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Brenda Almond on why the gay adoption debate isn’t really about sexual morality.
Politicians and others would reach sounder conclusions if they could bring themselves to see the current debate about gay adoption and discrimination as part of a broader debate about the family. This debate is as much philosophical and sociological as it is religious. It is between those who see the family as a social construction, and those who see it as a biological unit. For what the same-sex couple cannot be for a child is both a mother (female parent) and a father (male parent). To say that it is discriminatory to recognise that there is a difference between a couple that can do this and a couple that cannot is to imply, essentially, that mothers do not matter, or fathers do not matter. For most ordinary people that is simply self-evidently false. The very terms ‘motherless child’, ‘fatherless child’ carry pathos in themselves. This is not to disparage same-sex relationships. But, while many same-sex relationships are entered into for reasons which have nothing to do with raising children, there are persuasive advocates of same-sex marriage who unambiguously see it as something that necessarily involves the reconfiguration of ‘family’. As one advocate has put it: “Gay experience with ‘families we choose’ delinks family from gender, blood, and kinship.” (William N. Eskridge, Jr. Gaylaw: challenging apartheid in the closet.)
The argument in favour of ‘families we choose’ has been widely endorsed in the West, and law is being refashioned to accommodate it in Canada, parts of the USA, and now also in Europe. Legal references to ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘mother’ and ‘father’ are being replaced with gender-neutral terms, and even birth certificates may cease to give basic biological information. This is not only a matter of changing language. In the Canadian province of Quebec, when a woman in a same-sex civil union gives birth, her female partner is presumed to be the child’s father, and can be registered as such on the birth certificate. The view that prevailed in Canada is that the legal privileging of biological parenting is an attempt to impose heterosexuality on would-be parents.
Of course, these moves have been made in order to avoid a serious wrong. They are intended to guard against discrimination and prejudice. But this should not therefore mean the ruthless suppression of traditional assumptions, especially the assumption that children need mothers and fathers, and that, other things being equal, where that has become impossible, the best option is to find them a situation as similar to that as possible.
It is hard then to understand the hatred for the family that some intellectuals evidently feel. They seem determined that, even if the term ‘family’ remains in use, they will change its meaning beyond recognition. And they are being only too successful in promoting the message that traditional family structures have no place in a world of gender equality.
This attack on biology, however, is only the most recent and most damaging development in the story of the family. We are being forced to choose between the biological and the sociological account as the legal basis of parenthood, not only in the case of adoption and fostering, but also for children born from assisted reproduction. Indeed, it is the development of the new reproductive technologies that have given a sense of urgency to the debate about the claims of natural ties.
But the pressure to see the genetic relationship as negligible must be challenged. The genetic relationship – the blood tie – is deeply bound in with the most fundamental aspects of human existence: conception, birth, sex, death and generational replacement. In the end, whatever other attributes we may claim, we are an animal species, and as such, the world of genetics has opened our eyes to the incredible intricacy and power of biological connections. The fact that a long-dead ancestor or a contemporary sibling or half-sibling can be identified from a mere microscopic scraping taken from the human body gives ‘family’ a new and extraordinary meaning.
But is this enough to claim back the mother/father/child triad as the paradigmatic family form? Or is this a misplaced attempt to reclaim something that never really existed – a sentimental hankering after an illusory past? The only answer can be that while relationships can be moulded and shaped by choice, nature and consanguinity are not so malleable. Natural bonds are independent of individual preference: they have a past and a future beyond our control and give us a stake in the future that is beyond individuality. At least part of what it is for human beings to flourish, whether or not they are parents themselves, is for them to have a part in the continuity of human existence. What would our own projects – cultural, political or personal – be worth, if they, as well as ourselves, had no future? As for the current gay adoption debate, the position of the Catholic Church on this, which has given rise to such controversy, is in the end rooted in the recognition of the reality of the natural family. And, as I’ve argued, this recognition is entirely independent of its own, or its critics, views about the morality of different types of adult sexual relationships.
© Brenda Almond 2007
Brenda Almond’s book The Fragmenting Family was published by Oxford University Press in November 2006. She is Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Philosophy at the University of Hull and a Member of the Human Genetics Commission.