The landscape around marriage and the family has drastically changed over the past sixty years. Culturally, adult sexual desire, choice, and identity have been elevated as the highest goods. Legally, no-fault divorce transformed what used to be the most child-friendly institution the world has ever known into a vehicle of adult fulfillment. Same sex marriage took that adult-centric mindset to its logical conclusion. Technologically, we severed sex from babies with the birth control pill and then separated babies from sex with IVF and surrogacy.
What do these profound changes to the American family have in common? The answer is that—in culture, law, and technology—too many people are prioritizing what adults want above the natural rights of children. All too often, children are the real victims of marriage and family policy, suffering the loss of fundamental rights while their voices are rarely heard.
As we debate pro-family policy in the post-Dobbs era, we should recognize and respect the rights of children, especially each child’s right to a biological mother and father in a loving and durable union. Despite the deep political differences that exist between Americans, we were each born of one man and one woman, and we each understand the importance of being loved by the man or woman who gave us life, or the pain of being denied a relationship with one or both.
Our departure from the historic understanding of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is rooted in the careless neglect of the rights of children. To get back on track, and to formulate effective pro-family proposals, we must put children at the center of our efforts to form culture, shape policy, and resist new technological threats to marriage and the family.
Despite rapid cultural, legal, and technological change, children’s rights and needs remain the same. Pop cultural mantras such as “love makes a family” have failed to produce child outcomes comparable to those of the traditional family. The gender-neutralizing of marriage and parenthood law and the proliferation of reproductive technologies have not erased the benefits children receive from being raised by a man and woman. Our best efforts to remake the family are powerless to change the realities of the child. What is that reality? That when it comes to making and raising children, biology matters.
This means that pro-family policy needs to prioritize biological parents. There are three key reasons to start from here. First, children are more likely to thrive and feel loved if they are raised by their biological parents. Not only are one man and one woman required for a child’s life to begin, but a child’s biological parents are statistically the two adults most likely to ensure that the child is safe and loved. For many years, social science studies have consistently shown that unrelated adults tend to be less invested in and protective of children. Similarly, the Pew Research Center found that people in step families “typically feel a stronger sense of obligation to their biological family members than to their step relatives.”
This empirical research supports the testimonies of children who have been denied a biological connection with their parents. In the words of one woman who experienced many years of feeling rejected and insignificant within the context of a step-family situation:
Behind the scenes, my original siblings and I have all experienced much pain as a result of combining families because of the favoritism to my step-siblings by my step-mom … I guess you could say that often the husband goes along with whatever the wife puts effort into, and there is often a distinct difference in the effort the mom naturally puts into her own kids. As a result, her kids were favored over my original siblings.
Second, biological parents can grant children a more rooted and stable sense of identity, helping children to answer the question: “Who am I?” We can best understand how biology impacts a child’s identity by listening to the children who were raised without the security it promises. According to a survey by the American Adoption Congress, 65 percent of adoptees expressed a desire to meet their birth parent and 94 percent expressed the desire to know which birth parent they resemble most. According to a 2020 survey by the resource center We Are Donor Conceived, a majority of their members “hope to form a close friendship with their biological [donor] parent” and believe that there is a “basic human right to know the identity of both biological parents.”
Third, biological parents provide the complementary benefits of mothering and fathering in the life of a child. Despite the media’s efforts to assure us that gender is a social construct and academic studies with dubious methodologies purporting to show that same-sex parented children fare “no different,” robust social science scholarship continues to demonstrate what we’ve always known: kids often suffer without a loving male and female parent. Biology matters because it ensures that children at least have the possibility of receiving the range of benefits that mothering and fathering provide, even if those benefits are not always fully realized.
Changing the Story, Shaping the Culture
Our culture has shifted drastically, but children haven’t changed. In fact, they continue to be victimized by practices and policies that prioritize adult desires above children’s rights. It’s past time to start putting them at the center of our national conversation. That begins with clearly and courageously defending children’s rights by shaping culture, reforming law, and rethinking our approach to technology.
First, we need to recognize that building a stronger and healthier marriage culture means building an understanding of marriage as a matter of fundamental justice for children—because that’s exactly what it is. To help achieve this, we should leverage the emotional power of personal narrative in shaping political outcomes. Put simply: to protect children’s rights and to strengthen marriage and the family, we need to tell a better story.
Those who prioritize adult desire over children’s needs have continually succeeded in shaping laws and culture, redefining marriage along the way, not because they have a corner on natural law, strong research, or reliable data. They continue to destabilize the family because they elicit a more sympathetic view of their victims—adults seeking validation of their sexual feelings, choices, and identity. In response, traditional marriage advocates too often relied upon cold statistics. To change the culture, we need to broadcast stories of the true victims—children—who have suffered under the redefinition of the modern family. The best counter to an article itemizing the struggles of two men seeking to be fathers via surrogacy is the story of a girl with two fathers who desperately wanted a mother.
