“Are You My Mother?” P. D. Eastman’s classic was a favorite book from my childhood, telling the story of a baby bird emerging just as his mother flies away to find food. Resolved to find her, he goes on quest. From kitten to cow, tugboat to bulldozer, the hatchling repeatedly poses the plaintive question. His bewildering search ends with a happy reunion and him back in the nest, under his mother’s wings. I have been that baby bird. As an infant, I was adopted into a loving family with devoted parents. I am forever grateful. At the same time, from elderly piano teacher to teen Vacation Bible School volunteer to any woman whose kindness significantly touched me, I asked the same question: “Are you my mother?”
Adoption unfolds as a gift to both parties, but it exists to repair something that in the natural order of things would never happen. In a perfect world, children would never be separated from their parents. While adoption is a beautiful redemption, it is always a response to tragedy. As one therapist wrote, “adoption is a major life crisis whose impact both at the time, and over time, has often been overlooked. . . . When adoption themes are ignored, therapists inadvertently collude with the powerful and destructive unspoken message that adoption means nothing.”
Honesty regarding the impacts of adoption has greatly improved over the years. Yet with respect to marriage and alternative family structures, the dishonest messaging continues: separating children from their parents does not matter.
The “Respect for Marriage Act” (RFMA) will further enshrine legal affirmation of nontraditional family and “marital” structures via federal codification of same-sex marriage and other partnership arrangements. The RFMA has already passed in the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Senate will vote on it after the midterms. If signed into law, it will codify into federal law parental rights for married same-sex couples. This provision is intended to protect gay couples, but in so doing legally enshrines the denial of children’s need for a mother and father. Whether through adoption or artificial reproductive technology (ART), same-sex parenting and other modern arrangements divide and sometimes even eradicate the maternal and/or paternal bonds children need to thrive. By privileging adults’ “rights” to be affirmed in their desires, we will further harm children.
Family Structures: The More They Multiply, the More They Divide
My own story exemplifies the ways ART and nontraditional family structures hurt children. In my search for my birth mother, the adoption agency was my first stop. I drank in every word as Billie, the same social worker who had placed me eighteen years earlier, read redacted information from my file. My parents had dated in high school and on into college, there was talk of engagement, and then came the crisis pregnancy that led to the unwed mothers’ home in which I now sat. I tried to temper the longing in my question: “Did she hold me?” Billie paused, put down my file, and sighed. “Everyone asks me that question.”
Two years later, I succeeded in having my original birth certificate unsealed. I trembled as I opened it and read my mother’s name. There was a blank where my father’s name should have been. But a blank did not mean I did not have a father—I existed because of their union. My mother did not list his name because she was angry at him for “shirking his part of the matter,” as she wrote on her maternity home intake forms. I knew I would find him eventually. My birth parents had been in a relationship; there was shared life, and their families knew each other. At our first and only meeting, my mother told me who my father was.
With respect to “modern families” and the use of ART, I cannot imagine the added pain and struggle had I been searching for a donor number—a man my mother had never met—looking, not for family connections, but for clinic and lab records, if my conception had come from a father who had sold a vial of sperm.
An even more painful scenario for me would be finding out that my burning question, “Are you my mother?” could be answered “yes” by more than one woman: that my search could have been for a “genetic” mother—a woman who donated or sold her eggs—and potentially a “gestational” mother, had my adoptive mother not been the IVF recipient that carried me. For women who buy eggs, “outsource” the pregnancy, and then raise the child, the child has three mothers. Multiplying modern family arrangements and technological options create more ways to divide a child.
I shudder to realize that in spite of my own history, I could have easily inflicted similar harms on my future children when I was actively lesbian-identified. In those days, I never worried about being unable to have kids because I knew all I needed was a sperm donor. How could I glibly think of creating my children to be “fatherless”? By considering only my desire for children, and not their needs or future well-being.
My friends at the time had a similar mindset. When speaking of her girlfriend, my friend Beth told me, “I see my unborn children in her eyes.” As much as she may have wished for this, it wasn’t true. Beth and I did not know then that modern technology would invent a “new family model” to multiply the mother and thus divide the child, drawing closer to the world we wished for at the time.
Divide the Child
This “new family model” employs the “reception of oocytes from partner” (ROPA) technique. Pioneered in Spain, ROPA is an arrangement in which the intended parents are lesbian partners—one woman serves as the egg donor and the other the gestational surrogate. Researchers on planned lesbian families describe ROPA as fulfilling “the wish of a lesbian couple to conceive a child together (although they still need the contribution of a sperm donor) through a combined genetic and biological link.” This “shared IVF motherhood” option has been described as an “acceptable, successful, and safe treatment option for lesbian couples with financial means.” I think of children whose primal maternal bond is split and divvied up, or the stories of sperm-donor-conceived children longing for a father, and I wonder: Acceptable to whom?
