mother. It seems clear then that the children have two mothers.

    But, if you continue to insist that they have but one mother, which one is it?

  9. Interesting that people argue here that the child has two mothers, but in the case of surrogacy, should the woman carrying in the child decide to keep the baby, courts often rule in her favor saying she is the mother. Courts define “mother” as the woman who carried the child. You may argue that this definition needs modified, but if you do so, consider that allows anyone to take a child from a parent if they can claim they are more of a mother or father. People are often furious when a biological father or mother grabs a child and flees the country. People were angry when a woman in England was allowed to keep a child whose biological mother was in the USA. I believe the point is when language means whatever someone wants it to, there is no logic or sense to things. “Mother” is used to mean whatever the speaker needs it to. Imprecise language can work in one’s favor, but my experience has been the use of imprecise language covers for the questionable legality and/or motivation behind actions.
    Funny the Tower of Babel should come up. It seems many Americans consider the Tower of Babel to be a really cool event and not at all a punishment. Witness the number of languages court papers are printed in.

  10. JH

    Now it often happens that a child will find itself in the company of a woman who is not its mother, but who cares for the child as if she were its mother. We have words for these people: step-mother, adoptive mother, aunt, nurse, guardianand so forth, all of which indicate the truth that the child’s birth mother is absent (through decease, flight, or mishap), and all of which mean, in the strictest sense, not-mother.

    Mr. Briggs,

    Let me guess. You had too much coffee this morning that short-circuited your brain.

    It’s true that I have a mother in law, but she is not my mom/mother because she didn’t raise me. The biological definition of mother is superficial and shallow. Adoptive children often have hard time calling the women who gave birth to them MOM. In all senses, simply giving birth can’t qualify a woman as THE mother. When I think of my mom, the fact that she gave birth to me never comes to mind.

  11. george kaplan

    Since you’re taking such a beating from butters and others, I thought I’d ring the bell early. I’d say that, although there are religious, philosophical, and social( to name a few )aspects to the monicker, mother, In my view these are relevant only insofar as they affect the child, who is the important subject in the debate about who, what, when and where one ought to be born, and raised.

  12. anona

    Just to add to the barrage of critical comments, I thought I might mention that the starter culture for Kombucha tea is referred to as a “mother”!

  13. Micha Elyi

    Well, there are no human clones…
    –William M. Briggs

    Yes there are. I personally have known three human clones as friends and acquaintances. Outside a laboratory, one might never suspect their extraordinary cause of existence. Clones are not always as identical as they’re usually portrayed in pop science and movies. Still, they’re monozygotic twins. Oh, maybe Mr. Briggs meant “no artificially created human clones”- a common mistake.

  14. Micha Elyi

    Ken, the concept you’re struggling for is the fallacy of equivocation.

  15. max

    Micha Elyi,

    mono-zygotic twins are not clones. Clone refers to the child bearing the same genetic pattern as the parent, not a sibling. In some non-human cases it can happen that one mono-zygotic twin can be considered a clone of it’s sibling because the clone splits off less than half of the epiblast, but as far as humans go there is no evidence of it happening.

  16. Briggs


    The first fallacy people employ is to say that, “This Briggs fellow is a statistician and therefore unqualified, etc.” I doubt we’ll see these people back to rebut this point, though I hope we do. My experience has been that these people issue “hit and run” comments. I’ll email invitations.

    These folks seem to think that because words change that therefore the concept of mother can, too. This is not so. For if it is, explain to me exactly what words change means. Does it refer to a concept that is universally, unchangeably true? Or is it something that is fluid, shifting with cultural winds? Can, for example and in theory, the concept behind words change come to mean (my) current understanding of mother? The universal is there.

    Further, I think we can agree that the sound of a word changing is not interesting, and not what is meant.

    We are left therefore with the concept, about which I offered a reasonable, objective standard. Only two persons (maybe I missed one?) had something to say about this, Josh and Shari. In answer to them, I still say that the “egg is the mother.”

