There’s an article on the front page of CNN today, an opinion piece, that defends traditional marriage. Because it would violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause to do so, the argument – like the one that will be heard before the Supreme Court soon – is void of any religious language. Even if conservative Christianity is the elephant in the room, lawyers will dress the elephant up in legal language to make their case, pretending as though their argument is, in fact, not based on their Biblical hermeneutic. So, how exactly do you dress that elephant up?
In the CNN article, the thesis is two-pronged. First, the authors claim that marriage is more than simply an emotional bond. To them, marriage exists for the explicit purpose of forming a family, of biological procreation. Second, the authors offer a weak slippery slope argument: if we allow gay marriage, we have to also allow group partnerships or “polyamorous” marriage, as well. Since the history of the Supreme Court is keen on throwing out slippery slope arguments as a “parade of imaginary horribles” (unless you’re Justice Scalia), I’m more interested here in the first part of the authors’ thesis – that marriage exists for the purpose of creating and trumpeting biological kinship.
Here is what the article says:
All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.
So, the authors believe that a biological relationship with both parents takes precedence over all other forms of kinship. Such a relationship is, as they say, ideal.
Stepping aside from the issue of gay marriage for a moment, I wanted to approach this argument in terms of adoption, instead. And not necessarily gay adoption. Because an argument that favors blood relation so strongly will also negatively impact straight, single parents wishing to adopt. An argument with such a strong biological import perpetuates a second-class citizenship of adoptees and adoptive parents. Such an argument says to the world: unless you were raised in the nuclear family with both biological parents present, you were at a disadvantage. That creates a dangerous stigma around this group of people. Such an argument assumes that there are not also disadvantages to the so-called nuclear family, as if the nuclear family is less-likely to contain an abusive or “absent” parent. Or as if the nuclear family will guarantee that both parents will love and nurture their children, while other family’s cannot do so as well.
As I see it, the biggest flaw with these kinds of argument is this: they believe the parent-child biological bond is stronger and more meaningful than the parent-child adoptive bond. This misunderstands adoption entirely.
There are many forms of adoption. There are open and closed adoptions. There are adoptions from birth and adoptions from foster care. Youth are often adopted in their childhood or teens. There are bi-racial adoptions and gay adoptions. There have even been adults adopted.
Adoption is, to say the least, a complex form of creating kinship. But the complexity of a relationship doesn’t make the relationship less meaningful or less loving. If anything, the fact that parents wishing to adopt must endure stringent and careful background checks, financial hold-ups, and a lengthy bureaucratic process (a process biological parents unfortunately skip), their commitment to passing the endurance test on becoming a parent can often be indicative of the kind of parents they will be.
So, there are many different forms of adoption, and if someone wants to adopt, it isn’t easy. Only those who are truly committed to it can pull it off. My focus here is only on adoptions from birth, because it would be too lofty a task to tackle all the different kinds of adoption in a short blog post, so I admit I’m limiting myself for the sake of convenience.
When you adopt a child from birth, they are not someone else’s kid you’re raising. That’s a common misconception that needs correcting. Through adoption, a child legally joins your family. She legally takes your name. In nearly every case, her legal, former identity ceases to be. She becomes your child, not your child and someone else’s, too. Even in open adoptions, where children may encounter their biological parents and perhaps form a kind of parent-child bond with that person, their parents – legally – are the folks who adopted them and took on the task of raising, feeding, and nurturing them as part of that legal agreement. True, in an open adoption, biological parents may play a role in care-taking, and no doubt, there is the potential for that bond to be “special” and important, but that person has given up their rights to be the legal parent. And when they gave up those rights, they essentially said, “I’m giving up the role of mother [or father] and letting someone else take on that responsibility and build that bond with this child.” Thus, to praise a blood relationship as more special or more important is fundamentally flawed. There are many types of special relationships formed in raising children, and in every childhood, there are always multiple opportunities for both males and females to be positive (or negative) role models for children. A child of a single parent or with two parents of the same sex is not going to be sheltered from influences of the opposite sex. It’s as if the proponents of traditional childbearing believe that lesbian women will hide their children away anytime a man comes around. What’s more likely is that adoptive parents, lesbian women included, understand that raising children takes a community. There will always be role models in schools and in after-school programs. There will always be opportunities to create the kinds of bonds crucial to nurturing children. Why hold kinship hostage to only a select few?
I think on this issue, there’s actually a deeper question at hand here. When there are buzz words floating around this conversation, like “special bond” or “special relationship,” it’s almost as if those in favor of blood relationship over adoption seem to think that there is some magical connection within our genetic code. Those who have studied genetics and decoded our DNA, to my knowledge, have yet to tell us about any specific genes that are responsible for creating a bond based solely on blood kinship.
I can’t help but wonder at this point, why is it so important that a family be connected by blood? And if it is so crucial – to trumpet a slippery slope argument for fun – why are these individuals not also pushing for marriages of incest? If you let the logic run its course, there are plenty of royal families throughout history who did believe blood lines were important enough to continue marrying within the family. Is this not that same logic prevailing on a smaller scale?
Genetics should not be the ruling factors in raising children. Perhaps, we need to ask, instead, what makes a bond “special.” After all, if we’re going to argue that it’s DNA, we need to be prepared to show which genes are responsible for this magic kinship.
I suspect that what makes a bond “special” is loving-kindness. It’s patience. It’s commitment to responsibility. It’s mutual: if you want someone to love you, love them back. Creating meaningful bonds like those found in familial kinship is near impossible to legislate. How do you legislate whether or not someone is patient in their relationships? How do you legislate whether or not someone is committed to love? Sure, you can maximize the likelihood that a set of parents may be good parents, and that’s really what adoption aims to do in some ways, but you don’t do that with sweeping generalizations about certain groups of people, like gays or lesbians. Such a notion is just bigoted. Especially when studies have shown that gays and lesbians very often make good parents.
And that’s really what it boils down to for me. There are some awful parents out there. Some are biological parents. Some are adoptive parents. There are kids who have both a mother and a father and one or both are terrible. There are single parents who are terrible single parents. As more gays and lesbians are able to adopt, there will probably be some terrible gay and lesbian parents out there too. But blood relation, or lack thereof, cannot be a predictor of someone’s ability to parent well.
Or, to sum that all up nicely, you might can legislate whether or not someone is a mother, but no law can make someone a Mom. And neither can blood.
Since this debate really is so steeped in religion, whether the conservative right will veil that from the Courtroom or not, and since this debate seems to focus so heavily around kinship and what makes someone kin, it seems best to end with what Jesus had to say about blood relationships:
Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Someone told him, ‘Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.’ He replied, ‘My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’ (Lk. 8:19-21, NIV).
It seems that even Jesus, himself an adoptee, didn’t believe that meaningful familial relationships were born solely in blood. So, why should we?