TIES WITHOUT STIGMA

I suspect “caveat biology” adoption advocates see it as more egalitarian to regard children as untied to biological parents. Taking biological ties seriously smacks of aristocracy and hereditary peerage, they think. Enormous privileges once attached to being an earl’s or a duke’s son, as opposed to just a commoner’s son (and never mind daughters). It’s in the same general realm to think it matters that you were born of one set of parents rather than another. We’ve done very well by eliminating aristocratic social categories, but would we be doing equally well if we thought of every child as just a citizen of a country, or even a citizen of the world, without attaching importance to each child’s origin? Must there be a stigma attached to adoption if biological ties are given any weight?

There can be a stigma, if one thinks an adoptive parent cannot enjoy the sense of generativity that a biological parent has, and cannot have the full sense of their child as a second self. That was once commonly thought. Adopted children were seen as severed from their "real parents” and adoptive parents as pitiably worse off than biological parents. But those aren’t inevitable consequences of taking origins seriously.

There need be no stigma associated with adoption at all, if we recognize that parenthood can be transferred from biological parents to others, and that people who desire parenthood are capable of finding much the same connection to children when the connection starts later on, and not at or before birth. I have argued that the first people with the parental connection to children are normally the biological parents but not that they must be the last people. If we are primed to have a certain kind of connection and attitude toward children we consider our own, we can have it whether we enter the picture as mothers do, as fathers do, or as adoptive parents do.

The way kids come from us, thus becoming second selves, makes being the first to parent a special case. It takes authorization from first parents for there to be a second set of parents (abandonment counting as tacit authorization). Second parents can have the sense of the child coming from them, because of all their innumerable interventions and their involvement in the child’s transformation from baby to toddler, toddler to teenager, and teenager to adult. All this gives them, too, the sense of the child being a second self.

Could adoptive parents have that sense, could all of us have it, in a world where all children are redistributed as a matter of course, going to people based on their being willing to parent and well equipped? To what extent does the generativity of adoptive parents derive from their having internalized the model of the biological parent—perhaps, in part, due to their own earlier strivings to be biological parents?

"Caveat biology” adoption advocates typically reject the modeling hypothesis. “Adoptive parents need not model themselves on anybody, for what is specially valuable about the practice of parenting does not depend on a genetic connection between parent and child,” according to Brighouse and Swift. I certainly agree that there needn’t be any conscious modeling; what seems possible is that our tacit understanding of what it is to be a parent owes something to the “ur” experience of the procreating parent—in fact, perhaps particularly to a mother’s experience (since children start off literally inside their mothers). That may be iconic for us all, regardless of our sex or fertility or preferred method of building a family.

On the other hand, the modeling hypothesis can be overstated. Edgar Page has argued that biological parenthood is not just a model, but a model adoptive parents can’t live up to. In an article on adoption he writes, “For most people, I suspect, adopting a child falls short of being a perfect substitute for natural parenthood.” This is not the impression I get from adoption memoirs like Bartholet’s. She speaks of the pleasures of parenthood beautifully, discussing falling in love with her children and her sense of being “meant to be” their mother (recall the quote in chapter 1). The modeling hypothesis, carefully stated, doesn’t denigrate this experience or stigmatize adoption.

Friends of mine struggled for years with infertility before turning to international adoption. Armed with a suitcase full of presents for all the intermediaries in the Russian adoption system—as they had been instructed to do by the adoption agency—they headed abroad and returned with a son. The two doted on their baby like any parents would. When they later conceived a second child, it would have been not only insensitive but untruthful for anyone to speak of them only now becoming "real parents.” They became real parents when they adopted their first child. We should insist that the adopted child’s first parents did have the initial prerogative to raise, or not raise, the child, and at the same time celebrate and respect adoption. It’s important for parenthood to come about without the violation of the initial parents’ rights, but when it comes about ethically, adoptive parenthood is parenthood—nothing more and nothing less.

Once it’s established that this parent is the parent of that child, we know where the child will grow up and with whom. But now the parenting must begin. Parents make vast numbers of critical decisions for their kids, and want to make those decisions as well as possible. What should we be thinking about when we make those decisions? What is parenthood’s aim?

 
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