    Jim Pavlik, The phrase “has two mothers” is just what we’re arguing about. To assume “everybody knows what it means” is to assume what we’re trying to prove.

    This same fallacy is also found in the “changing words concept.” It is true (who denies?) that what a culture calls “mother” has changed, is changing (courts are already making moves to forbid use of father, husband etc. changing to parent, spouse, etc.), and will change. But that assumes what it is trying to prove: that because people change their mind about the word, the definition I offer is incorrect. And that is false. I gave an objective, scientific definition. If people don’t like that, then they have to criticize that definition, they cannot use as a criticism that “some definitions change.”

    Ken, It is good that you put “mothers” in quotes when referring to grandmothers because, of course, grandmothers are not mothers, but are sometimes called mothers. The scare quotes set this off nicely. Now, just what was it you wanted to say? P.S. Am I wrong in seeing that you’re hinting that mothers might not be the best guardians for their children, and that steps should be taken etc.?

    JH, Same thing. Adoptive mother, no matter the size of her heart, or the love her adoptive kids (who call her mother) have for her, she is still not mother in the strict sense. Points of logic are not refuted by strong emotion. And, good grief, you don’t think that by being precise the love kids have for their adoptive mothers should diminish? Or that Yours Truly is advocating the same?

  17. Briggs


    Interesting find, thanks. Idea is that courts will define “mother.” Don’t those courts know that words/language change? And that therefore whatever they decide is a mother might not remain a mother? And don’t they also know that “everybody already knows” what a mother is?

    Kidding, teasing, jokes. Sorry, in a hurry.

  18. When my husband and I were trying to adopt older children, I was bothered by the idea that the adopted children were instructed to call their new parents Mom and Dad. We did not end up adopting, but one rule we agreed on was we would not force any child to call use Mom and Dad. I called only one person “Mother”–the woman who gave birth to me. I don’t call my mother-in-law “Mom” though I have known those who do. It does not diminish the love and caring role of a person if one uses the term adoptive mother or step-mother to accurately describe a relationship. We use the term “birth mother”. Precise language makes communication easier and more honest, not more harsh or uncaring.

  19. MattS


    “of course, grandmothers are not mothers, but are sometimes called mothers.”

    This is blatantly obviously false. All grandmothers are mothers. Using your strict definition of mother and applying the meaning of the grand prefix to it, there is no way to become a grandmother without being a mother first. Of course no woman can be mother and grandmother to the same person.


  20. Briggs


    You win!

  21. I’m not sure if I am specifically being called out as one of those making the fallacious “he’s a statistician therefore is unqualified” argument, but I did receive an email invite, so I assume I am. So I’ll respond to that first and then secondly to the comment where I am called out specifically.

    I did not make the (fallacious) claim that (1) You are a statistician therefore (2) You are unqualified to comment. The comment I made was (1) your conservative view of language transformation marks you, at best, as a hobbyist linguist, but otherwise ignorant of the field.

    It is a trap that all experts are guilty of at some point. Those who have trained their critical thinking skills to high degree often forget that expertise is more than just a sound logical foundation but also requires knowledge.

    As for the claim that I was assuming the point (begging the question) I’ll confess; that part of my comment was flippant. However, as a previous commenter had already noted, language does not hold to the rules of logic and there is a point where demanding scientific agreement on regularly used words moves from a fruitful exercise to a trivial one. I do not have empirical evidence to support the following claim, but I will hypothesize that if you gave the headline you quote to a few hundred people from England or America (and perhaps other parts of the English speaking world) you wouldn’t find a significant percentage of people who wouldn’t be able to attach a specific meaning to the phrase and one that reflects the meaning of the story, i.e., two female parents (probably lesbian).

