It is several decades since Ireland decriminalised homosexual behaviour. It was, however, many years after that before we were prepared to take the next step forward and allow for the registration of civil partnerships. At this stage, it would seem from recent polls that we would be happy to allow gay and lesbian couples to marry. I predict, however, that the issue of whether gay and lesbian couples should or should not adopt children will prove to be a much thornier issue. At this point one could hardly say there is a raging debate going on but there are some rumblings. Gay and lesbian couples cannot adopt in Ireland anymore than cohabiting heterosexual couples can, however, in practice this is far more restrictive on gay and lesbian couples than it is on heterosexual couples. Of course, it is arguable that whether or not a person or persons should be eligible to adopt is not about their rights as much as it is about outcomes for the children. I agree with that and I would hold that judged on those terms gay couples should pass the test of eligibility with flying colours.
Despite adoption having been around for a very long time, it is still a controversial subject. Many people are strongly opposed and some religions and cultures have no such concept. Abandoned children are, however, a reality and we as a society have an obligation to provide appropriately for such children. International Adoption is far more controversial than Domestic Adoption. There are probably many reasons for this, some good and some not so good. I have no interest in exploring the issue of race and culture as it arises in International Adoption. Of course cultural and race issues arise and it is important that adopters are aware and sensitive to them but do I have problems with black couples adopting white children, absolutely not or vice versa. Frankly, I think that race and cultural issues are largely trumped up by social workers who may, in fact, be opposed to the concept of International Adoption for unaired personal reasons. The biggest difficulty with International Adoption, as I have commented in previous articles, is the huge logistical problem of ensuring that the children presented for adoption are legitimately abandoned and not kidnapped or targeted by profiteers. Admittedly, there may be some couples who are so desperate for children that they could not care less how or why they became eligible for adoption, but I honestly think such couples are largely anecdotal and the stuff of adoption opponents’ arguments. The vast majority care very much and go out of their way to do things by the book. In doing so, they have to rely on the authorities to carry out the necessary enquiries and ensure everything is above board. Other aspects of adoption are also controversial as, for example, single parent adoption and gay and lesbian couple adoption. By contrast standard married heterosexual adoptions of children particularly domestic adoptions are hardly questioned. Perhaps they should be?
It is assumed that where you have a childless couple and a child looking for a home and all other things being equal, that this is a match made in heaven. Is it? Has the couple grieved for the loss of their fertility and the loss of the birth children they will never have? How do we measure their grieving? Would they ever have considered adopting if it had not been for their fertility issues? Little account is taken of the fact that the childless couple did not chose to adopt and certainly that it was unlikely to have been their first choice. In fact those assessing suitability for adoption are much happier, generally speaking, with an infertile couple than they are with a couple who might or might not have a birth child at some point. There are some good reasons why that should be so but equally there are some good reasons why making the choice to adopt as and for itself, might be a very good way to assess the ability of parents to parent adopted children which, in my view, presents different challenges and is, in fact, quite a different task to parenting birth children. It seems to be unfortunate that the social workers carrying out assessments do not put sufficient weight on the motivation and commitment to parenting an adopted child as a matter of choice.
Over the years, both as a family law practitioner and on a personal level, I have encountered groups formed to campaign for the right to adopt children from parts of Eastern Europe and from Russia at a time when it was relatively easy to adopt from China, Vietnam, Thailand and parts of Africa. I have questioned, I think legitimately, why, when children are available from those other countries, such parties want to adopt children from Eastern Europe and Russia? This was most especially so when frequently to adopt from Russia, for example, cost the equivalent of a small mortgage It is my view that a motivating factor for many such couples was the possibility that such a child would be more likely to present as a natural child than a child from Asia or Africa. Of course, this was dressed up as being less problematic for the child but in unguarded moments it was quite clear who was really benefiting from this choice. I do not wish to blame the couples for these choices but rather those who determine eligibility and who do not place themselves and their own issues under scrutiny or question their own assumptions. One such assumption is that heterosexual married couples who have fertility issues are best placed to adopt a child.
