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The Politics of Family Creation

March 5, 2012

Modern methods of family creation – from marriage, to procreation, to fertility drugs, to adoption and surrogacy – present a number of ethical dilemmas that incite passionate political and cultural disputes. Debates about the children produced by intercourse, for instance, focus primarily on how women or couples handle unplanned pregnancy; further, in part because it is impossible to restrict who of the fertile population may reproduce, we have child protective services which can remove children from homes with unfit or abusive parents.

On the other hand, gay and infertile couples, singles, and people who simply prefer to adopt children cannot legally create a family without approval from both the government and often a separate entity that facilitates the adoption. Women who seek to become pregnant by artificial insemination and couples who wish to acquire a child using a surrogate, however, are not as heavily screened as adults who wish to adopt.

Drawing from this unique dilemma of how to resolve the modern family, of how to interpret its makeup and dynamic while minding the relatively recent impact of feminism and the sexual revolution, we can disembroil two of the most divisive social policy issues in the United States today: abortion and same-sex marriage. Understanding these political debates in the context of family creation helps to identify potential compromises and common ground between conservative and liberal “family values”, and suggests lines of inquiry into what constitutes appropriate conditions for child-rearing.

Abortion essentially prevents a family – mother and child, at minimum – from being created by terminating or destroying an embryo or fetus. Pro-lifers tend to consider this murder while pro-choicers tend to consider it a woman’s right to end her own pregnancy. But the fact remains that inherent in the decision to abort, a family is prevented. Social conservatives will argue that the acceptance of abortion degrades the American family and our cultural orientation toward life and sexuality. They specifically believe that women should welcome or at least accept motherhood whenever they become pregnant. Put another way, social conservatives refuse to accept the notion that a woman who has become pregnant when she wasn’t ready to be a mother or start a family, has any options at all, and so they seek to discourage (what they see as) the kind of illicit, unsanctioned sex, that leads to this ethical bind.

But the conservative position on abortion is more nuanced than that. Many – though certainly not all – conservatives concede that cases of rape present an exception. Thus the idea that abortion is murder and therefore must be illegal does not conclude the pro-life story. These more moderate conservatives seem to agree that, as men are not entitled to rape women, rape is not entitled to produce families; a woman must have made the decision to have sex if she should be legally obligated to go through with her pregnancy. This pro-life group thus appropriates consensual sex as a kind of family value, and a relatively radical one at that. In contrast, the conservative justification of abortion when it saves the mother’s life is simply that a life is lost so a life can be saved. With rape exceptions, however, it is solely the woman’s consent or lack thereof that determines whether it is moral for her to be legally required to remain pregnant.[1] Dare we call this pro-life perspective vaguely feminist?

Social liberals, however, emphasize the positive role played by a woman’s decision to become a mother. Not only is it her right to choose to have sex, to have control over her own body, and to determine when she should have a child, but granting women authority over when exactly they become mothers and start families helps foster more suitable upbringings for our future generations. A study by the Guttmacher Institute, for instance, found that 73% of women in the United States who had abortions in 2004 did so because they could not support a child. More telling of how difficult this choice can be is the will of women to risk their lives by having abortions where it is illegal. In Ethiopia where the procedure is banned, complications from abortion are the second leading cause of death among women who are admitted to hospitals.[2] While conditions in Ethiopia are more abject than in the United States, the danger Ethiopian women endure to have abortions suggests what an incredibly difficult decision ending a pregnancy can be.

Rather than calling abortion-seekers “murderers” and framing them as selfish and irresponsible, the pro-life movement could adopt a more compassionate viewpoint; their current rhetoric ultimately does nothing for the children these women are deciding to raise or give birth to. Instead, if pro-lifers wanted to sway rather than admonish women who are considering abortion, perhaps they should advocate aid — public or otherwise — for potential mothers, particularly those who are single, low-income or both.