    Although I do not have such a study handy, I took the liberty of looking up “two mommies” on Amazon and in addition to “Two Moms for Zachary” a memoir published last spring, I found these:


    The important one, the one I wanted to find is called “Heather Has Two Mommies.” It was quite a sensation when it became a bestseller….twenty-three years ago. I think you will find that Heather’s two mommies are conceptually the same as the two mommies in the news story you link. So, yes, while you are “debating” the meaning, this debate has already been resolved (more or less), even if you’re unsettled by the resolution.

    Although conceptually different the hit TV show “My Two Dads” appeared in 1987 (Twenty-five years ago!). The “dads” in question were not gay. One was a biological father and the other was a family friend, but because neither knew who the biological parent one, they both lived in the house and raised the daughter as their own. I don’t think there’s a broad agreement on the concept of Schroedinger’s Father; nevertheless the idea of two adults of the same gender, sharing the parenting roles and each adopting the title of “father” (or mother) is not at all novel.

    One final note. Yes, the concept of a “biological mother” who provides both the egg and the womb for a baby most likely will not vanish, it isn’t at all obvious that “mother” will be the sounds or symbols we use to refer to that concept. Much as the “acoustic guitar” was never uttered until after the invention of the “electric guitar,” I think we are moving into an era where the referent of “mother” is conceptually ambiguous. I don’t need to posit an alternative word to notice that this so-called debate is a testament to the fact that this word has _already_ shifted.

    I’ll give you another example, it is speculated that “girl” used to mean “a young person of either sex.” Of course the concept of “a young female human” did not change much in the 150-ish years between that first meaning and the one we use today, but nevertheless, there it is. Do _all_ words change? I try to avoid tautologies. But do some…even many…words change? They do. And this one has.

  22. JH

    I still say that the “egg is the mother.”

    Well, it’s correct that, based on this premise/your definition /strict sense, that a person can’t have two mothers. Seriously, there is really no logic to this augment. Simply a matter of definition.

    JH, Same thing. Adoptive mother, no matter the size of her heart, or the love her adoptive kids (who call hermother) have for her, she is still not mother in the strict sense.

    She is not mother in the strict sense… but she is mother in a non-strict sense?

    I am saying that your “strict sense” is nonsense and is not my definition of mother.

  23. Katie

    Shall we ask the OED for the definition of “mother”?

    The female parent of a human being; a woman in relation to a child or children to whom she has given birth; (also, in extended use) a woman who undertakes the responsibilities of a parent towards a child, esp. a stepmother. Used as a form of address to a woman by her (young or adult) children, and freq. also by her stepchildren or other children in her care; also (colloq. and regional) by a father to the mother of his children.

  24. @Josh, I just got to your comment. I think I responded to your point in what I wrote above. I believe that the phrase “two mothers” has a clear and established meaning going back at least a generation and probably much longer. So it is not just that it has _a_ meaning, but one that is easily and commonly understood. Even as a child I remember people saying something similar to “he may be the father, but he ain’t the daddy.” The sentiment is related to what is being discussed here, namely that the title “mother” does not simply stop at biological motherhood…and as a previous commenter noted, even the concept of “biological motherhood” can be further dissected. We could even posit a child that is born of an egg donated by Mother A, inserted into Mother B (a surrogate), and raised by Mother C. The first two might necessitate such a splitting of “biological mother.” But in a world where the social fact is that “adopted mother” and “step mother” have less status than simply “mother,” the parents may choose to refer to Mother C simply as “mother,” even if the law requires more precise language. In any case, I would argue that difference between Mother A and Mother B means that Briggs point does not stand. He’s arguing for a scientific accuracy to be pinned on the word of his choosing which is conceptually vague; and _even if the world moved in the way he wants_ it would still lack for “scientific,” i.e., “biological” coherence. Despite being a good writer and a decent rhetorician, let’s not be fooled. The argument here is not scientific or linguistic, it’s political.

