Archive for the ‘biology’ Category

Wax-y Build-up

November 14th, 2010 3 comments

I spent most of Friday at St. John’s Law School in scenic Jamaica — the one in Queens, New York — participating in yet another symposium on marriage equality. The students and administrative staff did a great job in putting the event together, and the dean and faculty were welcoming and thoughtful speakers and moderators.

Unlike many similar events, though, this one featured quite a number of speakers from the right — far right — side of the spectrum. That the event was called Legal, Secular, and Religious Perspectives on Marriage Equality/Marriage Protection/Same-Sex Marriage was in itself telling. Let’s make sure every perspective is represented even if doing so requires a tongue-tying title. (Even that wasn’t enough for the angry Jane Adolphe of Ave Maria Law School though, who opined that same-sex marriage should be placed in ironic quotes since it “can’t exist.”)

Balance is good. But I always find odd and more than a little off-putting that most of the anger in these debates comes from the right — you know, the side without the immediate personal stake. As fellow panelist Courtney Joslin told me during a break, it had “been a long time” since she’d been around so many people who thought that she was worth less than they were. And they’re not shy about that sentiment.

In the first of what will likely be a series of posts on the conference, I’d like to focus on the very offensive scattershot of arguments spewed forth by Penn law professor Amy Wax. She’s better known for her insidiously racist book Race, Wrongs and Remedies,1  in which she cheerily relieves government of the obligation to do much of anything about the effects of the centuries-long political and social subordination of African-Americans. She also suggests that efforts to improve their lot  might have limited effect even with the sort of good ol’ self-help she prescribes, because (citing IQ tests) “blacks have lower cognitive ability than whites or Asians.” Continuing in this essentializing mode, she then writes that “[a]t this point it is not known whether different groups are equally endowed with all the abilities that make for success in modern technological societies.”

Biology is (mostly) all that matters and there’s no use trying to do much about it. This is the underpinning of Wax’s simplistic world view, and it suffused her presentation on Friday in which she savaged the marriage equality movement. In a bizarre and undertheorized version of the natural law argument, she seemed to ground her opposition in an idiosyncratic version of the procreation argument: Gay or lesbian couples can’t procreate without outside assistance (I wonder what her response would be to a change in that fact), and since biology matters, well, QED.

That view was centrally on display in Wax’s neo-eugenic view of families, which exist in a “hierarchy,” with opposite-sex couples with their own bio children ensconced permanently at the top of the pyramid. Yes, she said, she’d be “somewhat disappointed” if one of her three kids turned out to be gay because that would mean they wouldn’t be able to produce their own biological children.

When I suggested, during Q&A, that it might turn out that having a gay offspring who adopted a child might turn out to be a gift rather than a “disappointment,” Wax began her response by acknowledging the heroism of adoptive parents, but then added the non-responsive and obvious point that an adoption also involved a loss at the other end of the adoptive pipeline — the birth parents. Well, duh. That doesn’t explain why her kid’s hypothetical act of heroism wouldn’t take him or her out of the disappointment category. Based on her worldview, I’d suggest that the intractable problem is that the adoptive kid — who might, after all, not have the same cognitive ability as a mini-Wax — wasn’t as good as a bio offspring would have been. (Adoption, she said, was “second best.”) “I stand by what I said,” she offered, without further elaboration.

Wax also decried the constitutionalization of the marriage issue, stated that sexual orientation classifications were no different from discriminations based on looks or intelligence, and accused the other side of being interested only in rights and not in the normative meaning of marriage. Oh, and she also said that “gays hate the polygamy analogy,” a comparison she finds persuasive.

I have neither time nor stomach for addressing these latter points here, but may do so in a subsequent post.

