BETTER OFF ELSEWHERE

About one thing, Bartholet and other "caveat biology” authors are surely right: "better off elsewhere” situations are a frequent reality. Social workers, adoption agencies, and would-be adoptive parents can sometimes see, for a particular infant, two futures. The child’s local future with her biological family is pretty bleak. A much better future can be given to the child if she is transferred to a different parent or set of parents and grows up with all the advantages of affluence. Can biological parents justify keeping their children, when they would be better off elsewhere?

You could try to avoid the conundrum here by insisting that a child will actually always be better off with her biological parents. Even the worst-off kids are best off with their own parents, you might say. After all, there are built-in compatibilities based on shared traits. Athletic dads tend to have athletic sons, who can get the childhood they need from their biological dads. Introspective dads tend to have introspective sons. And beyond that tendency to be compatible, there is also the child’s wish to know the people who brought him into the world, and to be embraced and loved by them. Furthermore, the fact that children come from us gives biological parents an edge because they are naturally disposed to have the parental attitudes to their progeny, many of which are beneficial for kids. From the biological parent, you can usually (though not always) count on devotion and investment.

All of these considerations should make us think kids are, in fact, often best off with their biological parents, but there are clearly many cases in which, despite all the very real benefits of biological parents raising their own kids, a child would nevertheless be better off elsewhere. The parents are that disadvantaged. So what about those situations? Do those disadvantaged parents have the right to raise their biological children, or should the best interests of the child be the decisive consideration?

It’s all too easy to be seduced by the phrase "the best interests of the child.” When two parents vie for custody, the best interests of the child may be the consideration that legitimately serves as a tiebreaker. In other cases, parents are abusive or neglectful, so the child’s interests become a paramount concern. But in my view it is not up for debate whether children should remain with their biological parents whenever the alternative is adoption by a more capable and better off nonparent. Most of us think disadvantaged biological parents are entitled to keep their children and don’t have to forfeit them to the best-equipped alternative parent.

Two fascinating, superbly written books, Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by

Katharine Boo, are full of “better off elsewhere” cases. Whether in the Bronx (LeBlanc) or in the slums of New Delhi (Boo), we surely don’t want to abandon the assumption that desperately poor people are entitled to custody of their children. When intervention is warranted to help the children, it should usually come in the form of assistance, not removal of the child from the family. Likewise, parents were entitled to their children when Aborigine children in Australia were forcibly removed from their parents starting around 1909, and continuing for fifty-seven years. One rationale, among others, was to provide better care for the children, who were sometimes fostered out to white parents. If it could be proven that these children were better off, and went on to happier futures than Aborigine children raised by their biological parents, this wouldn’t prove that the transfers were justified. They were not, most of us believe.

In another case of forcible child removal, children were taken from unwed mothers at Magdalene convents in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States in the nineteenth century, and all the way through to the end of the twentieth century (the last one closed in 1996). A case of forcible adoption is dramatized in the movie Philomena, and the book by Martin Sixsmith on which it is based. Was it in the best interests of Philomena’s son to be taken from her, in a country where “fallen women” were marginalized? He certainly enjoyed prosperity in the United States, and a level of success he probably would not have achieved in Dublin, becoming chief counsel to the Republican National Committee in the Reagan years. That surely does not make the Magdalene sisters’ decision the right one.

Why are biological parents entitled to custody of their children even in many cases where the children would be better off elsewhere? There seems to be no better explanation than to say that the children we bear are ours—a part of our wider identity. My child— regardless of how disadvantaged I may be—is like a part of me; thus, I’m entitled to custody like I’m entitled to retain other parts of myself—my blood, my kidneys, my labor. Barring serious abuse and neglect, it’s up to parents to raise their children if they wish to do so.

The prerogatives of a biological parent include being paired with the right child in the hospital, and rearing a child, but also deciding who else should rear the child, if he or she prefers not to. First parents get to choose second parents, and don’t have to choose what is best, from some psychologically or sociologically approved perspective. This sort of prerogative is dramatized in the movie Juno, about a teenage girl who winds up pregnant while still in high school. After deciding against abortion, Juno chooses a single woman to adopt her child, without making any careful assessment of the pros and cons of different family structures. She simply prefers that particular woman. First parents are granted this power purely out of the belief that there’s a very strong prerogative to determine the initial life course of one’s own offspring. Children are ours in a profound sense, and there seems to be no better way to expand on that but to say they are a part of our very identity.

 
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