  25. Sextus

    Fascinating !!!
    It seems to me that many of you would agree that 2-1 = …….. well it depends on the context, or the last ruling of a district court, or the majority vote in urbanized areas of the first world; it’s elastic and the meaning depends on who is asking: a statistician or a linguist? Because truly, such questions can be asked, or discussions initiated, by the competent members of the society only. From this discussion i guess that many of you may try to explain how the meaning of the concept of 2-1 has been changing over the course of the most recent history and only the individuals with calcified arteries can not get it. The whole thing reminds me of the slogan created by Swiss dadaists: “We want to urinate in all possible colors”. At that time such statement was provocative and funny. Today, the scope of seriously debated facets of the concept makes one sad. O tempora o mores ! Cicero, where are you?

  26. @Katie

    Dictionaries are often not descriptions of language, but prescriptions for language. If a dictionary does not include a definition that is obviously in use, it is a deficient dictionary.

  27. Satan is the father of confusion, division and lies. God created male and female and marriage. I don’t care who you are or what you think. You cannot change what IS. I fear God not man. If you are hurt by the truth, take it up with our God who is our Father, Creator, and Savior. I’ll pray for you.

  28. Jim says “The argument here is not scientific or linguistic, it’s political.” The changing of the word “mother” to “Heather’s Two Mommies” was very political. Redefining of words is prominent in politics, as in Bill Clinton asking for the definition of “is”. In a large percentage of these cases, the meaning is changed in a effort to make legitimate an activity than was rejected by society (as in the Man/Boy love society) or to avoid possible punishment, as in the case of Clinton. Politics loves to blur language. Blurring or redefining at will our language in effect also negates science, since science is based on precise language. Discussions of language and how redefining it attempts to change reality for the benefit of the speaker or group are certainly germane to any science discussion.

  29. I won’t be the one to defend or deny government doublespeak. However, to give but one example, and there are several, various groups and individuals have tried to add to the language a gender-neutral pronoun to replace the ubiquitous and clumsy “he/she” or the masculine positive “he” in such sentences as:

    “If anyone calls for me, tell them to leave a message.”

    That “them” is grammatically incorrect because it’s plural, but the noun it refers to “anyone” is singular. The default “correct” form is:

    “If anyone calls for me, tell him or her to leave a message.”

    But people hate that and regularly don’t use it, especially in writing.

    The default answer, culturally, is to use “him” even though “anyone” can could also be a woman. The move away from this default masculine position can be viewed as political and various pronoun alternatives have been proposed. However, none have taken. Instead the use of the “incorrect” “they” has dominated.

    Political shifts in language, if they are only political shifts and do not reflect an underlying reality, are normally exposed for their superficiality and do not take hold popularly. So we can say that the shift from “mother” meaning “biological mother” to “female caregiver that is neither adopted or step-” is political and that it is the result of some nefarious liberal plot. Or we can accept that “motherhood” means more than biology and that language has changed to reflect the nature of reality.

  30. Sylvain Allard

    Who is the mother when a child is adopted?

    Who is the the mother when the birth mother was a surrogate?

  31. If this confounding of language keeps up, the powers-that-be might, one day, change the name of the Department of War to the Department of “Defense.”

    Next, we’ll probably end up bombing people in order to “liberate” them, we’ll start wars of aggression so that we can create “peace,” we’ll eliminate services for the poor in order to “help” them, and we’ll refer to our emotionally and ideologically-based decisions as “science.”

    Best of all, we’ll create a culture of competition and greed, devour resources and pollute the environment, degrade meaningfulness and purpose, and then, at the end of the day, we’ll refer to the whole enterprise as “progress.”

  32. Briggs


    Won’t be at computer today. More tonight or tomorrow.

    Surrogacy not a mother, unless surrogate also supplies her own egg. Surrogate as much a mother as babysitter.

    Chris Horvath,

    Quite right. We lost something when we started the silly euphemism for the Department of War.

  33. Will

    Jim Pavlik: mother means mom, as in baby momma. Urban dictionary it. Givin’ er a different meaning is the poetry, not the prose.