Adults who chose to adopt as a first or primary choice, can very often go into the process of parenting with more realistic expectations and be more motivated to deal with problems that they will encounter with their adopted children as and when they arise. It is well documented, though frequently denied, that adopted children can spend their whole childhood with a deep seated alienation typified by a sense of “wrongness” or “disconnect”. They feel like they do not belong or that their family is somehow an ill fit or wrong in some way. This has nothing to do with race, which only serves quite usefully in fact, to make the problem obvious, all adoptees experience a version of this. Adult adoptees will often say that they felt their adoptive mother, in particular, was somehow “wrong”. These feeling are not rational though they may be capable of being explained rationally. Adoptees will quite often, at the same time as they are expressing these feelings of “wrongness” also tell their interviewer how brilliant and wonderful their adopted mother was. Such feelings arise, it is claimed, because the child instinctively knows that the relationship they have with their adoptive mother in particular is not the same as the relationship they would have had with their birth mother. The result is a profound sense of alienation which frequently, though not invariably, manifests in dysfunctional relationships. Readers familiar with the literature on adoption will know that this is referred to in the literature as the “primal wound”. Many researchers and writers believe that the primal wound is unavoidable and that all adoptees suffer from it. Accordingly, the relationship between an adoptive parent and an adopted child is by its nature more difficult and challenging than is often the case between a functioning birth parent/s and a natural child. Adoptive parents thinking or wishing to replace lost children with adoptive children can, therefore, be in for a rude awakening and not be able to cope.
In an article I wrote on surrogacy in November 2011 I stated “it seems to me too, that adoption should be something you want to do as and for itself and not something you simply do because you have no other option.” I went on to say that in my world it would be “one of the tests for suitability” to adopt. I apologise for quoting myself, it would be so much better if others did that, however, the quote is directly on point. Research has shown that gay couples in particular and lesbian couples somewhat less so, are motivated to adopt as the route of choice to parenting. Research would indicate that gay fathers in particular do not have any expectations of being natural parents and will frequently opt for adoption as their first choice. Yet the people who experience the most difficulty in being deemed eligible to adopt in almost every country are gay couples, lesbian couples and single people precisely the people who frequently opt for adoption as their primary choice to parent. Such parents are less likely to have fixed expectations and stereotypes of how families and children should be and act. They are more likely to be open to allowing the family as it is to evolve.
Of course there is no perfect answer here and some of what I have said may seem very unfair to adoptive mothers and it is. However, this is not about fairness. Fairness is a rational concept and not a very exact one at that since it is largely subjective. What I am saying is that we need to look and who is and who is not most suitable to adopt and not just proceed on the basis of unexamined assumptions and prejudices. To be abandoned as a baby by your birth mother at birth or shortly thereafter is likely to have such a profound effect on a person’s psyche that we are only glancing at the reality rather than truly appreciating what is at issue. We have operated for decades and continue to do so generally speaking with the unexamined assumption that babies, particularly very young babies are like “tabula rasa”, an assumption which we now know to be completely wrong. On that assumption we have concluded that a baby, particularly a very young baby, can be adopted successfully and grow up with a sense of belonging and well being, leading to their being productive members of society. However, if the assumption that a baby is a “tabula rasa” is incorrect, which it is, then how well founded are any of our assumptions? New born infants can pick out their birth mother from other persons. Why is that such a surprise? We recognize in so many other ways besides sight and memory – smell, touch and sound are all potent factors in our ability to identify. A child in the womb has a profound connection to its mother. Theirs is a truly symbiotic union. For nine months or thereabouts they operate as one, never apart not for a second, feeling, hearing, tasting and experiencing together. How could we ever think that such a connection is not profound? Birth mothers know it is with every fibre of their being. The task of the birth mother in the first year of life will be to slowly introduce the baby to the reality of separateness and indeed to reacquaint herself with the idea. For both of them this task of separating will be gradual and deeply affecting. When a baby does not experience this gradual separation he or she will suffers a very deep wound both emotionally and developmentally which then frequently manifests in separation anxiety and alienation.
