It's not 'unnatural' for two gay men to have a child together

The fact is that nothing is truly unnatural, because everything that exists, including human intelligence, is a product of nature

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Recent medical research suggests that gay male couples could have children. This seems repugnant to many because they think it "unnatural". They point to the fact that nature ensures the continuation of humankind by providing two sexes equipped in appropriately different ways for mingling their genes. Tampering with this arrangement, they say, is unnecessary and wrong. They also think it unnatural for children to have same-sex parents, arguing that their perception of human relationships will be distorted as a result. This objection already hampers the efforts of both male and female gay couples seeking to have children by adoption, surrogacy or donor insemination.

Recent medical research suggests that gay male couples could have children. This seems repugnant to many because they think it "unnatural". They point to the fact that nature ensures the continuation of humankind by providing two sexes equipped in appropriately different ways for mingling their genes. Tampering with this arrangement, they say, is unnecessary and wrong. They also think it unnatural for children to have same-sex parents, arguing that their perception of human relationships will be distorted as a result. This objection already hampers the efforts of both male and female gay couples seeking to have children by adoption, surrogacy or donor insemination.

Opposition to supposed unnaturalness in matters of sex has a long history. Not just homosexuality but any sexual activity which cannot lead to procreation has been so labelled. But the crucial question is: what is natural? And if something is unnatural, does that automatically make it wrong? The answers are surprising. For one thing, those who think "nature" is a pseudonym for "God" can be quickly disabused by noting that "natural" is not a synonym of "good". Plenty of natural things are not invariably good, such as diseases, earthquakes and death. And many things once thought unnatural - vaccination, blood transfusion, organ transplants - are now regarded as good although unnatural. Perhaps some have even come to regard them as natural.

But the fact is that nothing is truly unnatural, because everything that exists, including human intelligence, is a product of nature. Human intelligence is as much a feature of the world as rain or grass, and the effects of its activity - dammed rivers, concrete cities, plastics, genetic modification of crops and animals (our cereals and pet dogs are GM products of our earliest civilisation), destruction of species such as the polio virus and the Bengal tiger - are natural in the same way as the effects of exploding volcanoes and biting mosquitoes. If human intelligence can devise ways for the genes from two men to result in a child, their doing so is an entirely natural event - as natural as the northward bend of a tree in a south wind.

Nor is there anything unnatural about nature working changes upon itself in the quest for advantages: the lion preys on the antelope, evolving teeth and strength to that end, while the antelope flees the lion, evolving alertness and swiftness to that opposite end. The human immune system and its viral and bacterial enemies are likewise equally parts of nature, each trying to do the best for itself in ways that can be fatal for the other side. And all this is wholly part of nature.

So, given that it is not unnatural for two men to produce a child if human ingenuity can bring it about, a conservative has to change his focus, and ask instead: is it natural for a child to be brought up by two men? This in effect is to ask whether same-sex parenting is acceptable, and it has to be answered not from the viewpoint of people who like things to happen as they have always happened in the past, but from the perspective of children of such parents. And here the answer is not surprising but simple.

We think it a good thing if children are loved and well-nurtured, living in a home with sufficient resources for promoting their all-round welfare. What does it matter if a child lives in such a home with grandparents, or adoptive parents, or - as an example of a same-sex couple - two aunts? It is sentiment that prompts us to think that living with natural parents is best. If we grant that, what does it matter if the child's natural parents are both male or both female?

At this point objectors claim that children need differently sexed parents to learn about "natural" human relationships. But this is a feeble argument as well as a question-begging one, the latter because it reverts to using "natural" as a commendatory term. To answer it one need only ask: is it impossible for children to learn about human relationships, in all their variety, if they have only one parent? No. Why then should it be so if they have two, but of the same sex? They can see the wider community around them, and can compare their own families with others, exactly as children do who live with more than one differently sexed parent.

Moreover, the supposedly traditional nuclear family of mother, father and two-and-a-half children is neither the dominant model in our society nor even truly traditional. Extended families, one-parent families, multiply-re-arranged families full of step-siblings and half-siblings of all ages, are just as common. Human nature and affections are protean and living. Individuals relate in all sorts of ways and, although certain relationships might be thought preferable to others, and although others do obvious harm, it is invidious to say which of the rest are "normal" or "right". In the larger picture, the fact that a child's parents are the same sex as each other is no more nor less relevant than the fact that a child will be the same sex as at least one of its parents. The crucial point is the well-being of the child, which has very little to do with the ages, sexes, or actual genetic relationship between the child and its carers, and everything to do with its being loved and nourished.

People use "natural" and "unnatural" as emotive terms, expressing their preferences and judgements. What is considered natural and acceptable in some cultures is thought disgusting in others, and at certain times in history what is considered natural is for that reason despised - as at the end of the 19th century, when the rich ate white bread and sugar because whiteness denotes purity, with all the unpleasant natural bits refined away, whereas now people eat brown bread and sugar because brown is the colour of health and shows that the foodstuffs are closer to their natural origins. With such changes of fashion and use affecting it, the concept of what is natural is practically useless.

* AC Grayling is reader in philosophy at Birkbeck College.

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