In yesterday’s essay, I drew attention to the interesting and challenging foundations of Melissa Moschella’s new book on parental rights and authority as derived ultimately from the unique personal relationship that biological parents have with their children. Biological parents are the biological causes of their children’s existence and are responsible for the biological identity of their children. This biological relationship has many implications for other aspects of children’s identity.
The emphasis on biology can raise questions about adoptive parenting. Consider, for example, the comments of NBC gymnastics commentator Al Trautwig in regards to Olympic gymnast Simone Biles. Biles was adopted by her grandparents and calls them her mom and dad. Trautwig tweeted, “They may be mom and dad but they are NOT her parents.” Trautwig’s claim is, in one obvious sense, true: Biles’s adoptive parents are not her biological parents. But his comments raised the ire of many who have adopted or who have been adopted. If one is not the biological child of one’s “mom and dad,” are they not one’s “real” parents? Is adoptive parenting a lesser, or less genuine, form of parenting?
The emphasis on biology in Moschella’s work might lead one to raise similar concerns. Indeed, in her “Acknowledgments,” Moschella notes that I, along with the philosopher Sarah-Vaughan Brakman and legal scholar Elizabeth Kirk, “convinced me of the need to be more sensitive and nuanced in my discussion” of adoption. And she has been. But just as, in yesterday’s essay, I pointed to the relationship between conjugal marriage and parental authority as an acknowledged complement to the emphasis on biological parenthood, so today I want to point to that same reality—the reality of conjugal marriage—as important to our understanding of adoptive parenting.
A Conjugal Conception of Parenthood
Moschella holds that the
difference between adoptive and biological parents is that the biological parents’ biological relationship with their child is what initially grounds their obligation to further develop that relationship at the psychological, intellectual, and volitional dimensions through the love and care that they provide, whereas for adoptive parents it is their commitment to take on the parenting role that grounds the obligation.
Moreover, since they commit to take on that role permanently, adoptive parenting is distinguished from foster parenting, but similar to biological parenting. Thus, Moschella writes, “the emphasis on biological parenthood in the foregoing analysis should in no way be taken as a denigration of adoptive parenthood, for parenthood means engendering a new human being not only biologically, but also psychologically, morally, and intellectually.” Adoptive parents commit themselves to care in all these dimensions, and thus “they are true parents.”
Adoptive parenting was not the focus of Moschella’s book, so it is no surprise that she did not address it further. What she does say is helpful and, I think, largely correct. But in one respect, I would quibble. In some other respects, her remarks can set the stage for further inquiry.
What is the quibble? Moschella writes, as quoted above, that “parenthood means engendering a new human being not only biologically, but also…” To some, this might again suggest that biological parenting is foundational for parenting, and that parenting that occurs only at the psychological, moral, or intellectual levels has, as it were, only three of the four marks of parenthood. But I think that if we look again at the conjugal conception of parenthood, we can better understand what parenthood in its biological and adoptive senses has in common.
Recall that marriage is, as argued by Girgis, Anderson, and George, a commitment to a comprehensive union. This comprehensive union requires the very real biological union of spouses in conjugal intercourse, the act by which spouses are made “one flesh.” That act is both the realization and the expression of the spouses’ love for one another. Thus children, when they come into existence as the result of the marital act, are truly the fruit of the parents’ marriage and of their marital love.
How do spouses become parents? One way is biological: when the sperm of the husband penetrates the oocyte of the wife, then the life of a new member of the species homo sapiens is initiated. That new human being comes into existence in the biological-personal relationship of the sort Moschella discusses in her book.
But that new human being can also be understood to come into existence in consequence of the spouses’ life-giving love. That love of spouses is personal in three dimensions. It is interpersonal between spouses, involving their free gift of self to each other. If it is truly marital, it is open to the possibility of creating new life—new persons—in an overflowing of the creativity of spousal love and conjugal union. And it is personal in its relationship to the Divine, whose cooperation is essential in both the marriage and in the creation of new life. Spouses who acknowledge and welcome that cooperation act in partnership and friendship with God.
So children who come into being as the fruit of the marital act are, as I have said here in Public Discourse before (quoting Jennifer Roback Morse), loved into existence. This is, it seems, the appropriate way for persons to come into being. They should not be treated as things, to be created at will. Nor should they be treated as accidents, unwelcome by-products of less-than-fully-committed sexual union. They should rather be the subjects of spousal hope and, when that hope is rewarded, joy and welcome.
Of course, one might say, none of this gets off the ground without being accompanied by biological causality. After all, that’s necessary for children to come into existence in the first place.
That is true, as far as it goes. But it does not, I think, go all the way to the truth of adoption. For there too, we should see the emergence of a new personal reality—a child of these parents, a member of this family—as the fruit and fulfillment of marital love. Commitment on the part of each spouse does play the important role Moschella assigns to it; it marks the initiation of the adoptive relationship. But we should see that commitment as a mutual commitment of spouses, and one that emerges as an overflowing of marital love, just as it does when spouses physically conceive a child.
Adoption Should Spring from Love, Not Need
Such an account can serve as a corrective to a potential misunderstanding of adoption. It is true that many couples who seek to adopt have suffered from difficulties with their fertility. Those difficulties are often the sign or symptom of some medical condition for which treatment is called. There is a problem that may be able to be rectified if the appropriate steps are taken.
It can be tempting to extend this description of what is happening to the absence of children itself: that is seen as a problem, indeed, the problem, to be rectified by taking appropriate steps. That attitude can lead to the use of various assisted reproductive technologies that seek to make a child, thereby fixing what is wrong.
And it could equally lead to adoption of a child. Let’s call that adoption out of need. The couple has a problem: they need a child, and adoption is one way to fix the problem at hand. But spouses should not adopt from what they do not have, but from what they do: an abundance of spousal love that seeks to be creative and life-giving. We could call that adoption-out-of-abundance.
Adoption on this model is, like spousal procreation from conjugal union, interpersonal in three dimensions. It involves the mutuality of spousal love and is not something that can or should be done unilaterally by one spouse without the other. It is personal in its openness to new life as something to which one must give oneself, but which one should not make or take for oneself. And it is personal in its openness to divine co-creativity. If adoptive children really do become the children of adoptive parents, this surely requires God’s creative cooperation. And of course, Christians can take as their model of adoption the relationship between God the Father and all who are baptized. We are His sons and daughters, and thus we are members of the divine family, through adoption. Human adoption mirrors divine adoption just as human procreation mirrors divine creation.
Adoption, seen through this lens, also parallels the reality noted by Moschella about biological parenting (as she herself indicates). Adoption is, in one sense, responsible for a child’s existence: namely, her existence in this family, and as the child of this couple. And it is identity-forming. The adopted child does not become less the child of her biological parents, but her identity becomes newly shaped by the identity, culture, family, and world of her adoptive parents. As is the case for other children, to fully understand herself, the adopted child must begin to understand her parents.
As with sex and marriage, sound philosophical treatment of both family and adoption is needed now more than ever, as common ways of living and understanding these realities have shifted radically. Melissa Moschella’s book To Whom Do Children Belong? serves as both an instance of, and a prompt to, precisely the sort of intellectual work whose kairos has come.
Christopher O. Tollefsen is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. He is the author of Lying and Christian Ethics (Cambridge, 2014).