When the state and the Roman Catholic Church locked horns over the issue of gay adoption, there was only ever going to be one winner – and it was not going to be children in desperate need of a home.
One of the consistent features of the debate has been the way in which the Government, the equality lobby, gay rights activists, the church – and last week even the National Secular Society which bobbed in with its two penn'orth – trumpeted the claim that the interests of children are paramount. But each, without exception, continued to put its institutional ideology at the front of its actual concerns.
Every picture tells a story, but some turn out to be more revealing than intended. One was of two male hands intertwined. Another was of two men gazing fondly at baby clothes. A third was of another male couple pushing a pram. They were all to accompany the same story – that the Charity Commissioners had complied last week with an order by the High Court to consider whether a Catholic children's charity might claim exemption from the 2007 Sexual Orientation Regulations by excluding gay couples from applying to adopt a child. And the commissioners had ruled that it could not.
They were not, you will note, pictures of children in need of adoption. They were images of potential adopters. What it showed is that the dominant paradigm in the gay adoption debate is the rights of the adults involved. One triumphant campaigner articulated that more directly in a piece that began: "Gay men and lesbians have fought for their rights to be treated exactly the same way as straight people for decades ...."
This is looking at adoption down the wrong end of the telescope. Every adult does not have the right to a child. Old age, infertility and choice see to that. But every child does have at least one parent and, therefore, the right to be properly parented. To recast parenting so that it becomes part of a discourse on civil rights is logically, and morally, dubious. The language of equal rights is too limited to address the complexity of this issue.
But if the equality lobby is inverting the natural order of priorities, so too is the Catholic church. It has taken what ought to be a focus on the child, and the common good of the society of which children are a part, and entangled it in a convoluted ideology which pulls sexuality, contraception, homosexuality and abortion into a single thread which can be harmful, rather than helpful, to human flourishing.
In theory, the church's teaching on homosexuality is officially recognised, to use Catholic jargon, as a third level doctrine in the hierarchy of truths. That means you can reject it and still be a Catholic. Despite that, the Vatican defends the doctrine with a ferocity which is hard to comprehend. The 2003 document on same-sex unions and gay adoption put out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sounded unhinged when it said: "Allowing children to be adopted by persons living in such [homosexual] unions would actually mean doing violence to these children ...." This is the language of wild extremism.
Yet the Government is not exempt from criticism either. The clash between equality and religion was an unnecessary one. It stemmed from a decision by Britain on how the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007 should be framed. Unlike other EU governments, we chose to include adoption under the category of "the provision of goods and services" for which it is illegal to discriminate. This is another perversion. Adoption is a way of society fulfilling its obligations to its children; to construe it as a "service" for adults is to subordinate children to the needs of adults. Children, like all vulnerable people, are the object of our responsibilities, not the subject of our whims. The Government should not be party to the imposition of adults' over children's rights.
Some have been tempted to seek a solution to this mess by looking for a pecking order of the best way to fulfil children's needs, by examining social indicators for different groups. Conservative Christians have argued that heterosexual marriage offers the best outcomes for kids, in terms of health, happiness, how well they do in school and so on. The indicators worsen with unmarried couples, single parents and onward down the slippery slope towards being in care.
More recent research from the United States has complicated that. A recent summary from the Child Welfare League of America, which represents 900 children's charities, suggests that children growing up in same-sex households fare as well emotionally, cognitively, socially and sexually as do those whose parents are heterosexual. In the UK, research from Birkbeck College shows something similar. There is even some suggestion that, compared with a group of control adolescents born to heterosexual parents with similar educational and financial backgrounds, the children of lesbian couples score better on academic and social tests and lower on measures of rule-breaking and aggression. More results along those lines would give an unwelcome boost to the "Are Men Really Necessary?" lobby.
But such empirical evidence is incomplete. It is based on lesbian couples who used donor insemination and extends only to children in adolescence. Longer-term studies – and far more on gay men as parents – are needed before a utilitarian hierarchy of "what kind of couples do best for children" can be seriously suggested.
Yet those who work trying to find families for children who need adopting have little time for such thinking. They do not start with questions about "what kind of parents" so much as "what kind of children".
"All any child needs is love" is not the whole truth; different kids need love of different kinds. A girl who has been abused by her mother's boyfriends and is afraid of men might recover and be nurtured best by a lesbian couple. A child with disabilities, special needs or who has experienced rejection and discrimination will benefit from adoptive parents with a particular understanding of those needs. Matching child to parents, because of race, religion, background, temperament and training is what the exhaustive and gruelling process of adoption selection is about. Potential adopters can be put through the wringer in the process. Decisions are made on a case-to-case basis, with the interests of each child to the fore.
The irony is that, according to a confidential report compiled for the Government by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering in 2007, Catholic agencies had a particular strength in finding homes for "hard-to-place" children. A quarter of their 300 annual placements were with adopters from ethnic minority backgrounds. The number of placements which failed was two-thirds lower than with other agencies because, it was suggested, of the Catholic commitment to family life as part of its religious ethos. And the church heavily subsidised the work.
More than half of the Catholic adoption agencies are continuing that work, after breaking their formal links with the church. But several have closed. It is hard to see who the winners are in this. But it is pretty clear who are the losers.
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