my last post about reproduction, I tried to explain why we may reproduce, even in a crowded world, in terms of the right of self preservation. Having a child (and I don't mean 10 children) is a means of survival. Not literally, of course. We don't lengthen our own lifespans by having children. But children feel to their parents a bit like second selves, so mortality is easier to face, knowing they'll be around when you're not. This has a lot to do with the genetic connection between parent and child. A child feels like a second self because a child comes from my genes and (for the mother, especially) from my body.
It occurs to me that this picture of parenthood raises some uncomfortable questions. If the "meaning" of biological parenthood involves survival and genes in this way, then what about adoptive parenthood? Here are some things one could say about it:
(1) Adoptive parenthood is experienced in the same way as biological parenthood, so has all the same meanings, but without the biological basis. Analogy: for Thanksgiving dinner, we don't have a turkey, but we make something to which we voluntarily give the same significance. We don't eliminate the turkey-role, we just fill it with something different. Along the same lines, it could be the case that adoptive parents don't eliminate the biological child role, but rather fill it with an unrelated child. If this is right, biological parenthood is primary in some sense, and adoptive parenthood imitates it.
(2) Alternatively, you might see parenthood as an umbrella term, with biological and adoptive parenthood simply two forms--not related as primary to secondary, or original to imitation. Marriage might be like that, with love-marriage and arranged-marriage two forms, one no more primary than the other. The "in law" relation is clearly like that. I have the in-law relationship both to my brother's wife and to my husband's sister--two different relationships falling under the same heading, one no more primary than the other. On this view there are differences between adoptive and biological parenthood, but one isn't "the Platonic form" of parenthood. For example, adoptive parents may have a "meant to be" feeling about connecting with their child (or so it appears, from the adoption narratives I've read), while biological parents focus on biological connections (my husband was delighted to see his crooked little finger on our children's hands when they were born). It's all parenthood, just in two different forms. Survival "meanings" might be more a part of biological parenthood, but other equally profound meanings are part of adoptive parenthood.
(3) Another view is that adoptive and biological forms of parenthood are not importantly different. It would be silly to talk about black and white parenthood as if those were deeply different types of parenthood. Likewise, on this view, it's silly to distinguish types of parenthood based on how parents link up with children. It just doesn't matter where the kid comes from--parents are custodians of dependent children in either case. The irrelevance of origin doesn't completely exclude the possibility that children make mortality easier to face. If people can feel better about their mortality because they've left behind books or paintings or businesses they invested themselves in, why not because they invested themselves in children simply by caring for them? This view says biological and adoptive parenthood are not "separate but equal"--as in (2); they're trivially different "realizations" of the same relationship.
I've been thinking about adoption with the help of the book Adoption Matters (edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt). Some authors in the anthology (e.g. Janet Farrell Smith) take it as axiomatic that biological parenthood is in no way primary. So (1) is out of the question. Some authors also see nothing special about genetic ties. For example, Jacqueline Stevens calls sperm "largely useless" and proposes we recognize mothers (who give birth) and parents (the person or persons, of whatever gender, to whom a mother grants custody--possibly herself), but not fathers. Genes, she think, do nothing but establish species characteristics (a million twin studies notwithstanding). So (2) is out, since it countenances significant differences between experiencing a child as "mine" by genetic connection and "mine" in some other way.
I sense, to be honest, a sort of ideological commitment to (3) in the book--driven by the thought that nothing but (3) could possibly allow adoptive parents to be satisfied as biological parents, and adopted children to be satisfied as adopted children. We must refuse to countenance differences, or someone's going to wind up with a smaller slice of the pie. This requires all sorts of mental contortions. Somehow you have to buy into a level of "anti-essentialism" (the word is strange--"innate" and "essential" don't actually mean the same thing) I find bizarre and anti-scientific. Sperm just ain't "largely useless." Nor can we make it true that the structure of the family is completely culture-driven just by repeating the phrase "socially constructed" over and over again. Like animals are innately wired to bond and deal with offspring in pre-specified ways, there is an innate component to the way human parents deal with children, and children respond to parents.
I can't see having views on parenthood that denigrate adoptive parents or adopted children, but I don't see that (1) or (2) do so. We can be egalitarian without refusing to see differences. (Wait--that's what I said in my animal book! It's true here too.) So--all three views seem to be in the running. Maybe (not to be wishy washy, but...) they can actually be combined in a complex picture of adoptive vs. biological parenthood.