Maternity leave in the United States, for instance, could be dramatically improved to accommodate new mothers, and it would take some pressure off of women and couples who are struggling with the decision of whether to have a child. The Guttmacher Institute study mentioned above reports that 21% of women cite “Can’t leave job to take care of a baby” as their reason for abortion.[3] At present the federal mandate is that companies with at least fifty employees must give women four unpaid weeks of maternity leave (and they have to have been at their companies for at least twelve months), a stunningly paltry amount compared to many developed Western countries. In both France and the Netherlands women are entitled to 16 weeks of maternity leave at 100% salary. (And in France, the leave rises to 26 weeks for a third child.) Ireland mandates 26 weeks at 100% salary, and Italy mandates 5 months at 100% salary and an additional 6 months at 30%. While maternity leave is certainly not the only factor at play here, what is significant here is that all of these countries have a lower abortion rate than the United States.

Conservatives and liberals ought to be able to agree that reforming maternity leave policy can benefit American families and potentially reduce abortions, particularly for women who are in need of both financial assistance and that most precious commodity time, to devote to parenting. Ideally we would have general parental leave that applied to both men and women, seeing as many single fathers and same-sex couples raise children, but here unfortunately we are straying from what we can assume most conservatives would support; even in families where there is a male parent and a female parent, however, it may sometimes be the case that it works better for the father to take off more time from his job than the mother. The most flexible arrangement would be to grant couples a lump amount of time off that they could divide up between themselves.

Depending on whether such parental leave benefits come from a social security-like account or directly from company salary or benefit packages, perhaps the policy-makers can work with businesses to negotiate benefits that allow new parents to be on a part-time schedule beyond their initial time off; that way, a woman could still provide some of the expertise and value she had been providing the company prior to becoming a mother, and she may not have to be fully replaced in her temporary absence.

In addition to the material assistance it would provide families, parental leave reform would be a cultural and political gesture in support of the difficult, productive, and rewarding work of child-rearing; it welcomes families as a positive part of society, and it effectively directs new parents to their duties while reducing stress in their experience of providing for and bonding with their children.

Of course, an alternative to both abortion and becoming a parent is to put a child up for adoption. Adoption offers many areas of compromise, both as an alternative to abortion and a genuine act of love and welfare. Adoptive parents certainly want to become parents, and in their desire and love to do so they invite a child in need of parents into their home and family. Here the screening process for prospective adoptive parents becomes at once incredibly valuable and enormously contentious.

As the District of Columbia was legalizing same-sex marriage, the Washington  Archdiocese responded by ending its 80-year old foster care program with the city. The Archdiocese of San Francisco and Boston did the same when their states legalized same-sex marriage in 2006.[4] Anti-gay Catholics naturally claimed that their services were “forced” to shut down rather than owning up to their choice to shut down; they cannot expect to receive taxpayer money to run services where they discriminate against gays and lesbians. Even with children who are difficult to place, the Vatican refuses to condone giving them to same-sex couples. In the name of religion and disregarding a growing body of research, the Catholic Church chooses to keep children out of loving homes and deprive them of parents in the name of religious freedom and ancient prejudices. Just like straight couples seeking to adopt, gay couples are pairs of adults in committed relationships who want to raise children.

In its blind adherence to the strictly anatomical construct of husband/father and wife/mother, the Catholic Church – and much of the right wing in general – disturbingly endorses both preventing gay couples who want children from raising them and forcing women who don’t want children to have them. One truly sad example of this hostility towards gays: during the late 1980s children with AIDS were growing in number in residential treatment centers, group homes and in foster care with few prospects of being adopted. Many gay couples stepped forward to adopt these children offering them homes to live in, and sometimes die in. A number of state legislatures responded by passing laws barring adoption by gay couples, evidently preferring these children to languish in institutional care without a home or family.

The anti-gay, pro-life camp may respond that they only wish to promote the optimal family composition; they want to privilege the ideal situation for child-rearing which, they claim, is female parent, male parent, and child. This argument is hollow. An ideal upbringing first involves sane parents who are not impoverished and a stable family life. Further, with the exception of a small at-risk subgroup, adopted children in general fare just as well as their peers who live with their biological parents, Dr. Claire D. Cole of Emory University reports; and anyway it is abundantly clear that adopted children are more likely to do better with adoptive parents than they would in foster care. Study after study also finds that children raised by same-sex couples develop just as well as children raised by opposite sex-couples. (In fact, at least one study has even suggested that children raised by lesbian couples fare better than their peers.) Research has also suggested that just like the children of straight couples, children of same-sex couples fare better when their parents are legally married. Still, while most states permit single LGBT adoption, joint and second-parent adoption is often ambiguous or, in the cases of Florida, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska an Utah, expressly prohibited.

