Friday, May 10, 2002
I admit, I was more than a little taken aback by William L. Pierce's piece on Adoption in National Review Online. He starts out with a premise I endorse: the best thing for kids is to grow up in a loving, stable family headed by a mother and father who are committed to their roles as parents and to keeping their marriage strong. He further argues, correctly, that no one has a "right" to adopt. Natural parents, or anyone appointed by the state to replace them as guardians, have a duty of care toward their children, and children have a right to protection from abuse or neglect. So far, so good.
From these premises, he goes on to argue that:
* Children have the right to the "best possible parenting . . . that society can provide them;"
* There should be "no placement of children, whether for foster care or adoption, with same-sex couples or with individuals who may in the future team up with a partner of the same sex;"
* If "there is a shortage of appropriate families to foster or adopt children the proper response is to change the incentives;"
He makes a further argument about how it would be nice to prohibit lesbian couples from conceiving children using donor sperm, but this would be unenforceable.
Where to begin? How on earth is the state to determine which of a number of options provide the "best" parenting for a child in need of a home? What conservative could possibly want the state to make such a decision? Certainly, the state has an obligation to ensure that a child will be properly cared for in any setting where the child is placed, whether an orphanage or a foster home or an adoptive home. But how could the state possibly decide who is best?
It can't. All the state can decide is: a permanent home is better than a temporary one, a temporary one is better than an institution, and an institution is better than a situation of serious abuse or neglect. All the state can do is set a bar that prospective adoptive and foster parents must clear; it can't rank those who clear the bar and place kids in order of who is "best."
Which leads to the question of where to place the bar. I agree with Pierce that, if there is a shortage of potential adoptive parents, you want to increase incentives to encourage families to consider adoption. But if we are to accept Pierce's notion that children deserve the "best" parenting, we'll never be able to get the incentive scheme up and running either.
Let me give two examples. First, race. A number of localities believe that the "best" parenting for a black child is with a black family. Therefore, they will avoid placing black children with white adoptive families, preferring to leave these children with their natural parents (even if there is considerable evidence of abuse or neglect) or meandering through the foster care system. Is this a good practice? I would say emphatically not, and I suspect most Americans would agree with me; indeed, the consensus among social workers has increasingly shifted to agreement with this proposition.
But why do I think this is a bad policy? Because race is irrelevant in adoption? Anyone who has raised a child of another race knows nothing is that simple. Adoption always raises unique challenges because of the lack of natural affinity between parent and child (it offers unique rewards for the very same reason). These challenges are all the greater when racial difference between parent and child is part of the equation, and greater still for the specific case of black children raised by white parents. Nonetheless, it seems to me to be elementary morality that a child should not be left in an abusive or neglectful situation because placement with a white family raises these kinds of challenges. Such challenges can, after all, be overcome, and by people of good will, openness and clarity of purpose they should always be overcome. But the logic of Pierce's piece would seem to indicate (though I certainly don't think he believes this in fact) that one should not place these children with white families, but rather focus on using incentives to get black families to adopt. And that's wrong.
Let's look at one other example: single parents. There's considerable evidence that single-parent households - particularly female single-parent households - are less-stable environments for children. Children raised in such households are considerably more likely to have problems in school, with the law, and with forming stable families of their own. Having a live-in boyfriend doesn't help; there a good bit of evidence it makes things worse. The disparity shows up with older women as well as younger and with white families as well as black, middle-class and wealthy families as well as poorer.
By contrast, there is no substantial body of data showing that gay couples who adopt present unique problems, or that gay singles who adopt present unique problems relative to single-parent households generally. Pierce admits this, to his credit. His conclusion: "There is a basic rule of prudence that should apply as a result: When in doubt, don't." But surely, if the choice is between a situation where there is data showing harm, and a situation where there is no such data, one should prefer the latter situation. Logic would dictate, in other words, that if a class of people if to be barred from adoption on prudential grounds, in the interests of protecting children, that class should be singles, or single women, not gay couples.
The problem, of course, is that under law all gay couples are really cohabiting singles. Pierce is thus unwittingly making a case for some equivalent of marriage for gay couples - whether called marriage or by some other name - by which the state could identify gay couples intending to remain in a lifetime partnership of mutual support; the kind of thing we call a family. If we really want to provide incentives and supports for appropriate families to present themselves as potential adoptive parents, a legal arrangement for same-sex partnership that was truly equivalent to marriage would seem to be one small way to do so.