  34. Syvain: Again, you are illustrating why expanding the use of the term “mother” to include anyone the speaker wants to include is a problem. You HAD to use the term “birth mother” in order to avoid asking “who is the mother when the mother was a surrogate?”. You needed the language to be precise and used a modifier for mother. Yet, call someone an adoptive mother and the hackles go up. “She’s a REAL mother.” So any adopted child has two mothers. Children in foster care can have six or seven mothers. Then if the adoptive mother marries or remarries after divorce, the child has dad (male who adopted child), dad (male who married adoptive mother) and dad (birth father who provided the sperm in the first place). The result is a complete degradation of language. At this point, we would be better off having persons under 18 refer to the adults who currently have legal custody of them by the adult’s first name. We could add bracelets for the person under 18 to wear, identifying the name of their legal custodian so the person under 18 could correctly identify which adults have legal rights regarding the person under 18. The person under 18 could also carry a card listing the names of whomever donated the sperm and egg, adults who has prior legal custody and any other individuals who were in any way related to the person under 18. The person under 18 still has the option to call anyone “Mom”, but we replace “Heather has two mommies” with “Heather has two persons over the age of 18 who have legal custody of her” or “Heather has one person over the age of 18 who has legal custody of her and one person over 18 who lives with the person who has legal custody”
    When the definitions of words become “changed”, then new words are needed to replace the old ones, at least in the legal arena.
    I suppose in a society that cannot tell the difference between a child and dog/cat, this is to be expected. I await the day dogs/cats become legally children and persons over 18 become “Mom” and “Dad” when they bring home a puppy.

  35. Jim Fedako


    I think you forgot that the it takes a village to raise a child — so we are all mothers, and, more importantly, the mother of Sacha 😉

    That said, you are correct: the mother is the mother — dictionaries, legislation, court cases, or opinions change nothing.

  36. JH

    Sheri, Shirley, and Katie,

    You seem to agree with Briggs’s definition of mother. If so, it implies that you agree that you are the mother of your children (if you have any) strictly because you produced the eggs, and that your mother is your mother strictly because she produced the egg for your existence. I don’t get it. Why? Is it for the sake of strict and precise language?

    I simply don’t see my mother and myself as a mother in the strict sense at all.

  37. JH

    Sheri and Briggs,

    This also reminds me of the DeBoers case (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_Jessica_case). I remember it well since I happened to live in Ann Arbor at that time. It’s understandable that the biological parents are almost always favored. Without proper consent of egg and sperm owners, one can’t take away the child. Imo, the court is to decide who gets to be the mother and father of a child, not who is the mother and father of a child! Well, I can say, at least, there is really no question of whose egg it is (i.e, Briggs’ strict sense of mother) in the court.

  38. Eric

    I propose that everyone here start using the words mother and father in the strictly biological sense, i.e., to mean the supplier of the egg cell and the supplier of the sperm cell. Immediately cease this “God Our Father” nonsense. After all, words have precise meanings!

  39. Tom

    >>I don’t get it. Why?

    Political ideologies.

  40. jim l. sekerak

    When a traditional couple who have children (a family) and decide to split up, legal arguments surrounding financial responsibility is determined by paternity (fatherhood). In cases where two women have a ‘family’ and they decide to split up, often the non-biological mother can claim that she has no responsibility and so a new twist is introduced to the meaning of the term mother namely that not only can it denote a variety of beings fulfilling the role but even when an agreement as to what it does mean, that can evaporate when a situation which advantages one over another. this will wreak havoc with contractual agreements for then one party could argue that the words “agree to pay” meant “only if the party felt like continuing the payment schedule.

  41. Ray

    I use the Humpty Dumpty dictionary so I have no problem with the definition of words. A word means exactly what I want it to mean.

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean–neither more nor less … .” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.”