To be clear, while plenty of research has indicated that children raised by two parents fare better on average than those raised by single parents, it does not follow that a child benefits when his single parent suddenly obtains a partner or spouse who then becomes his second parent. Instead, a recent study suggests that growing up with stability – or not having the parental arrangement change – benefits children more significantly than simply having two parents.

Opponents of adoption and marriage by same-sex couples need to face these facts about the modern family. If they were really interested in promoting the welfare of American families and children, they would be on a crusade against poverty and divorce, not against same-sex marriage or adoption by same-sex couples. Instead they appear more committed to forcing their religious views onto the general public and secular institutions at the expense of same-sex couples and their children. They certainly can continue to honor their own definition of marriage in their own churches and they can continue to promote monogamy and chastity as essential virtues, but they must recognize that they do not have the right to impose their religious views on others who do not accept them.

The ideal family ought to begin with either the intention or at least the openness to have children. Thus adoption in particular – by both straight and gay parents – should be viewed as a purely good practice in society, not as a lesser or conciliatory method to starting a family. In addition to ridding us of the illusion that one’s birth family is always the preferred family to grow up in, revering adoption would perhaps inspire women who are thinking of having an abortion to reconsider.[5] Shouldn’t wanting children, as opposed to simply being biologically capable of reproducing, be the ideal prerequisite of parenthood? Rather than debating whether gay couples should be allowed to have children, shouldn’t we be a lot more concerned about the shocking abuse children suffer at the hands of their biological parents who don’t get screened by adoption agencies? With laws and cultural messages condemning – even just questioning – same-sex marriage and adoption, both adults and children are too often bombarded with misguided endorsements of gender in parenting, and making them less sensitive to how healthy families are actually created and sustained. Stability, marriage, adequate material wealth, and parental involvement should be what we promote in the upbringing of American children. The shallower family ideal of opposite-sex, biological parents has run its course in the United States, and it needs to be replaced by one that takes into consideration the changes that have occurred in the real world in the last several centuries.


Jackie Colvin is a freelance writer living in Chicago.


[1] It is unlikely legal exception to rape could ever be effectively enforced; we should probably keep abortion legal indefinitely, and instead work to reduce both rape and abortion not just with education and contraceptive access, but also with cultural messages.

[2] The New York Times reported that the Health Ministry made this statement; the author did not claim to have reached this conclusion by independent research.

[3] However, 22% of women cite their own unemployment and 12% cite their partner’s unemployment for choosing abortion.

[4] Since the law in California was repealed by Proposition 8 in November 2008. Judge Vaughan Walker struck down Proposition 8 in August 2010, and his ruling was upheld in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals but proponents of Proposition 8 are expected to appeal that decision.

[5] This is dangerous territory though; already there are far too many children who are waiting to be adopted (around 115,000, about a quarter of whom will simply age out of foster care without ever being adopted) another reason why it is ridiculous and cruel to deny gay couples the right to adopt. On the other hand, however, perhaps if adoption in general were seen in a more positive light, then even couples who are fertile or originally did not want children would be moved to adopt instead. And of course, greater access to contraception and sex education (combined as well with positive cultural messages about readiness and maturity before becoming sexually active) are powerful tools we can use to reduce unintended pregnancies that would otherwise result in adoption or abortion. Adoption itself is positive, but a large surplus of children who need parents is an urgent problem.


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One Response to The Politics of Family Creation

  1. Bill Weaton on April 21, 2012 at 1:06 pm

    Talk to a social worker sometime about the kinds of abuse that goes on in some nuclear families. People, especially conservative Christians, shouldn’t be so opposed to non-traditional families, particularly when there are so many children with needs waiting for adoption. It’s sad that people can be so dogmatic that they achieve little more than making the world a little worse than it needs to be.

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