Calling ROPA a “safe treatment option” is yet another destructive lie. These glowing reports fail to mention that using this new family model creates increased risk of serious harm, even unto death in some cases, for each member of the triad: the egg donor, the surrogate/gestational mother, and the ART-conceived and carried child. Whatever our intentions, showing highest love is hindered when we are blinded by our own desires to things that are harmful both to us and the ones we love.
Widespread divorce is a social ill properly laid at the feet of heterosexual couples; the harms done to children split between mom’s house and dad’s are widely acknowledged but far too often rationalized and even cavalierly inflicted. Yet the household shuttling traditionally lamented in divorce is now celebrated as a new form of “co-parenting.” The children of these arrangements begin life divided between two parental houses; and when break-ups occur, they can experience even more transitions than traditional households suffer. One honest researcher investigated the effects of couple dissolutions on what he terms “guild” parenting, in which a lesbian couple partners with a gay male couple to genetically co-create and co-parent a child. In that study, a social mother separated from her partner wept over the children having to move between three houses. In tears, she acknowledged seeing regression in the children and knowing the stress this was causing, but there was no way to resolve it if each of the parents was to continue to see them. Consider that if the gay father dyad were to split, the children would either have to lose connection with the social father or split their time between four houses.
Had I followed my younger self’s plans, I not only would have intentionally deprived my children of their (and any) father, but I also would have given them a much higher likelihood of household instability. Back then, I couldn’t have known that formalized lesbian partnerships turn out to be the least stable couple arrangement, with over twice the dissolution rate when compared with both male same-sex unions and heterosexual marriage. I also couldn’t have known that having kids actually tends to destabilize same-sex couples. As one study found, dissolution rates between couple types without children are lower for heterosexual couples but not greatly so; however, for those with children, the dissolution rates are vastly different—43 percent for same-sex couples compared to 8 percent for opposite-sex couples.
Court rulings such as Obergefell and proposals like RFMA would have blinded me to these differences. They would have taught me that each arrangement is equally a “marriage” and is the same for children. These laws also would have required a birth certificate for my children that denied their actual origins: no father, two mothers. And if my same-sex union dissolved, my ex-partner, biologically unrelated to my children, would retain full parental rights.
If states decide to permit marriage for multiple-partner relationships, children will legally get swept up in these arrangements. Polyamorous marriage is not a remote possibility: in New York, a judge recently ruled in favor of such marriages. The judge argued that two-person arrangements can’t be privileged over others because doing so would be unjust discrimination. Consider the ramifications of the RFMA: It would require every state to comply with every expansion and novel definition of “marriage.”
The Harms of Legal Lies
The law is a teacher, and the “Respect for Marriage Act” is a bad one. Enshrining legal lies about the truth of marriage harms all of society, most especially children. From facile heterosexual marriage dissolutions to novel family arrangements, children are harmed when their rights to their own mother and father are disregarded for the sake of adult desires. Children suffer when they are no longer considered central to the institution of marriage—an institution that for millennia served to bind together a father and mother from whose union children would naturally spring. A society suffers when it no longer distinguishes in law, much less guards and encourages, the one arrangement that provides the most stable environment for its future citizens to grow and flourish: the intact biological family, held together and supported in the institution of traditional marriage.
Harm always occurs when the fundamental truth of human nature and the human person isn’t honored. Many a lie has been spoken in the name of compassion and conferring dignity, but lying about reality dishonors the dignity of every person bearing the imago Dei. To obscure the nature of marriage also harms the very ones, the LGBTQ-identified, who seek social and legal approbation for their relationships. The law would have served me better by telling me the truth—challenging rather than validating my planned arrangements, which were a violation of my future children’s dignity and rights to know both of their parents and their biological heritage.
As CanaVox state leader Martha recently remarked, “one-man, one-woman marriages are like the load-bearing walls and columns in the social structure. They bear the weight of social stability;” there’s no other configuration that “does the heavy lifting” traditional marriage does. It is good for everyone, including the LGBTQ-identified, if the load-bearing walls are supported. When the social structure weakens, we all suffer: the roof falls on the “gay” and “straight” alike.
Senators will vote on the RFMA in the coming months. This bill places the pillars of society—marriages—in their hands. Many senators, blinded like Samson but without his intent, fail to realize that a “yes” vote will deal marriage its most damaging legal blow yet. I implore them to find the strength to push not against the pillars, but against the destructive cultural tide, and vote “no.”