Thursday, 23 January 2014

Times: Beyond gay adoption, January 23, 2014, 00:01 by Ranier Fsadni

Same-sex couples are already dealing with a Mother’s Day for two mothers. Photo: Reuters/Sallie Dean Shatz

In 2004, three years after the Netherlands became the first country to legalise gay marriage, a group of five Dutch scholars, opponents of the innovation, wrote an open letter to all the parliaments in the world that were debating same-sex marriage.

The scholars conceded that they had no evidence that same-sex marriage had undermined traditional Dutch marriage, although the latter was experiencing a decline and the number of out-of-wedlock births continued to rise. However, they did think that the long public debate on the issue – it had dragged for 10 years – had an effect.

The scholars said that you cannot spend a decade drumming it into people’s heads that marriage had nothing to do with parenting without this having some impact on popular ideas and choices. The debate had the effect, they argued, of consolidating an already existing heterosexual tendency to separate parenting from marriage, to think that marriage was just one option in a range of morally-neutral relationships.

Whatever you think of these academics’ ideas about marriage and same-sex relationships, they were surely right in pointing out that debates do not just express ideas we already have.

Even if they don’t change a single individual mind, by verbalising the principles on which an issue is decided, they transform the public culture in which the next debate will take place.

And that is my concern when I observe how the public interventions of Auxiliary Bishop Charles Scicluna are being treated. Certain principles are being articulated which are either mistaken or which, at least, need to be discussed in their own right. If we don’t, we risk poisoning the well of the next debate.

I say this as someone who has been critical of the bishop’s arguments on gay adoption. I’m still deeply unpersuaded by the recent interview he gave The Sunday Times of Malta (January 12).

I’m not sure whether it was an effect of the interview’s presentation but he came across as elusive, if not evasive, on two critical points.

He prefers the status quo – where children may be adopted by homosexual individuals – to having homosexual couples eligible to apply to adopt as a couple. He’s acknowledged that, sometimes, it may be in the overall interests of the child to be adopted by a gay individual.

But it isn’t clear whether he believes that that gay adult must be truly single and cannot be in a relationship. If he believes that the adult must be single, what kind of screening process would it take to establish this for sure? If an adult was intent on disguising this, a screening process would have to be very invasive.

But suppose the adult was truly single at the point of adoption. Could the State possibly impose lifelong singlehood (or, at least, until the child turned adult) as a condition?

To acknowledge that it’s impossible (unfeasible and undesirable) to make such impositions is to recognise that, even if the bishop gets his way and the status quo is retained, we will continue to have a small number of adopted children raised, in practice, by same-sex couples.

This leads to the second point on which he seems elusive. He’s against permitting legally-recognised gay couples to adopt because he says it will change the concept of parenthood.

He clearly doesn’t only have the legal concept of parenthood in mind because the two examples he gave are social: presenting one’s parents as Jane and Jane or John and John and “a very small but practical example, what are we going to do with Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?”

It’s certainly a change in the concept of parenthood but the change is already with us, in the status quo that the bishop accepts. Same-sex couples are already dealing with a Mother’s Day for two mothers and will continue to do so under the status quo.

Likewise, children already do and will continue to present ‘Jane and Jane’ as their parents – whether it’s on Parents’ Day, Sports Day, their family holiday photos on Facebook, their birthday parties or simply when it’s their turn to host friends for a sleepover at home.

It’s not the law that’s the decisive factor in the change of concept. It’s social practice, the rituals of everyday life. What the law can do is make children more secure by recognising both their social parents as legal parents.

On the issue immediately facing Parliament, therefore, I think the bishop is unpersuasive.

But I am greatly bothered by the way he’s been treated by some of his critics. If the grounds of those criticisms are generally accepted, they will disable us from properly discussing future issues.

One criticism has been that, while the bishop may be right on the substance, he is wrong to intervene because this isn’t a moral issue. Of course it’s a moral issue. Everyone agrees that this is an issue of justice. The disagreements are about whether the proposed law is doing justice to children and adults. And justice is always based on a moral vision (even if it’s not a religious vision).

If we’re going to accept that justice doesn’t involve a moral vision, then we will saw off the branch on which our entire set of human and civic rights, based on the dignity of the person, rests.

Currently, unlike what certain critics say, there is a consistent basis on which one can accept (say) gay marriage but not polygamy (just as the King of Saudi Arabia does have a consistent basis for accepting polygamy but banning gay marriage). But if we think that the basis for accepting one and rejecting another has nothing to do with moral vision, then truly we will have lost the basis for rational deliberative democracy.

The bishop has also been criticised for claiming a monopoly on truth. He’s done no such thing. He’s appealed both to religion and reason. He hasn’t merely declared his position. He has argued it, which is why people like me can argue back.

Some of his critics, however, in seeking to shut him up have come pretty close to claiming a monopoly on truth. Their statements – on, say, what is a human right and what isn’t – have been more like mere declarations than arguments.

And this could become dangerous when we come to discuss, sooner rather than later, some of the legal ramifications of the proposed laws on civil unions and adoptions. What Catholic schools can or cannot teach... whether the legal companion of a new mother or father is automatically recognised by the State as a parent...

All these are issues which we risk handling very badly if any side claims a monopoly on truth or even rules out truth as a consideration because it’s claimed the matter is morally neutral and reducible to mere subjective opinion.

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