For now, let me end with this: Like Maggie Gallagher, Wax ends up doing marriage equality a favor. Sitting next to me during the jaw-dropping presentation was an attorney who told me that, because of her Catholicism, she was “struggling” with the idea that same-sex couples might be allowed to marry. (She was unequivocally in favor of civil unions.) She was there to listen and to learn. But as she listened to Wax’s uncharitable presentation, she became increasingly agitated. The part about adopted kids really offended her.

Yesterday, this thoughtful and undecided woman — and, I’d guess, many others in the audience — moved a step closer toward the pro-equality camp. The bigotry she was hearing had made her realize the need to protect and strengthen GLBT families — families that exhibit the very humanity that Wax denigrates.

  1. This is the correct title. I had originally misnamed the book “Rights, Wrongs, and Remedies”. Professor Wax called the error to my attention and was very gracious in doing so.

More on the Next Gayby Boom

November 4th, 2010 10 comments

In last week’s 365gay column, I looked at recent scientific advances that might soon enable same-sex couples to have their own biological children. Many, many comments have been generated by readers who feel strongly about whether this science should be used, even if available.

This week, I dig more deeply into the bioethical and legal questions that would surface, encourage debate on the subject now, and call for a debate on the value of having one’s own bio kids in the first place. Some incisive comments are already coming in.

Certainties? If Only

July 26th, 2010 2 comments

Responding to my first post on the subject of late-term abortions, Andrew Sullivan takes issue with me on anencephalic fetuses (i.e., those whose brains will not develop to enable cognition, and most of whom will die shortly after birth). In the context of questioning his opposition to late-term abortions even in such cases, I had asked whether anencephalics are “human” in a morally relevant sense. After a long quote from me (see the earlier post), here’s his response:

“I am just aware that another human life is at stake here and I find describing such infants as “entities”, as Culhane does, misses an essential fact about them: their soul and their humanity. Our view of what is human “in the sense that matters to me” is where we differ. From reading the emails, it seems the mothers are actually closer to my conflicts than Culhane’s certainties.”

Yeah, I did describe them as “entities,” recognizing of course the response it would likely (and with some justification) elicit. But I did so because to have referred to them as “babies” or “humans” would have begged the very question I was seeking to raise, somewhat in the spirit of a thought experiment: What does it mean to be human? I don’t know, and I’m not even “certain” that even these most tragic figures shouldn’t have at least some rights. But why? What makes us human? Should we accord rights to anencephalics even if we decide, pace Sullivan, they’re not human in some morally relevant sense? If so, why? And, right to the point, should these rights outweigh those of the mother who makes the painful decision to terminate her pregnancy under such circumstances?

These complex issue vex moral philosophers, and I make no claim to certainty. So, to the extent that my point was presented syllogistically, I went further than I should have.

On the subject of certainty, though, what about Sullivan’s citing of the “fact” that humans have souls? And their humanity, while it would likely be debated by fewer people, isn’t a “fact” either, but a proposition in need of argument. Otherwise it’s an article of faith (yes, that kind) — take it or leave it.

Let me end this on a more conciliatory note: After yesterday’s post, I continued reading the many Dish entries on the issue; as I said earlier today, I was taken aback by the stories of the women who’d undergone late-term abortions and by Sullivan’s obviously  sympathetic view of their situation. That remains true. Whatever our disagreements about  abortion (in the abstract or otherwise), the Dish has contributed an important element to the often dispiriting debate: nuance.

Beginnings of Life, Impossible Issues

July 24th, 2010 4 comments

I’ve got two somewhat related topics to discuss today. Let’s start with the unpleasant subject of late-term abortions: On Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” last night,1 Andrew Sullivan said that he was moved by the tragic testimonials of those who’d had such abortions when faced with the prospect of giving birth to seriously disabled children, some of whom were destined to live very short, painful lives. Yet virtually in the same sentence, he added that he opposes late-term abortions; he later reiterated that statement in the Daily Dish, in the most sympathetic way I’ve ever read:

