Cristina Odone pities children at the law's mercy

Parenthood is no longer a matter of blood; it has to be defined by state regulation

Once upon a time, children were the natural outcome of a sexual union. They were our means to ensure the propagation of the species and the handing down of family legacies - titles, fortunes, quarrels, genes and debts.

No more. Adoption, IVF, and other fertility treatments have transformed children from the natural result of heterosexual coupling into the rewards of a carefully calculated and difficult search by the well-to-do. Increasingly, children are not our flesh and blood, they are our choice. To have them hanging from a baby sling, or gurgling in our arms, we are ready to spend the money and time in uncomfortable (and, some argue, dangerous) medical procedures; we will invest a fortune and waste years in the bureaucratic red tape of adoption. No number of hurdles will detain us from achieving our objective - a bundle of joy that (increasingly) has nothing in common with us.

But if children remain highly prized, they are growing more contentious. Nature, now only one of the many agents in reproduction, has lost her status as the ultimate arbiter of who belongs to whom. Society - in the shape of dated laws and mind-boggling bureaucracies - must step in to dictate a child's fate. Look at the white couple who, having given birth to mixed-race twins after a mix-up at an IVF clinic, are to be allowed to keep the children. Dame Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a senior family judge, ruled that the couple, who had nurtured the twins for two years, had thus secured their right to the children over the black couple, despite any claim of the "natural" father. Meanwhile, several recent IVF cases have contested the right of the "natural" father to have a say over the use of his partner's frozen eggs; and there are thousands of fathers who, once alienated from the mother of their child, find that they have forfeited all rights of access to that child.

The conclusion is clear: to be a "natural" parent today confers no automatic rights. Bloodline cuts little ice. Family links must be established, revised and protected by the state. For the 5,000 children waiting for adoption in the UK this is, no doubt, a boon; but for the rest it makes for confusion. Children risk becoming the trophy of a desperate, infertile adult; the bone of contention in a spat between quarrelling parents; or the pawn in a political game (viz the row over adoption that threatens to demolish Iain Duncan Smith). Nature was often a cruel mother. But, today, at the mercy of stilted laws and regulations, are children better off?