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Same-s-x adoption: exposing the myths in Rundle’s stance

Perhaps it’s an attempt to get with the “new paradigm” and find some points of agreement with his conservative enemies, but the usually dependable Guy Rundle has made a case against adoption by male same-s-x couples that is a hodgepodge of gut-driven opinion with an almost complete lack of evidentiary backing. Crikey readers have valiantly responded to his arguments from various angles, but I want to focus on four areas that render his views deeply suspect.

First, Rundle calls the NSW Parliament’s decision to allow same-s-x adoption “an enormous change in our understanding of what rules and conditions society should set” and that “the issue isn’t and can’t be constructed as a mere extension of consenting rights” in regard to same-s-x couples. This seems to be no more than a rhetorical flurry to distract from the fact that the main extension here is from the very “child-centred” principle that adoption law is already based on. The ban on same-s-x parents was in fact a politically determined exception to the principle Rundle so admires.

There is no fundamental legal right to adopt a child in Australia; rather, for very good reasons, adoption is tested on principles regarding factors contributing to the child’s welfare, as determined from epidemiological and other research. A key and consistent positive factor is stability of placement, and so children permanently stuck in the fostering system show consistently worse outcomes than those who are adopted, with the NSW decision creating a potentially greater pool of stable adoptive parents who still meet all the usual criteria.

Secondly, Rundle makes much of what he sees as a false battle between biological and social constructionist views of parent-child relationships. This is a straw person argument aimed more at provoking his BBQ friends than addressing the current state of research in the area. The knowledge base on parenting and child development, enriched by over five decades of work by scientists and social service workers grounded in Attachment Theory, is bigger than ever. Whatever its limitations, John Bowlby’s theoretical contribution has provided us with a much less reductionist view of the precise relationship between biological and social determinants of child development than Rundle seems able to muster.

Indeed, psychiatrist Bowlby scandalised the psychoanalytic community with his finding that the attachment of a child to its mother (sic) was biologically driven yet not related to the traditional view of the mother’s ability to provide bre-st milk. Bowlby’s successors have shown healthy attachments are equally possible with male-only parenting and even with group parenting arrangements (e.g. kibbutzes). Attachment quality is driven by more complex characteristics in children and primary care giver(s), with a complete lack of evidence that it is driven by gender, or more specifically by bre-stfeeding as the sine qua non of complete parenting.

I’m not suggesting that in premodern times there were as many alternatives to maternal bre-stfeeding as we have today. Nor am I denying that nutrition is a necessary prerequisite for healthy development. Rather, the mother’s bre-st is not the royal road to adequate social and emotional adjustment.

Studies that compare children reared by straight, lesbian and gay couples consistently show no significant differences in subsequent behaviour or emotional adjustment. This is not to say there are no differences in the experiences of children and care givers. But nobody has been able to show that any of these options is inherently better or worse than the others.

Thirdly, because he is unable to assert more than a moralistic case for his biological claims, Rundle briefly surveys the historical record to make his case for the centrality of female parenting. Here he creates two elementary confusions. One is that he glides over the distinction between “pre-cultural” (by which I assume he means “egalitarian hunter-gatherer”) societies and what came after. The anthropological record is clear that once egalitarianism is lost, the overwhelming majority of known societies push women into the primary child-rearing role, as well as a socially subordinate position. This cannot but colour alternative care arrangements, and to this day lesbian parents remain more accepted (and therefore more common) than gay parents.

The second confusion is Rundle’s implication that “precultural” societies had “parental units” in any meaningful modern sense. This is a case of transposing today’s definitions on superficially similar but in fact radically different arrangements. It would seem more salient that primary care giving was widely shared in such societies, whatever the formal attribution of biological relationships may have been. With the lack of inherited property, such ties would have had few commonalities with today’s “two-parent families”. Further, modern notions of s-xual orientation are also meaningless compared with much less rigid boundaries around behaviours that obtained in hunter-gatherer societies.

Finally, while it is still a relatively small field, studies of children adopted by straight, lesbian and gay couples confirm no difference in outcomes when factors unrelated to gender and s-xuality are controlled for. When Rundle refers to the parenting manuals read by his hip, Jarmusch-loving friends, he betrays his willingness to accept the typically conservative (or kooky) claims of their authors over the authority of peer-reviewed and systematically analysed research. Sure it’s a still-developing area, but there is plenty of data to suggest Rundle’s conclusions are no more than prejudices on his part.

*Dr Tad Tietze is a Sydney-based public hospital psychiatrist with a research interest in Attachment Theory. He co-runs the politics blog Left Flank.

8
  • 1
    Jon Hunt
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Yes, Rundle wrote volumes of waffle when instead he could have simply got informed about what it was he was waffling on about. Everybody thinks they’re experts at everything but this is dangerous when these “experts” have influence.

  • 2
    chinda63
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    Right on.

    It’s all about Mazlow’s Hierarchy of Needs, not about the gender of those fulfilling those needs. You nail Mazlow and you have parenting down pretty much, whether you are man, woman, intersex etc.

    That is what scares the fundies because it represents a slap in the face to everything they believe in. After all, what was God on about in the Garden of Eden if not creating the only type of family that our society wants and needs - to the exclusion of all others, they’ll have us believe?

    I call a big BS on that and thank you for your contribution to the debate.

    PS I wonder how many of those opposed to same-s-x parenting are atheists?

  • 3
    Meski
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    @Jon: I certainly don’t assume that the media are experts at anything but having an opinion. And that’s all Guy’s article was, an opinion piece. But it doesn’t stop me from reading future articles of his.

  • 4
    amy c
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for a great article. Still have not got over my disappointment with Rundle’s piece on this, so it is good to see something critical of it published.

  • 5
    baal
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    I had a feeling - familiar as it happens - that Mr Rundle hadn’t done any research on this one. But he sure got a lot of attention.

  • 6
    John james
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    What alot of nonsense.
    A poor man’s guide to Marx meets Freud.
    This guy clearly works in the public sector, for a good reason.
    No doctor, with any sense, in the private sector, would refer to him.

  • 7
    electricshade
    Posted Monday, 20 September 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    @ John James

    I see John Bowlby referenced in the article, not Marx or Freud.
    The Wiki article on him doesn’t mention anything about Marx, influences or otherwise, it has him as from an ‘Upper-Middle Class’ background & even as ‘effectively ostracized by the psychoanalytic community’.

    No matter I guess, as with Guy’s article, a lack of evidence is no impediment to fear of that ever present nebulous threat from queers/socialists/pinko commie f**s (reclaimed terms, shouldn’t even have to use asterisks there not to have the pc demons come flapping down but hey) anyhow. As you say ‘Nonsense’.

  • 8
    Posted Tuesday, 21 September 2010 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Guy has left a reply to my article in today’s letters: http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/09/21/the-greens-purpose/

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