“I am immensely grateful to those readers who have shared such personal, painful experiences with such candor and open hearts. I have to say that I remain somewhat shaken by the emails…. They reminded me of the human beings behind these tragedies, and forced me to reassess my own certainties and beliefs. I still cannot in good conscience support these abortions; but I can offer my profound gratitude for the readers who have forced this blogger to see things I had not fully grasped so keenly before; and to return to them respect and empathy in the particulars, even while we may disagree in the abstract.” (emphasis added)

I’m not clear as to whether he believes that such abortions should in all cases be illegal, or that he can’t support them morally. In either case, though: Why? Why doesn’t that empathy, so eloquently expressed, translate into a change in the “abstract”?

Let’s take the most extreme case, as the statement in opposition isn’t qualified in any way: A woman is to give birth to an anencephalic, a (human?) being without a functioning brain, or perhaps with nothing but a brain stem. What justifies the abstract position against abortion in this case? We’re talking about an entity that will live for only a few hours, often, and which isn’t human in the sense that matters to me from the point of view of moral philosophy: as a rights holder. Without any capacity for functioning beyond the most primitive, the anencephalic can’t be distinguished from other species to which we afford far less sympathetic (sentimental?) treatment.  I do think the cases are different, somehow, but it’s hard to say why. Is this tragic being one of us? Are we so clear about that to oppose a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy that will have this result, with the visual image of this unfortunate being likely to be seared into her brain forever?

To his credit, Sullivan acknowledged that in some of these cases the women’s lives will also be placed at risk. Yet his position was stated without an exception to cover such cases, thereby placing him beyond even those who favor legislation prohibiting late-term abortions, where such exceptions are routine. (I’d welcome a contrary clarification, of course.)

On the subject of tragic lives, what should the law do about a sperm bank that negligently fails to screen its donors for various kinds of genetic abnormalities, and then sells the “product” to a woman whose child then ends up seriously disabled? I’m about to be interviewed on this very subject (by WHYY, the local Philadelphia affiliate of NPR) later this afternoon. The woman’s claim, which likely would have focused on the increased expenses of raising and caring for such a child, was barred by the statute of limitations, but her daughter — now a teen with serious mental disabilities — is able to sue, as the statute doesn’t start to run against kids until they achieve majority.

But what are the child’s damages? Her “choices” were this life, or none. Can she sue for something called “wrongful life”? Most states say no, and go all metaphysical in the knees: “It’s impossible to weigh even an impaired life against the inky void of utter non-existence, only God knows, etc.” Is this child a “defective product”? What a horrible thing to say, to think. But if she can’t raise a claim, where’s the accountability?

As a parent of young twins with my own difficult story to tell (but I’m not going to), all of this makes me uneasy. How do we respect life without being (effectively, if not intentionally) punitive?

Originally published on June 2, 2009

  1. The link will take you to the video, too.

Bryan Caplan Inspires a Real-Life Discussion About Mini-Me

April 21st, 2010 No comments

Bryan Caplan, in a laudable effort to sell more of his upcoming book, “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids,” has asked readers of his blog whether he should keep this paragraph in, or take it out:

I confess that I take anti-cloning arguments personally. Not only do they insult the identical twin sons I already have; they insult a son I hope I live to meet. Yes, I wish to clone myself and raise the baby as my son. Seriously. I want to experience the sublime bond I’m sure we’d share. I’m confident that he’d be delighted, too, because I would love to be raised by me. I’m not pushing others to clone themselves. I’m not asking anyone else to pay for my dream. I just want government to leave me and the cloning business alone. Is that too much to ask?

First let’s stipulate that Caplan is of course going to leave this paragraph in the book; it’s provocative, and now that he’s already said it, removing it would only deprive him of sales. Asking the question is a very clever sort of pre-publication publicity. For that, I guess he deserves props.

But what about the underlying question he raises? You can find a range of whimsical, serious, thoughtful, scientific (or pseudo-sciency) and downright batty comments both on Caplan’s site and here. If you have some time to explore the cool question Caplan has raised, scroll through the many postings.