  42. Eric–I have no problem replacing “Father” with “creator” when referring to God. My belief is that since the first humans created had no idea what sperm, eggs, artificial insemination and so forth were, the word “Father” was used since that was the closest relationship available at the time. God presumably needed some way to explain to Adam and Eve who he was, at least after they were escorted from the Garden. One wonders if the term did just originate at that point, since until Adam and Eve had sex and then a baby, how would they understand the term? Anyway, Creator is okay.
    My reason for the use of mother to describe the woman who physically gave birth is indeed because of the need for precise terms. Nowhere have I said, nor would I say, you cannot just add an adjective to the term–birth mother, step mother, adoptive mother. That does not diminish the relationship, but rather clarifies it. I am fully aware of how disturbing the idea that we use precise language can be when it comes to relationships. A lot of emotion goes into the name a person is called by. I have had children call me “Aunt Sheri” when I was in no way related to them. Am I their aunt? No and it can be confusing when you use a term that misleads.
    I do understand the desire to legitimize behaviour by making a term fuzzy so an activity looks like another. You see this in gay “marriage”–when the person will not accept “civil union”. They want the term redefined so their choices will seem morally equivalent to the church definition of marriage.
    Again, I would ask: If we call something “the man-boy love society” does that make these persons not pedophiles? If we do it long enough and people start using the term, then is it legitimate? It’s just a redefining of words after all.

  43. Andyd: You have found a theory/belief I had never heard of. Interesting.

    One additional note: A friend of mine always said her “mother” threw her away. This friend was adopted and pretty much hated the person who gave birth to her, yet she called this person “mother”. In adoption, no matter how much children love their adoptive parents, many want to “know where they came from”. Same with those conceived through a sperm bank. I would wager the child with “two mothers” at some point will ask which actually gave birth to her and where the sperm came from–ie who is her “dad”. Regardless of what term we use, there seems to be an internal desire/need to know who “we really are” in terms of DNA matching. Otherwise, I see no reason why an adopted child would ever look for their “real” mother if the adoptive mother was in all ways equal to the birth mother.

  44. Eric


    It is interesting that you and Briggs seem to think that mother has a universal meaning, yet you two disagree about what that meaning is. You take mother to mean the woman who gave birth, while Briggs uses it to mean the woman who supplied the egg. When these two women differ, as happens more and more these days, who is right?

    Why not accept the obvious: mother and father mean different things in different contexts. Which is why “Mother Earth”, “Mother Necessity”, “God the Father”, “the Founding Fathers”, etc. are all easily understood by everyone reading this. Unless you are being deliberately obtuse, “First baby born in France in 2013 has two mothers” is just as easily understood. It doesn’t require any scary redefining of words, just recognizing the context.

  45. Briggs


    Your argument fails and contains an obvious fallacy. I’ll give you (when we meet) a brand new shiny quarter if you can give us its Latin name.

    Come now: if mere disagreement meant that there is no underlying truth or universal, your argument that because me and another don’t agree there is no truth, is one with which I disagree. Therefore, by your logic, there is no truth of this matter, and therefore what somebody means by a logical argument is contingent on culture.

    No. The point before us remains the same. I say (crudely) “mom is the egg supplier.” You have to show this is wrong (which you cannot, because it isn’t.).

  46. Eric

    I most certainly am not arguing that truth doesn’t exist, but argue against a straw man if you like.

    I’m arguing that truth is contextual. There are multiple ways that one can be a mother, including your way and Sheri’s way. If mother is the egg supplier, and only ever the egg supplier, then what of Mother Nature, Mother Necessity, Mother Superior, Mother of Pearl, let alone step-mother, godmother, etc.? Obviously, context matters, and a person (or an inanimate object, or even an idea) can be a mother, and in many different ways.

    You play on as if the headline “First baby born in France in 2013 has two mothers” has baffled you. You call it an impossibility. Yet, there’s nothing impossible in this headline. It’s very clear what it means, and I think you know that.

  47. Briggs


    No, sir, it has not baffled me, and it is an impossibility. The question is only if my (the scientific, biological) explanation is correct or no.

