The Adoption Radicals

I've been reading (for the second time, actually), Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays (ed. by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt).  I find myself in violent disagreement with practically every author in the volume.  The theme of one article after another is that to properly value and respect families created through adoption, we must reduce the significance of biological parenthood.   Many of the authors say that parenthood is always contractual, volitional, "constructed"-- no more so in case of adoption than otherwise.

But what about the egg and sperm that came from Kim and Kanye--don't their genes give them special rights with respect to Kimye (er, North West)?  One of the authors, Jacqueline Stevens, says No--genetic parenthood is morally immaterial.  She does recognize pregnancy as conferring rights on gestational mothers, but that's because of all the work involved, not because a mother's genes go into making her biological child.  Since fathers contribute nothing but a moment's ejaculation, they have no rights over their biological children.  Stevens proposes that birth mothers should have to adopt as well (so all parenthood is adoptive), but have special rights--(a) they're first in line, and (b) they should have the power to select others as co-parents. Which others?  Maybe the father, maybe not.  Maybe a romantic partner, maybe not.  "Not the person I am dating, but perhaps my colleague or the person who I met in line at the supermarket could be the perfect parent. Enlarging the scope of potential parenting partners, acknowledging a broader community as potentially family, can only deepen all our connections."  (p. 94)

The person I met in the supermarket line?  There is a lot more silliness in the article.  For example, she writes "...the genetic contributions from a particular inseminated egg contribute little to the individual distinctiveness of progeny beyond species specificity."  (p. 81)   And she complains that another author "fails to appreciate the material importance of pregnancy, in contrast with the largely useless nature of sperm."  (p. 86) And then there are her strange views about disease--"99% of all diseases, including cancers have a preponderance of environmental etiologies, ranging from geographical location to wealth."  (p. 83) 

Anyhow.  I think genes do count, and that fathers have a natural right to their offspring, as mothers do. The amount of labor parents put into creating their progeny could be relevant (perhaps in a custodial conflict between the biological parents, it does make sense to give the edge to the mother, in virtue of the 9 months she spent carrying the child), but it's not the only relevant thing.  The fact that my child came from me and from my husband gives us special prerogatives.  Why?  Good question. I think we can explain that without regarding children as property of their parents, but that's a long story... (the book I'm working on -- or manuscript, as cautious academics prefer to say! -- contains an answer).

I find myself wanting to insist on the natural rights of biological parents for many reasons, but partly for the sake of those at risk of having their parental rights taken away--and that's young, poor women in many cases.  (A great, great book, and one that makes you see how vulnerable poor mothers are: Random Family, by Adrian LeBlanc.)  If we thought about who gets to raise which children in terms of societal fairness and justice, perhaps it would make most sense to redistribute children, transferring them from ill-prepared, low-income genetic/birth parents to well off gays and lesbians and infertile people.  That would overcome the natural injustice of infertility and probably give more children a better future.  But no--we have reproductive rights: both to not have a child at all and to keep a child we choose to have.  My child is my child, not up for redistribution, unless I'm outright neglectful or abusive.

Once biological parents do choose to give up a child to an adoptive parent, the adoptive parent's entitlement to the child has a different basis than the biological parents' did.  Many authors in this anthology seem to think that if this difference is countenanced (or made too much of), it must have problematic ramifications--adopted kids, adoptive parents, and families formed by adoption will be seen as second class.   This alleged danger comes as a surprise to me.  I wouldn't have thought that in this country, anyway, adoption creates any sort of stigma.  We admire the woman who gives up a baby instead of having an abortion (the movie Juno comes to mind); we admire people who adopt.  And then again, we just don't think about the whole matter.  I can't imagine anyone meeting friends in college and wanting to categorize them as "adopted vs. non-adopted" whereas we certainly do screen people in terms of race, sexual orientation, religion, and so on.

Nevertheless -- stigma or no stigma -- it's interesting to ponder how adoption works.  If some of the "meaning" of parenthood has to do with biological ties, does the same meaning carry over to adoptive parenthood?  And how does that happen?  Or are there other meanings? And are they just as satisfying?  Are the prerogatives of parents exactly the same, however parenthood comes about?   I've moved on now to Mary Shanley's book Making Babies, Making Families: What Matters Most in an Age of Reproductive Technologies, Surrogacy, Adoption, and Same-Sex and Unwed Parents.  Plus I've been reading first person accounts of adoption (since I have no first hand experience to draw on).

Got adoption literature to recommend?  Suggestions welcome!

1 comment:

s. wallerstein said...

I agree with you that genes count.

Arguing against the strength of the biological tie of parents to children (which can be negative as well as positive in its strength)
is like arguing against the sex drive: it's there, it's very strong and it can be very nurturing or very destructive.

I've known adoptive parents who raised model children and I've adoptive parents whose children turned out to be so different than they are in terms of intelligence and basic character structure (genes count) that of inspite of love, parents and children do not inhabit the same social world.

Of course, sometimes biological parents and children inhabit the same social world as rivals, as enemies, as Oedipus, Electra
and Lear's daughters.

Still, genes count.