Here’s another take on the proposal: On its face, it seems quite consistent with the problem that the title of the book itself raises: “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.” Assuming that he’s talking about “having” biological as opposed to adopted kids, then his proposal is just the reductio ad absurdum of the selfishness that, let’s face it, is behind every decision to have children — not just “more kids,” but any kids. Given that there are countless thousands of neglected, abandoned, abused and orphaned children in need of a home, then should  those who can afford adoption seriously consider it? In addition to helping the kids, you also help the planet by caring for an existing child rather than creating a resource-hungry new one.

Put down those cudgels you’re now aiming at my head! People do all kinds of things for selfish reasons — some even argue, tautologically, that all of our actions (even the ones that look altruistic) — and this seems like a pretty defensible one for spiritual, emotional and practical reasons (for most opposite-sex couples, it’s just easier to have procreative sex than to adopt). So is this cloning idea any worse, any more selfish?

Given current science, surely yes. Even if it were possible to create a clone right now, it will be a long time — if it ever happens — before the process will reliably produce  healthy, “whole” human beings. Remember that even the well-resourced Dr. Evil had no luck, as his clone was a tiny biter. But let’s assume that Caplan is engaging in a thought experiment rather than a realistic wish for the near future. What then?

Canny marketing ploy aside, Caplan should leave his paragraph in, on the chance that it will actually spur some thoughtful debate on the issue of cloning. As some of the commenters have noted, so far the principal objection seems to be that it’s “icky”; not a reason that gives me great comfort. Given the therapeutic promise of cloning and the religious and ethical issues the practice increasingly raises, it seems that we should be engaging in spirited national debate. So far, most of that debate is taking place in academic circles only.

I have one more observation. As an adoptive parent, it’s clear to me that your kids are your kids, whatever their family of biological origin. And they’ll delight, confound, and surprise you every day. At bottom, Caplan’s wish seems to be to remove much of that mystery by creating himself all over again. But it won’t work, because no amount of genetic engineering can counter Walt Whitman’s profound observation:

THERE was a child went forth every day; And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became; And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.

Of Fa’afafine, “Gay Animals,” and the (Mis)Uses of Science

April 5th, 2010 No comments

About a decade ago, I bought and sort of read Biological Exuberance:Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, by Bruce Bagemihl. I say “sort of read” in that the book isn’t really meant to be read from cover to cover. It’s an encyclopedic compendium of scientific research that exhaustively — I mean exhaustively — details incidents of homosexual behavior among animals. After I’d flipped through enough examples, I remember thinking: “Well, that’s a relief.” As Bagemihl states in the Introduction, scientists had engaged in remarkable, long-running, and consensus dishonesty by ignoring cases of same-sex courtship, mating, and pairing of animals. His careful work dismantled that scaffold of lies, once and for all.

But where does this get us? You might have seen yesterday’s cover story in the NY Times Magazine, Can Animals be Gay?, in which Jon Mooallem used the case of “lesbian” albatrosses (I know there’s a joke in there somewhere) to open up a broader discussion about what same-sex activities in the animal kingdom tell us, if anything, about how to deal with the complex question as it applies to another species, called “human.” The answer is, “not much.”

I noted above my relief in learning that my attractions were “natural,” but what, exactly, does that mean? On further reflection, not much. “Natural,” as the article points out, is itself a loaded word once we get past the basic behavioral science that documents, say, female albatross pairs or bonobos (everyone’s favorite, for some anthropomorphic reason). Even in the case of less loaded science, like the causes of cancer, the extrapolation from other species to humans is tricky. (For example, just because leisure suits were found to be carcinogenic in rats doesn’t mean they had any worse than horrible fashion consequences for people.) So should we craft gay rights policy based on what goes on among other animals? Surely not.

