Bartholet’s emphasis on the child seems morally admirable, but we should be alarmed when only children are taken into consideration, not the adults who create them. This child-only focus in adoption discussions on the political left is the mirror image of the child-only focus in abortion discussions on the political right.
Suppose each of us starts life as a zygote, and also that we are immediately full persons, starting at conception (I rejected both of those assumptions in chapter 5, so I’m just supposing.) Pro-life ethicists with those starting assumptions tend to say that they are conclusive. The child-centric approach to abortion requires women to carry their pregnancies to term, without consideration of how much sustenance the fetus has a right to, specifically from the mother, much like the child-centric approach to adoption puts the child first, and the mother far behind if part of the equation at all. The "caveat biology” stance on adoption is often taken by people who think of themselves as strong feminists—like Bartholet—but it’s surely the furthest thing from feminism if we don’t recognize mothers as rights-holders at every stage—both when a woman is pregnant and after she has delivered a baby.
Suppose we were to extend rights to both children and parents, but without taking biological relationships (that is, who comes from whom) into consideration. A recent book that approaches the right to parent this way is Family Values, by Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift. Adults, they say, have an interest in raising children, because this satisfies such a deep human desire; thus, adults have a right to raise children. To this they add the idea that "children come first”: parents may only satisfy their interest in raising children if they can satisfy the interest children have in being raised. Biology is immaterial, on their view, apart from the way that shared genes tend to increase compatibility.
With only these principles in play, the parenting aspirations of would-be adoptive parents would be easily satisfied. They have a right to parent too, and many can presumably raise children as well as anyone else. That’s all very well. The problem is how much adoption is sanctioned by these principles. Consider, again, some of the examples above. Suppose the unwed Irish teenager in a Magdalene convent and a rich American couple both want to fulfill their right to be parents by raising the teenager’s biological child, and biology truly doesn’t matter. Why not give the infant to the rich Americans, considering that it is unclear that the teenager can raise the child well enough, but more likely that the rich Americans can?
Why not build orphanages in destitute places, tempting poor biological parents to relinquish their infants, so that affluent Westerners can fulfill their right to be parents? Why not transfer kids from poor Aborigines to wealthy white people? If a child is nobody’s child at birth, family courts need to peruse the various interests in question, and secure the best outcome. So much the worse for a birth mother who can’t compete with what other potential parents have to offer.
Surely this is a reductio ad absurdum of dispensing with biological considerations. In my view, we shouldn’t hesitate to make moral claims that are grounded in biological facts; we should just avoid making moral claims grounded in nonfacts or nonrelevant facts. Facts about origins, causation, history, and so on have a huge role to play in many areas of law and ethics. Imagine trying to have a law and ethics of criminal responsibility while dismissing natural facts about which murders originated from which individuals. Or trying to have a law and ethics of intellectual property without attaching any significance to who created what. No, natural facts are legitimately appealed to as the grounding for moral facts about prerogatives, entitlements, obligations, and rights. We merely must think things through carefully, focusing on the right facts.
By all means, let’s do away with the idea that children are owned property of their parents. We can all agree that it shouldn’t be possible to buy or sell a child. One of the ways that Irish unwed mothers were mistreated involved money: their babies were essentially sold to others (with convents reaping the profits). It wouldn’t have helped much if the mothers had done the selling themselves, as the rightful owners of their children, pocketing all of the money. We all agree that children can’t be owned in the way that animals currently can be owned. However, we do need a not-wildly-distant replacement for such property-based concepts. The replacement I am suggesting is the link between parent and child that makes one the second self of the other. We don’t own our kids, but we can’t split parents from their children—their second selves—without having very good reasons.
Even if biological parents’ rights are recognized, we still should heed some of Bartholet’s policy recommendations. When children are truly parentless and living in inhospitable orphanages, transfer to adoptive parents should be swift. Even if it’s true that a community has rights on top of individual parental rights (I shall remain agnostic about that), it does a community no good at all to retain parentless children who are quickly becoming dysfunctional, and will become, over time, more of a community burden than a benefit. The true reason why some countries are closing the door on adoption is probably often national pride, the wish not to be seen as incapable of providing for the vulnerable and defenseless.
But if parental rights are recognized, we will also have to heed Smolin and Joyce’s concerns about international adoption. Parents cannot give genuine consent to relinquishing their children when they’re being offered unimaginable riches to do so: spots for their children in fancy orphanages and transport to "The American Dream.” Orphanages need to be grassroots, community-based accommodations and not more. They need to be genuinely helpful to parents, without forcing them to choose between riches for their children, and preserving family bonds. The stigma of single motherhood should be lifted, so women can keep their own children, when that is their preference.