Hard as it may be for women to accept, the reality is that an adopted child may well find it easier to relate to a Dad or Dads whose presence does not in and of itself convey that deep sense of “wrongness” and who are not seeking to replace the birth mother. It is interesting that research has shown that a growing number of birth mothers are choosing gay couples to adopt their birth children so that they as the mother will not be replaced. It is my experience that many men, particularly educated men, resist the notion of a profound bond between baby and birth mother since if effectively marginalises them, at least for the first few years in the parenting process. It also presents the possibility that the connection with Mum short or long term is on a whole other level and will always be. It is interesting the many adoptees search for their birth mothers but have little or no interest in meeting their birth fathers. We have to stop trying to be politically correct about such things. Not everything can be viewed in the light of reasonable and fair. These are just conceptual frameworks by which we measure or organise our world. There are other measurements. The fact is that gay Dads make excellent adoptive and foster parents. Extensive and collated research in both England and the USA indicates that this is the case. What I am postulating is the possibility that they may in fact be a better choice as parents in the area of adoption and fosterage. We have always made the assumption that one size fits all and a Mum and Dad is the best way for raise a child. As RG Collingwood the Philosopher once amusingly stated “People are apt to be ticklish about their presuppositions”. I doubt therefore, that the thrust of my argument here will meet with universal approval but I would hope that it might inspire some re-examination of our own presuppositions.
In Ireland, gay and lesbian couples, despite being able to form civil partnerships at this point are still not able to adopt. In countries where it is permitted to do so such couples succeed in very small numbers indicating significant hurdles as opposed to heterosexual couples. However, I want to stress that I am very much in favour of hurdles and high standards being applied to test for eligibility to adopt for all applicants. For example, out of an annual average of 4000 children available for adoption in the UK , only 60 gay male couples had adopted and a similar number of lesbian couples. This is a great pity, in my view, where it is provable based on current standards that they are as good as any other type of couple adopting and based on my thesis here, are possibly much better. They show a great deal of flexibility in the type of child they are prepared to adopt, frequently adopting the more difficult to place older children or special needs children. Now while the cynics might have a less complimentary explanation for these choices, I would suggest that it is at least possible that their choices are more open because they are not seeking the create an ideal Mum and apple pie type family and they are lost replacing a lost perfect child. Gay parents may bring talent to the table not available to straight parents. 1) They are unlikely to be grieving for their lost fertility. 2) They are unlikely to feel that their adopted child is second best (in fact I would suggest that when gay men or women overcome the considerable hurdle that will be in front of them to adopt, they are most likely to feel that they won the lottery. 3 )They are unlikely to see adoption per se as a reflection of a failure perceived or otherwise, on their part. 4) They are unlikely to have a standard vision of how family life should look or children should be or not be.
Many arguments have been put forward against gay male adoption. I am well aware of them. I am simply going to dismiss out of hand the rampant confusion between paedophiles and homosexuals and state that anyone with an open mind can clarify this for themselves easily and should not remain confused for very long. These are two completely different things. We would not tolerate a suggestion that all heterosexual men are female child abusers, though some clearly are. Equally, homosexual men are not all paedophiles. Studies show that there is no connection between paedophilia and adult male homosexuality. Only 2% of convicted child molesters identify as gay.
The facts are that the success of adoption for adoptees tends to lie more in the area of the economic security of the family, the functionality of the family as a whole i.e., healthiness of the relationship between the couple and whether or not either parent suffers from depression. I am sure these factors are indicators for the well being of any children however, when you recognize that for an adopted child security is key arising out of their abandonment, you can see immediately why these issues would be fundamental to their well being. Incidentally women as a whole tend to suffer more from depression than men and gay men in stable relationships tend to have a low recorded incidence of depression. One US study in the University of Texas at Arlington and East Carolina concluded there was a significant reduction in problems experienced by adoptive children when they were placed in families who were economically stable, that the adoption process itself was fluid and that the family dynamic was functional.
It would be a tremendous pity if Ireland was not to avail itself of the great resource that gay couples provide to society both as foster parents and as adoptive parents. Indeed I note that gay couples have now quietly surmounted the hurdle of being accepted by the authorities as foster parents. I welcome this development but I have to ask why gay couples are acceptable as foster parents and not acceptable as adopters. If the wellbeing of children is involved, surely the same standards apply to all. If children deserve the best and they do, why would we have different standards for children available for foster care and for children available for adoption. There is a great need for children in the foster system for years to be available to be adopted by those with whom they have been placed in long term foster care and that includes , obviously, gay couples, lesbian couples and single people where appropriate.