In fact, the article scrupulously notes that the albatross researcher, Lindsay C. Young, refuses to use the term “lesbian” to describe the albatrosses she’s long studied, and not just because their same-sex coupledom doesn’t include sex itself. Labels like “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual” and so on come freighted with all social meaning and consequence that can’t and shouldn’t be imported from other species, at least not glibly.

Of course, no one can resist the anthropomorphic game. Tom Coburn, the politician-physician whose medical license hasn’t prevented him from saying and doing all kinds of outrageous things, complained of the albatross research that this was “our tax dollars at work.” But the study he was criticizing isn’t federally funded. And the delightful children’s book, “And Tango Makes Three,” about two male penguins pairing, incubating an egg that an opposite-sex penguin couple, and then raising the hatchling, has won the Book Most Asked to be Banned award for three years running. Why all the fuss?

The Coburn case is just stupid, but Tango Makes Three is telling. Obviously, the book’s authors are trying to make the statement that same-sex coupling is natural, and not just for penguins. Why do you think I read it to my kids? I mean, it’s otherwise a pretty unspectacular story. So the book becomes yet another marker in the cultural wars, with those opposing same-sex unions taking the undemocratic position that what they disagree with shouldn’t be available for others to read. Information, bad.

Much of the science focuses on whether same-sex behavior confers any evolutionary advantage, given the need to reproduce. The best bet here seems to be the case-by-case approach, drawing only those conclusions that seem reasonably supported by the science and consistently verifiable, and avoiding global statements. Indeed, we don’t even fully understand the dynamic range of sexual attraction, orientation, and behavior among humans. The Samoan Fa’afafine, for instance, aren’t considered “gay” or “homosexual” — terms that we’re told have a negative association in this culture — even though they’re exclusively attracted to other men. They’re instead a “third gender,” and much respected. Apparently, they act as sort of “super uncles” to their siblings’ kids, which may confer an evolutionary advantage of its own. But who knows, really.

Ultimately, what we have is behavior, and lots of nervous people trying to do too much with it, or to explain it away. I find it all fascinating, even if I didn’t get through all of Biological Exuberance.

Marriage Equality in Prose and Poetry (or, “The Figuring-it-out at Kitchen Tables”)

April 4th, 2010 1 comment

Let’s start with this startling video. (Really, watch it. It’s only two minutes long and will amaze you if you’ve not seen it.)

So here we have the Iowa Senate’s Democratic Leader, Mike Gronstal, saying that:

(1) The battle over marriage equality will be over soon, once his daughter’s generation takes over. Nate Silver over at is just the latest to make this point in his usually quantifiably impressive style. Of course, her comment that “no one cares” is just the sort of statement that equality opponents love to jump all over, to wit: “That’s the problem; we need to care about the institution of marriage.” But that’s not what I think she meant. Rather, it’s that no one thinks that allowing same-sex couples to marry will do anything to harm marriage. This perception comes, in large part, from people under a certain age having grown up with and around openly gay people. That’s new, and it’s transformative.

(2) His marriage to his wife is stronger because same-sex couples can now marry. This is a point I’ve been trying to make for some time. Marriage opponents have been asserting that allowing same-sex couples to marry will destroy the institution (over time), as it will lose its historically rooted male/female definition. But it seems likely that many fair-minded, opposite-sex couples will come to the conclusion Sen. Gronstal did: The state’s embracing of relationships between two committed adults strengthens marriage. Keeping committed same-sex couples out of marriage might in fact weaken marriage for the next generation, by showcasing the state’s willingness to discriminate on a basis that, to many of them, is unsound.

The Senator’s reference to the talk he had with his daughter brought to mind Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” where she offered:

“Praise song for struggle, praise song for the day.

“Praise song for every hand-lettered sign, the figuring-it-out at kitchen tables.”

