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Sep 14, 2010

Rundle: against male same-sex couple adoption

To not have a father, because they were distant or absent from the start by choice is a sad thing for most kids. To not have a mother for the same reason seems somehow abominable.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


God, oh God, something like a quarter of the world still lacks access to running water, basic medical care, and 2000 calories a day. So in the scheme of things, the passage of the NSW adoption Bill 46-44, is a small matter.

Yet, on the other hand of course, it isn’t. It represents an enormous change in our understanding of what rules and conditions society should set. Furthermore, it’s an issue that’s not easily compared or assimilated to others.

Legalisation of homosexuality, equal financial, legal, etc, status for same-sex partners, etc, — these days no one, save for religiously based conservatives could have any objection to these. And the vast majority of liberal-minded people believe that the issue of adoption and child-raising can be assimilated to this larger question.

The trouble is that really, the issue isn’t and can’t be constructed as a mere extension of consenting rights. Fundamental questions have to be asked about a fairly dramatic socio-legal change — and reflection on that would, I suggest, lead one to conclude that same-sex adoption — specifically male-couple adoption — should not be legalised.

Typically, pro and con sides of the debate square off over complementarity. A child, they argue, is better off with a mother and father. The stronger version is that a child has a right to a mother and father, a right grounded in biology.

The pro-faction disputes any evidence that a biological couple, or an adoptive replica of one, provide better outcomes, and tend to take a “social constructionist” view — that same-sex parenting is a liberation of general parts of life — love, care, discipline, etc — that were hitherto assumed to be either masculine or feminine in purview.

Both the “rights” argument and the “social constructionist” one are full of merconium.

To take the “rights” one first. You have to be seriously ignorant to think that the biological couple is the standard unit of parenting. Pre-cultural humans appear to have lived in multifamily bands, and the “parental unit” in many traditional “kinship” societies usually consisted of a woman and her maternal brother.

Ancient societies overwhelmingly turned child-raising over to groups of women, and feudal and early-modern (i.e. post-1400) societies tended to exchange children between mothers and grandmothers, sisters and cousins, convents and other institutions, with great fluidity, until the state took over the adoption process in the 19th century. And there are a few societies in which the concept of a father more or less has no meaning altogether.

That variety of child-raising possibilities led some to argue that parenthood itself is purely a social construction. But that’s where the social constructionist model runs out, for the idea of complementarity leads some to assume a type of equality between the roles of father and mother, which isn’t the case. They’re obviously asymmetrical. The father is overwhelmingly a culture role, the mother — and the mother-child bond — is one that lies on the boundary between culture and biology.

That shouldn’t be necessary to point out, but the times dictate that it is. We’re a biological species, with an unusual degree of infant dependency, and species reproduction has depended on the sustained bond of a feeding mother and infant. It would be bloody unusual if an infant were not oriented to the female body in a pretty hard-wired and powerful way. It would be doubly unusual if the sustained existence of that bond did not lie at the root of psychic development.

“There’s no such thing as an infant,” the great psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott said, meaning that for untold millennia, any surviving infant had to have a feeding woman — biological mother or not — pretty close to hand. It seems undeniable that a predisposition to seek, to hold, to cling to the specifically female body is part of our given nature.

I cannot see how that reasonable assumption does not become centrally relevant to the question of same-sex adoption — and how it cannot but make clear that we are dealing with two radically different cases in same-sex female and same-sex male adoption. Women have always raised children collectively, and the sleeping arrangements are irrelevant at the crucial stage I’m talking about.

But to deprive a child of a figure it can call a mother, a female with whom it has had a pre-linguistic, bodily relationship, that strikes me as an utterly different type of act, a wrong against the child — and in that respect same-sex male adoption should be ruled beyond the bounds of what we permit culturally and legally.

When I advance this case to, well, y’know, the Tsiolkas BBQ crowd, rather than the John Howard BBQ crowd, the response is usually one of first incomprehension, then ridicule. The incomprehension is usually a gut response to the proposition that the structure of existence may mean that there’s a gap between what we want and what’s best for someone else, even when we’re all good people who recycle and carbon-offset. The ridicule comes when the forebrain realises this might serve as a challenge to that illusion and deploys the social constructionist idea that human beings are infinitely malleable, abstractable, transformable, etc.

This is ’80s nonsense, of course, but more interestingly the belief is contradicted by most of the shelf of parenting books people usually have above their Jim Jarmusch DVD collection. For increasingly parenting books are filled with the findings of neurology, biology, behavioural studies that suggest exactly how hard-wired children are, in terms of fundamental psychic categories.

Does that mean men should not be involved in infant parenting? Of course not. Does it mean that the argument about the limited malleability of infant development is certain? Of course not. Does it mean that some children might have terrible and destructive mothers they’d be better off without? Of course not. Nor does it suggest that every other issue has been settled on the side of consent. Should we really have sperm banks at all, regardless of who uses them? Or should we abolish them, and discontinue industrialised anonymous fatherhood altogether? And so on.

But what the argument above does suggests is this: serving the best interest of the child — always the aim of child-centred policy — means in this case erring on the side of prudence, and cultural and biological inheritance. Abhorrence or shock is never sufficient moral argument, but it is sometimes a clue to a categorical difference we should heed. To not have a father, because they were distant or absent from the start by choice is a sad thing for most kids. To not have a mother for the same reason seems somehow abominable, the measure of adult desires that cannot be squared with the universe, or the being of children.

