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Home arrow Psychology arrow The philosophical parent : asking the hard questions about having and raising children
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RHETORIC AND REALITY

The intent of Bartholet and others is primarily to elevate adoption, to remove any stigma attached to it, and to keep infants from languishing in squalid orphanages. You can’t quarrel with those goals. But the rhetoric here, if taken seriously, leads in a frightening direction. Bartholet’s approach, focusing as it does on what an infant would want, cannot explain what’s wrong with taking babies from Irish unwed mothers, very poor Aborigine parents, and destitute people everywhere. These things must be just fine, if we liberate ourselves from the "biology bias” and adopt a child-centric perspective. But even Bartholet doesn’t appear to think they’re really just fine, in the final analysis. She does put forward "What would the infant want?” as the right question, but toward the end of Family Bonds, she says something entirely different.

My point is not that adoption is the same as biologic parenting but that it should be recognized as a positive form of family, not ranked as a poor imitation of the real thing on some parenting hierarchy. I do not think we should jettison the biologic model of parenting and insist on a universal baby swap at the moment of birth.

In fact, Bartholet writes that there is "some presumption in favor of biologically linked parenthood.” This is not based on the child’s being "our own,” for the parents, but on psychological facts. In some sense parents know their child during pregnancy, making relinquishment painful for them. Pregnancy, childbirth, and "the sense that a child is your genetic product” can create "a healthy bond between a parent and a child, and their absence may create a greater potential for problems.” Furthermore, she concedes that "genetic heritage is an important influence on intellect and personality,” and goes as far as to say that "for many parents some level of likeness is important and too much difference is problematic.”

This is all perfectly sensible, but is it enough? The problem is that such concessions ground a rather weak presumption in favor of parents, not a strong presumption. If parents may keep their children even in spite of destitution or the heavy stigma of unwed motherhood (in traditional societies), or discrimination against their ethnic group, this can’t be just because they are likely to be especially attached and especially compatible. That’s a small thing, in comparison to the problems these children will face, if they stay where they are. And adoptive parents will no doubt be attached and reasonably compatible too.

The only thing that could justify parents in keeping children despite extremely difficult circumstances is something as powerful as ownership. And that’s what I am putting forward: not ownership, but strong parental prerogatives based on the fact that a child is a quasi-self-extension. Only if that Irish teenager is permitted to assert “This child is mine!” can she demand to keep him, her socioeconomic problems notwithstanding; and that assertion is difficult to ground while denying the importance of where the baby comes from.

 
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