It’s this kind of conversation, going on at kitchen tables all over the country, that is quickly changing the terrain in this struggle. It’s not only 30-somethings and younger that support equality; because of these conversations, people like Mike Gronstal are “figuring it out” too.

Speaking of poetry… I came across a short poem that seems especially weighty right now. In the latest New Yorker, Spencer Reese’s “The Long-Term Marriage” describes an older couple (“[t]he dash between their dates is nearly done”) engaging in the most intimate kind of caring for each other (wife rubs cream on husband’s head to chase away “squamous-cell carcinomas”); but the creams are “FedExed from their adopted son’s boyfriend’s home, a relationship that remains, to them, unknown.”

The poem draws a striking contrast between the two relationships. The older couple at the center of this evanescent universe are portrayed in loving detail, while the son (likely “adopted” to suggest, somehow, the importance of the biological link for understanding between generations)  and his “boyfriend” are left undescribed at the other end of the FedEx transmission. Despite the physical and emotional distance, the son expresses his love by sending what his parents most need, and by the quickest means possible.

Equal dignity is both furnished and taught by law. I wonder if “The Long-Term Marriage” is a poem that could be written fifty years from now, after this struggle has been won. Will there still be straight couples this unaware of their children’s most important relationships? I doubt it.

Let me close with the final lines from “Praise Song”:

“What if the mightiest word is love?

“Love beyond marital, filial, national,
love that casts a widening pool of light,
love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

“In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.”

This post was originally published on April 16, 2009.

Catching up to Reality on Blood Donations by Gay Men

March 7th, 2010 No comments

When Obama was seeking the Presidency, the GLBT community had a well-defined punch list of action items, and he promised big things on all of them: repeal of DADT; repeal of DOMA (although he doesn’t support marriage equality); passing ENDA; passing inclusive hate crimes law (the only hole punched so far). A few others, notably the administrative implementation of the-then recent repeal of the insane prohibition against HIV-positive immigrants, were perhaps further down on the list, but also up for discussion. Conspicuously absent from the mainstream agenda has been an item of interest to the public health community: lifting of the ban on gay blood donors.

So I was buoyed to see that just a few days ago, a group of sixteen U.S. Senators sent a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, urging the agency to reconsider its twenty-seven-year-old lifetime ban (“deferral” is the quaint term used, but it’s politely Orwellian in this case) on blood donations for men who have had even one sexual encounter with another man.

The policy is long overdue for an overhaul. As the letter notes, the policy is inconsistent with various other exclusions, and is an artifact of a time when all that was really known of HIV infection — and we weren’t even calling it that, in 1983 — is that it disproportionately struck gay men. Even today, MSM (“men who have sex with men,” which is the term used by the CDC because it focuses on sexual behavior, rather than on orientation) are prohibited, forever, from donating blood if they have had sex, even once, with another man, at any time since 1977. The Senators’ letter points out the many inconsistencies in the policy, including the fact that there’s no exclusion of those who have had high-risk, unprotected heterosexual sex, no matter how recently. Even more absurdly, those who have had heterosexual sex with those known to have HIV are only deferred for one year; not for 33! And “sex” isn’t defined when it comes to MSM: the safest kind of protected sexual acts are, in theory, treated the same as the riskiest.

It should go without saying that none of this can be justified from a public health perspective.

These inconsistencies should be enough to sink the policy which, as the letter notes, has lately been repudiated by the major blood banking organizations, most significantly including the Red Cross. But the problems are much deeper and more serious than even the letter recognizes. A few years ago, I discussed the issue in detail in this law review article. Here, I’ll summarize the arguments I made there that weren’t explicitly raised in the letter.

First, while the CDC is careful to distinguish behavior — men having sex with men — from identity, the FDA policy undermines this sound epidemiological distinction by effectively collapsing the two. By excluding any man who’s had any kind of “sex” (not defined!) with even one other man during the past thirty-plus years, the FDA has created a policy that isn’t about relevant behavior, but about some weirdly expansive view of (gay) sexual orientation. Because if it were about behavior, the line would have been drawn in an entirely different place; say, for a year after specifically identified, high-risk behavior.