    There is “context” about it. I have already said, and is in any case obviously true, that in “context” any can act “as” a mother, but acting “as” a mother is does not the thing or person a mother. Don’t we read that sometimes lizards (I believe) “bond” with whatever they first see, that a baby lizard can think a shoe or a garden hose its mare, in context? Yet that garden hose is certainly not the lizard’s mother.

    And where would be without the story of the ugly ducking?

  48. Eric: I am thinking your question concerns surrogacy or artificial insemination with someone else’s egg and sperm (is that common?). My comment concerning the mother is the one who gave birth did not consider this case–it was incomplete and I apologize if this resulted in confusion. My comments on the DNA connections people have should have indicated that in the case where the woman carried a child not physically related to her, I would go with the DNA, which is in agreement with Briggs, I believe.

    Briggs: Ducks imprint on whomever feeds them and take care of them. I had six ducks last spring that followed me everywhere and quacked all the time as if I understood. Many people would say I was their “mother”. The ducks behaved as if that were true, but in reality, I was their owner. The perception of the ducks (and some persons) did not in any way alter that reality.

  49. JH

    There is “context” about it. I have already said, and is in any case obviously true, that in “context” any can act “as” a mother, but acting “as” a mother is does not the thing or person a mother.

    How can I act as a women who has supplied the eggs (a mother)? Oh… I am not supposed to interpret the word “mother” in the strict sense. Darn it, you can at least use the word in a consistent way.

    “It’s very clear what it means, and I think you know that.” Case closed.

    Mr. Briggs, it doesn’t hurt to try to understand what people are saying, I promise.

    *s i g h *

  50. JH

    There is “context” about it. I have already said, and is in any case obviously true, that in “context” any can act “as” a mother, but acting “as” a mother is does not the thing or person a mother.

    How can I act like a women who has supplied the eggs? Oh… I am not supposed to interpret the word “mother” in the strict sense. Darn it, you can at least use the word in a consistent way.

    “It’s very clear what it means, and I think you know that.” Case closed.

    *s i g h *

  51. MattS comments, “Of course no woman can be mother and grandmother to the same person.” Well, is she bore a child begotten by one of her own sons, she would be; see, for instance, the family trees of some of the pharoahs. The mother of the daughters (and sisters) of Œdipus, Antigone and Ismene, was their paternal grandmother.

  52. Briggs


    Yes, it’s true. People really should try to understand what others are saying.

    Do you have any critiques on the definition I offered?

  53. JH

    It’s rather silly to argue that your premise that “egg is mother” can’t be applied to all cases. What’s important to a mother (at least me anyway) is her children’s views on the meaning of mother, which is a private matter. I have nothing that I care to share really.

  54. Eric


    The question is not whether “mother is egg supplier” is a valid definition. Of course it is.

    The question is whether that is a valid definition in all contexts. And, of course, it isn’t.

    I and others have listed many uses of mother where “egg supplier” makes no sense, yet the language is perfectly valid and clear to anyone reading it. You yourself, as JH pointed out, have on occasion used mother to mean something other than egg supplier. Yet, somehow, this headline writer doing the same thing bothers you deeply, even though the meaning is completely apparent.

    I’m starting to believe that jdbutters, above, had it about right: “You are dressing up inhumanity as grammar.”

  55. Rich

    Isn’t it the case that the headline has conflated two possible meanings of the word “mother” by saying, “baby … has two mothers”? The natural reading is that the word, used once, has one meaning. To this Briggs objects. Many of the responses seem to me to amount to, “but ‘mother’ can mean more than one thing”. This too is true. But if you use a word in a context requiring one meaning but with two senses then surely confusion will result. Or maybe the headline writer intended a single meaning in which case we can’t be sure which meaning that was. (I followed the link. I didn’t find illumination).