But same-sex couples who adopt shouldn’t be singled out: it’s also important to highlight the child-harming impact of no-fault divorce, sperm and egg donation employed by both heterosexual and homosexual couples, and single motherhood or fatherhood by choice conveys that all adult groups are guilty of victimizing children. For this reason, we must insist that all adults—single, married, gay, straight, fertile, and infertile—deny their own wants so the rights of children are protected. This approach emphasizes that we’re not discriminating against certain adults; instead, we’re fighting for every child.
In time, we might replace vacuous phrases like “love is love” with deeper, more substantive insights that remind us that kids are not commodities and that adults should sacrifice for kids, rather than insisting kids sacrifice for us. As the next generation emerges from the most fragmented families of our nation’s history, spotlighting child loss will increasingly resonate.
Supporting Pro-Family Policy
As I suggested last year, the marriage movement needs to change hearts and change laws. When it comes to marriage law, bad laws and bad rulings prohibit making relational distinctions between same-sex and opposite sex couples. Thus, pro-child lawyers and policymakers must propose creative legal incentives based not on adult relationships with one another, but on adult relationships with children.
In particular, we need state-level proposals that reward biological parents for raising their children together in a married relationship. By employing language like this we convey that such incentives aren’t just good for children, but for society as well:
THIS STATE will offer tax breaks to the biological parents of children who are in a married relationship. The state extends a $400 per child annual credit while the child’s biological parents are married to one another, and $700 annually per child if the parents married prior to the child’s birth.
Biological parents are statistically the safest, most connected to, most invested in, and most protective adults in a child’s life. This tax credit protects children by incentivizing the formation of a household where children suffer the lowest rates of neglect and abuse, obesity, drug use, poverty and incarceration.
This child tax credit also minimizes the need for government anti-poverty funds, child protective services, academic support, police involvement, and other state emergency aid.
This approach offers three advantages. First, it eschews words such as mother, father, man, and woman, focusing on the rights and needs of children rather than the claims of specific adult categories. Second, it applies equally to unrelated same-sex and opposite sex homes, reinforcing the idea that this is about protecting children rather than discriminating against adults. Third, it focuses the debate not on the legitimacy of adult feelings, but on the family structure data—which is exactly where the marriage debate should have been all along.
For those wondering about programs and benefits for couples who adopt, hefty statutory and tax programs already incentivize adoption, and most states rightly treat natural and adoptive children the same. What is needed now is incentive which reinforce bonds between children and their biological parents.
Beyond marriage, we must put children at the heart of legal efforts to roll-back no-fault divorce, recalibrate the anti-father family court system, reject the adulteration of children’s birth certificates, and limit the definition of parenthood to biology and adoption. The goal would be for the next generation of policy and legal thinkers to be seen as arguing for children, rather than against adults.
Resisting Technological Threats to the Family
In addition to forming culture and changing law, we should resist and reverse the expansion of the lucrative fertility industry, which is built on the denial of children’s rights. Annually, the fertility industry likely has a more destructive impact on unborn life than abortion. The pro-family movement must understand that abortion and reproductive technology are two sides of the same child-commodifying coin, and act accordingly. The children who do emerge from the IVF process alive have often had their right to their mother and father violated via use of “donor” sperm and/or egg.
Of course, we should extend empathy to heterosexuals struggling with infertility, as well as support our friends and family with same-sex attraction or unwanted singleness. At the same time, we should work tirelessly to oppose the availability and abuse of technologies that victimize children. We must insist that if technology is to be involved in baby-making, it cannot violate the rights of the most vulnerable. As such, we should consider the following proposals:
- Ban embryo-freezing. This practice is responsible for nearly one million souls on ice in America. Every embryo that is created should be implanted fresh, with no “leftover” or “surplus” babies to be discarded, experimented on in the name of research, or “donated” to another couple.
- Ban “donor” sperm and egg. Regardless of whether they are raised in a heterosexual, homosexual, or single household, use of third-party gametes is always a violation of children’s rights.
- Ban surrogacy. Whether gestational or traditional, commercial or altruistic, surrogacy intentionally severs the maternal bond which is critical to the well-being of children. When children experience maternal loss as a consequence of unexpected tragedy, we mourn. When that maternal loss is inflicted intentionally, we should also see it as an injustice.
When it comes to marriage and the family, we must seek to form culture, change laws, and resist technological threats because children’s lives and well-being are at stake. If we center the rights of children in every conversation about family structure, good policy will follow. If we fail, children will continue to be neglected and treated as commodities to satisfy adult desires.
Children will not, and cannot, change. The question we need to confront as we seek to strengthen marriage and the family in the post-Roe era is: will our culture, law, and technology protect children, or victimize them?