Second, the policy undermines trust in public health in a few related ways. Obviously, as a practical matter the policy isn’t enforceable, and the sheer breadth of it has doubtless caused many to ignore it. People aren’t stupid: Gay men who know they have an HIV-negative serostatus might give blood, understanding that they pose no threat. (According to this very unscientific poll over at, almost 200 of 800 respondents admitted to having lied about their sexual practices on the questionnaire.) But by attempting to fence them out, the FDA has sent gay men an unwelcome message that could undermine the community’s trust in other ways. One important public health principle is that it recognizes the long-term value of respecting the dignity of all populations.

Why has the policy persisted for so  long? One argument seems sensible, at first blush: If the exclusion were changed to, say, one year, there would be some infinitesimal increase in the number of HIV-positive blood transfusions (well less than one in a million, it’s estimated), so why do anything to increase the risk? But the “let’s not do anything if there’s a tiny risk of harm” canard — which, by the way, is also prevalent in arguments against marriage equality — wouldn’t be, and hasn’t been, applied to any other category of people, or of conduct. Of course there will be some tiny uptick, not  because of the three-week window period between infection and ability to identify it, which any contemplated new rule would  easily accommodate, but because of the irreducible human error associated with the process: If you add more people, some will get through who should not. But this could be said of any proposal to add donors; it’s just that “MSM” have had such a draconian policy applied to them for so long that the donor baseline is essentially zero for this group.

It seems that uprooting this policy is fairly far down on the priority list for the LGBT community. Indeed, this story seems to have attracted but little attention. But messages matter. The radical, embarrassingly outdated FDA policy sends a terrible signal that ought to concern us. It’s good to see that someone is finally suggesting action. Will Obama back them up?

Another Conversation Not to Have

December 30th, 2009 1 comment

Here’s a fool-proof plan for spoiling an otherwise-delightful dinner with friends: Talk about the various ways one might build a family.

This I learned recently, after getting into a surprisingly heated exchange with a couple that we count among our very closest friends. I was reminded that everyone has very strong opinions, not only about how they’ve decided to create their own families, but also about how others should build theirs. In the interests of avoiding another round of unpleasantness (and of making my friends fear that every conversation with me could end up as blog-fodder), I won’t go into any specifics about my friends’ views, or their arguments in support. Instead I want to use this opportunity to make and defend a point that might go insufficiently appreciated at times:

Every method of “having” children has its own ethical issues.

Let’s start with the old-fashioned way: Having your own kids through procreation. More than a decade ago, Joy Williams blew apart any thought that simply having one’s own biological kid was a moral good, or even that it was necessarily ethically neutral. While most of her deliciously over-the-top essay took aim at the fertility industry, she didn’t spare those who conceived the ol’ fashioned way. After reminding us that there are too many people in the world, she gets specific about American babies:

The argument that western countries with their wealth and relatively low birth rate do not fuel the population crisis is, of course, fallacious….The US population is growing faster than that of eighteen other industrialized nations and, in terms of energy consumption, when an American couple stops spawning at two babies, it’s the same as an average East Indian couple stopping at sixty-six, or an Ethiopian couple drawing the line at one thousand.

Williams’s snark-attack at those women and couples who choose to go to extraordinary means to conceive recently received a substantial boost from an in-depth series in the New York Times. The issues involved in such reproductive gymnastics are well-known, and the Times reporting shone what I’d consider to be an unflattering light on extreme cases. Sometimes, there are as many as five participants (egg donor, sperm donor, gestational surrogate, adopting couple) in the birth and parenting processes and an unsavory amount of money changing hands. Other cases involve Herculean and medically ill-advised efforts at fertility.