  56. I will ask again–why must the word “mother” apply to all of the situations mentioned? Why are not adoptive mother, birth mother, step-mother acceptable terms? They are more precise and make clear the relationships. The only answer I have is broadening the use of the word mother is an attempt to make all behaviours morally equal. If Heather can have two mommies, then lesbian couples are just as moral as heterosexual ones. I mentioned this before with gay marriage.
    As was mentioned before, is the term “collateral damage” an excellent redefining of what used to be called “civilian deaths”? We call army personnel “peacekeepers”. How far are you wanting to go? We already live in an age of “double-speak” and it’s only getting worse.
    A friend of mine always referred to a relative of hers as her “Foster Father”. I was confused by this because she had never been in foster care. After several years, I learned she used this term to apply to her stepfather. Language has meaning and using the wrong words leads to confusion.
    The Tower of Babel was NOT a reward. If only we could understand that…..

  57. John Butters


    Thank you for your email. I do think that “This Briggs fellow is a statistician and therefore unqualified, etc.” is a mischaracterisation of my point, but ho hum.

    In your insistence on the existence of clear universal concepts, you have regressed from Russell to Plato. You imagine that there is some absolute and unchanging concept of “mother”, and then you try to identify what it must be. Let me present two arguments against this.

    First, a strict and universal criterion of meaning is not necessary for communication and understanding. Consider the following uses of the word “mother”:

    – “My sister always tried to mother me.”
    – Of a surrogate child: “This child has two mothers, an egg donor and a birth mother.”
    – Adopted child to adoptive mother: “You’ll always be my real mother.”
    – “You were never a mother to me!”
    – “There is more to being a mother than giving birth to a child.”

    Imagine you were in situations where people uttered these expressions. Are they meaningless? Would you really fail to understand them? Surely not. And yet they fail to live up to your objective standard. But what is your objective standard for, if it is not a standard of meaningfulness? Is it supposed to be a standard of truth? There is surely something true expressed in the phrase “you were never a mother to me”. Perhaps you want to say that this expression is false in strict terms, or some such thing. Well, fine, you can say that, but what would be the point? Concepts work perfectly well without hard edges. Indeed, they work particularly well when they are flexible, as the above examples illustrate: a wonderful range of shades of meaning are expressed in them.

    Second, the idea that there are strict and universal concepts is quite unscientific. Language is a means of communication between people that has evolved over time, and the process of evolution, by its very nature, involves variety rather than fixity. Further, languages clearly change over time, as new words are adopted and old words change, but your account of language cannot deal with this obvious fact. You are interested in this natural phenomenon observed in wild creatures — that is, language in human beings — but rather than investigating its nature, which is clearly varied and varying through time, you are determined to locate it in a universal realm in an account that does away with the animals and both kinds of variation. That is not only bizarre; it is pre-scientific thinking.

    The strength of these arguments causes me to wonder why you are so enamoured of this notion of strict and universal meaning. There is a clue in your comment on this thread. You appear to think that there are only two alternatives here: that words have a fixed and unchanging meaning, or that they mean whatever you want them to mean. You are focused on the falsity of the latter proposition, but in fact both propositions are false.

    The meaning of a word, mostly speaking, is its use in a language, and language is a shared practice of human beings. The meanings of words are much like the rules of a game. Consider a game with which I am very familiar, croquet. In England, many people play croquet in their gardens, and it is a matter of some amusement that no two families ever appear to play by the same rules, and nobody ever codifies them (except the croquet associations, but real people don’t read their inventions). So then, croquet is impossible! Of course, it is not. A family can play quite well among themselves if they all, implicitly, play by the same rules. Generation learns from generation; children bring home new rules from other families and these may or may not be incorporated into the family game; visitors used to different rules can get along fine — if there is an occasional divergence of understanding, the visitor suffers a penalty once and adapts to the house rules the next time. The point is, croquet is still being played.

    Language is much like this. It evolves, over time, among communities of speakers. Occasionally — perhaps, often — there is some confusion over the rules, in which case somebody says, “can you just explain what you mean by…”. But that is a perfectly normal part of the practice and does not render language impossible. Meaning is not in fixed universals and nor is it in your mind; it is in the rules of language that are implicit in the human practice.

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