Battling for Our Children

First published in Between the Lines, March 9, 2006

Question: What’s worse than a dozen or so states contemplating gay marriage bans during an election year?

Answer: A dozen or so states contemplating gay adoption bans during an election year.

Welcome to 2006. At least sixteen states are considering laws or ballot initiatives restricting the ability of gay individuals or couples to adopt. I’m not sure that this is politically worse than what happened in 2004, when a similar number of states banned same-sex marriage. Adoption bans might help to get out the right-wing vote, but they might also make right-wingers look petty and politically dishonest to moderates. We’ve learned some things since 2004, and the issues are different enough to keep things interesting.

But politics aside, the movement to ban gay adoption strikes me as morally and rhetorically worse than the movement to ban gay marriage. One of the most terrible charges you can levy against someone is the accusation that they pose a threat to children. Indeed, the more extreme opponents of gay adoption have referred to it as a form of child abuse. Those are fighting words.

The central argument against gay adoption is the worst kind of argument: it proceeds from what is not true to what does not follow.

What is not true is the claim that same-sex parenting is suboptimal for children. A growing body of research reports no notable differences in well-being between children reared by homosexual parents and those reared by heterosexual parents. In the words of the American Academy of Pediatrics, “a considerable body of professional literature provides evidence that children with parents who are homosexual can have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as can children whose parents are heterosexual.” The AAP “supports legislative and legal efforts to provide the possibility of adoption of the child by the second parent or coparent in these families.”

But let’s suppose the American Academy of Pediatrics is wrong. Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that same-sex parenting is indeed suboptimal. Even so, it wouldn’t follow that it should be banned.

It is probably optimal for parents to have a certain level of education, but it doesn’t follow that those with less make bad parents. It is probably optimal for parents to be financially well off, but it doesn’t follow that those who are less so make bad parents. And so on. So even if it were true (which it isn’t) that same-sex parenting is suboptimal, it would not follow that gays and lesbians make bad parents or that they should be forbidden to adopt–especially when the alternative is for children to be raised by the state, which virtually everyone agrees is a poor option.

Opponents of same-sex parenting often describe it as “deliberately depriving children of a mother or a father.” This is another serious charge, and it’s worth careful attention.

If I kill a child’s mother or father, then I thereby deprive him of his mother or father. If I give a child a home, then I don’t thereby “deprive” him of anything–I give him something. By describing same-sex parenting as “depriving” children, opponents are making it sound as if same-sex couples are snatching children’s birthparents away from them. The implication is not merely false; it is morally irresponsible.

Anything can be described in such a way as to make it sound bad. When parents choose to live in the city, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their children of the joys of country life” (or vice-versa). When parents with only female children choose not to have any more children, we can describe them as “deliberately depriving their daughters of a brother.” Indeed, we can accuse them of sending a message that “brothers don’t matter,” just as same-sex parenting opponents accuse lesbian parents of sending a message that fathers don’t matter.

Such claims would be laughable if they were not so hurtful. They do not merely badly mis-describe the situation; they falsely accuse good people of doing awful things. And the people hurt by them are not merely gay and lesbian parents: they are, most of all, children–both those in loving same-sex families and those who would be deprived of them by these terrible bans. Here the term “deprive” is apt: when children await adoption, those who stand in their way for spurious reasons do indeed deprive them of something.

Opponents of gay adoption claim that this is a battle for our children’s welfare. They’re right about that.