A woman profiled in one of the stories, for example, went through the following: an in vitro procedure that resulted in a miscarriage and revealed a problem (“incompetent cervix”) that made further pregnancies fraught with danger; a second procedure that resulted in twins — one of which died in utero, and the other of which was born at twenty-four weeks (and then remained in the neonatal unit for more than 100 days, so that the hospital bills approached $1 million — all of which was eaten by the woman’s self-insured employer); and then, incredibly, another in vitro procedure that resulted in a healthy birth. Why the last one?

“I didn’t did feel our family was complete yet.”

At this point in reading, I could barely contain my anger. Not once in this story, nor in the next installment in the series, was the word “adoption” used. Yet the question fairly screamed from the page: Why not complete your family by providing a good home to one of the millions of kids, world-wide, who need one?

As regular readers of this blog know, this is the time for full disclosure: David and I are adoptive parents. So obviously I have a bias of my own, and one that I defend. Our kids are local (from Philadelphia), so we don’t have to face the question: Why not adopt a child from your own backyard? Yet one must decide during the adoption process all kinds of questions that don’t otherwise come up: Does race matter to you? What about disability? Are you willing to adopt an older child? And so on…. I won’t get into the particulars of how we answered those questions, but the moral issues they raise should be clear enough.

And then there’s international adoptions, which raise for some additional but related issues: What justifies removing kids from their community of origin? (In a sense, this question can be asked of any adoption.) Would they be better off, in some ways, remaining there? On the other hand, are we simply associating a baby with a “community” that it will never even know? In other words, does it matter where kids are from? And for gay couples, international adoptions may not even be an option unless they lie — which of course raises its own set of questions.

To return to the beginning of this post: The friends with whom we were arguing had the benefit of a particular experience that colors their view of one of these options. Another couple we know had a somewhat-similar experience, but the difference may be in the “somewhat,” as their view of this same option is diametrically opposed.

So maybe we can’t do any better than this aphorism, attributed by a member of this second couple to an unidentified friend:

“People have the babies they need.”

Valuing a Child’s Best Interest?

October 8th, 2009 No comments

On Tuesday, the Montana Supreme Court decisively ruled that a non-biological parent who had lived with her same-sex partner for some ten years, and with whom she had co-parented the couple’s children, had parental rights under a state statute. An in-depth analysis of the decision, Kulstad v. Maniaci (and a citation to it),  is available at Art Leonard’s site, and I can’t really improve on his summary of the case.

I do want to take a moment to mention, though, that the need to oppose any law or judicial decision that might conceivably contribute to the recognition of same-sex couples sometimes causes anti-gay groups to take strange positions. In this case, the Alliance Defense Fund argued that the statute under which the court granted parental rights to the non-biological parent was unconstitutional. (Again, see Leonard’s blog for a summary of the argument.) Shouldn’t a conservative legal group, and one that broadcasts its foundation in Christian values at that, be arguing that the children’s best interest would be served by having two committed, loving parents in their lives? The court, perhaps annoyed by the effort to separate the kids from one of their two parent, began its decision by stating:

Far too often this Court faces a situation in which minor children have no adult fit to parent them. This case presents the increasingly unusual situation of two adults fit to parent minor children, L.M. and A.M.

Well, from the ADF’s point of view, I suppose it’s better to have one sinful parent rather than two; and they’re all about biological ties, even when other interests and arguments pull strongly in the other direction.

But…who is on the same side as the ADF? The biological mother, who argues that her former spouse should be a legal stranger to their kids. There is a special place reserved here for gay and lesbian former partners who make these arguments, which, if successful, can set back the progress of LGBT rights — so that the winning partner can deprive her children of a parent’s love and duty: reliable comforts that the kids have relied on all of their lives.

None of these arguments would even be possible if second-parent adoptions were routinely available (and used) for same-sex couples. But there’s no excuse for exploiting bad law. I hope Barbara Maniaci, the bio mom, can live with herself. (Or do I?)