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72 thoughts on “Rundle: against male same-sex couple adoption

  1. Carol Bruce

    Thank you Guy for a thought provoking article. Obviously very well researched. It certainly made me stop and think this scenario through. I guess people are all for equality etc, but sometimes it is necessary to look at the big picture. Well done.

  2. Gareth Perkins

    Crikey, you’ve lost me.

  3. reb of Hobart

    Wow! What a load of bollocks thinly disguised as intellectual pontificating.

    Sure, who wouldn’t disagree that the ideal upbringing for a new born infant is with both biological parents providing that they are both capable of providing a loving supportive environment for the baby concerned.

    The reality is that there are many children languishing in temporary care, often being moved from foster home to foster home and subject to physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of unfit step-parents, relatives or friends of relatives.

    Would these children not benefit from a more supportive and loving environment that could be provided by a couple of the same gender, rather than being abused and shoved from pillar to post in a dysfunctional hetero household or as wards of the State?

    Honestly, I usually enjoy reading your articles, but your ignorance on this issue leaves me gobsmacked.

  4. amy c

    Look, I ususally love Rundle but this struck me as anything but well-researched.
    Is there any evidence for any vitally important connection between mother and baby besides for breastfeeding (which the majority of women don’t do for anywhere near long enough anyway)?
    And even if there was, is there any evidence at all that this has any long-lasting effects on the child, or any effects at all the child will even remember?
    This just strikes me as a stongly-held opinion of Rundle’s only very loosely backed up by some theory. An opinion that, if wrong, is extremely hurtful to many people. TO be honest I’m kind of disappointed.

  5. Jim Reiher

    Are you saying then at a certain age, kids could then be adopted by same sex male couples? Is this argument you are using, just for babies? Or to the age of no more breast feeding?

    Also: realistically… I belive it takes about 12 years to actually adopt in Australia (is that still the case?) By allowing male or female same sex couples to adopt in NSW, does that mean that none actually will adopt till 2022? Do they just go to the end of the list? (I would imagine so… otherwise that would be an act of queue jumping, and we all know how incidious that is).

  6. New Cassandra

    Good argument Guy but it has been totally disproved by the gay couple in Modern Family. One of the “fathers” just has to be fat and cuddly.
    TV never lies.

  7. John

    Rundle, you’ve dropped your bundle!
    The majority of male-male couple adoptions will be of known children and not necessarily what you would describe as infants.
    Some known children will be the biological children of one of the men.
    Other known children will often be older and difficult foster children whom the men have successfully fostered for a couple of years at least.
    The other likely scenarios are adoption of relatives such as nieces and nephews who have been orphaned.
    Despite your prejudice against the law being drafted in as close to an anti-discriminatory fashion as was politically possible, there will still be a queue for the preferred perfect darling newborn adoptions, and the male-male couples will be at the back of the queue. They might be considered for the babies who none of the other couples want. You know, the sick and damaged ones. They won’t even get a ticket number for overseas adoptions!
    The only likely new born adoptees will be by private surrogate arrangemnets. You know, where the men jerk off into a jar and a willing women impregnates herself and then hands back the baby.
    Rundle, why don’t you read up on it before you pontificate?

  8. Tank

    Sorry Guy, doesn’t fly, for a few reasons.

    The first is, as others point out – that you’re talking about infants, and infant adoptions make up a tiny, tiny percentage of total adoptions. A lot of adoptions are of much older children, whereby the kinds of issues you raise about infant-mother bonding and such ceases to apply. In any event, the work that adoption agencies do to match parents to children is extremely detailed. In all cases, the best interests of the child are considered. I feel very confident that an adoption agency could decide that it may not be in the best interests of a particular child that they go to a male same-sex couple – there is no need to blanketly ban all male same-sex couples.

    Your argument also overlooks the fact that the essential baby-female mother bond you’re talking about is broken already for children who are up for adoption. Their birth mother who they bonded with (or in many cases didn’t bond with) is already long gone, and I suspect it would be a long bow to draw to say that they would establish a new bond of equal importance and significance with another female figure. It is important that the child develop strong attachment relationships, but the gender of who the attach too later in their young lives is unimportant.

    The other problem I have with this argument is that it is constructed based on essentialist gender notions. How are you constructing the all important female/mother figure you say each child needs? Could a transwoman be that mother? Or could a transman, given his XX chromosomes? Where would an intersex person fit? The second you realise that actually the world doesn’t neatly divide up into ‘male’ and ‘female’, is the second this whole argument of yours runs into some troubles.

    Finally – same-sex adoption (including male same-sex adoption) has been legal in WA since 2002.
    No fundamental or seismic socio-legal shifts have occured.

  9. Down and Out of Sài Gòn

    But to deprive a child of a figure it can call a mother, a female with whom it has had a pre-linguistic, bodily relationship, that strikes me as an utterly different type of act, a wrong against the child — and in that respect same-s-x male adoption should be ruled beyond the bounds of what we permit culturally and legally.

    I’ve known quite a few people who’ve been deprived of their mothers at an early age – or in my wife’s case, during labor. Yet most have grown up to be well adjusted individuals. Some people have to manage without a mother, and find they can.

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