|"Having" Children: The Choice Between Procreation and Adoption||Source|
Over the last two decades, there has been increasing engagement in western analytic philosophy with ethical issues of family-making. Philosophers have asked whether procreation is permissible, whether there is a duty to adopt rather than procreate, and how we might radically reconceive parenthood. Importantly, these discussions are influenced by complex socio-political factors and provide conceptual foundations for potential government action. The debates are becoming more nuanced – and the need for them, in an era of pandemic and increasing public awareness of racial justice movements and environmental crises, is only growing more acute.
Here are two simple thoughts. Firstly, all children have a right to be cared for. Secondly, it makes sense to prioritise care for children who already exist. These two thoughts encourage the idea that there is a moral responsibility to look after existing children who are in need of care rather than making more. In the work of philosophers like Tina Rulli and Daniel Friedrich, this idea forms the basis for a duty to adopt rather than procreate.
While adoptive practices are typically considered morally praiseworthy, they’re far from mainstream. Most societies value adoption, but not enough to provide suitable supports to make it equally accessible as a means of having children. Only a few people proactively consider non-biological parenthood as an option, especially when there’s no impediment to procreation.
Generally speaking, procreation is regarded as superior or preferable to other forms of family-making. This is unsurprising given the pervasiveness of bio-normative ideals, which enforce a bias towards “natural” baby-making. In most societies, at most levels of cultural discourse, producing your own child is seen to be an essential part of a happy life, making meaning and bringing joy. So while many agree that adoption is a social good, this message is controverted by the widespread endorsement of, asymmetrical social supports for, and celebration of procreation.
At the time of writing (February 2021), the national press in the UK is celebrating the news that two royals, Harry Mountbatten-Windsor and Meghan Markle, are expecting their second child. The royal family is an instance of deeply entrenched institutional pro-natalism; at the heart of the monarchy is the belief that “blood-lines” matter. Power emanates from those with a specific birth-right. It is unsurprising that citizens within monarchies, like the UK and Canada, are biased towards procreation, since the Crown has structural prohibitions against adoption; the head of state cannot be an adoptee.
These background pro-natalist pressures don’t simply marginalise children in care (though that would be bad enough). They may also encourage prospective parents who are experiencing infertility to view adoption as a last resort: adoption should be turned to only after having tried costly and potentially risky assisted reproductive technologies.
Not only are there socio-cultural disincentives to adoption, there are legal and administrative ones as well. The burdens placed on adoptive parents are, on the whole, heavy and inequitable, and include (but are not limited to): requirements of parenting skills training, intensive medical (including psychological) evaluations, financial assessments, criminal background checks, as well as home studies and check-ups. Prospective foster parents go through similar intensive screening procedures.
The point isn’t that it would be better if these checks-and-balances were altogether removed – these processes ensure that adoptees and foster children are properly cared for – but that there is a glaring disparity with biological parenthood. Biological parents are not subjected to any of the parental licensing processes that typically target adoptive and foster parents. As Carolyn McLeod and Andrew Botterell argue, this constitutes a form of discrimination against adoptive, foster and (in general) non-biological families.
Having biological children is challenging (especially so if assisted reproductive technologies are needed) but socially, legally and administratively, adoption and related childcare practices present considerably more barriers. So it’s no surprise that prospective parents typically opt to procreate rather than adopt or foster.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed and exacerbated economic disparities, racial inequalities, and failures of social support systems. Adoption and child welfare systems are no exception and the issues described above have worsened during the global crisis. Within weeks of the World Health Organisation categorising the virus as a pandemic (in March 2020), we began to see the negative impacts of existing and newly-implemented laws and social policies on child welfare systems. (We focus on the UK, Canada, and US because this is where most of the English-language research and scholarship on adoption and child welfare has been produced, but similar trends to what we discuss also appear in other countries.)
Government policies aimed at curbing infection rates have created additional barriers to adoption processes: travel bans have made it more difficult for prospective parents to adopt children internationally; court closures for in-person proceedings have created delays and backlogs; strict border controls and restricted immigration have resulted in legal challenges to children’s citizenship claims.
These aren’t just matters of inconvenience. “Lockdowns” and household-limited gatherings are themselves actively harming children, making them more vulnerable to domestic abuse and exploitation. School closures and stay-at-home orders make it more difficult for children experiencing violence to reach out for help from teachers, support workers, or community members. Child support helplines have experienced a surge in call volumes and text messages, with children reporting increased stresses related to living arrangements, household finances, and mental health issues.
The lack of social interaction also renders invisible the harms children may be suffering, including psychological harms that result from stress related to the loss of loved ones, financial difficulties that leave their families without stable income or secure housing, and gender-based harms against girls and queer (including trans*) youth. Migrant and refugee children, and children living in conflict zones, face compounded threats to their wellbeing as they continue to confront a lack of access to basic necessities of life, including proper sanitation systems, healthcare and adequate living conditions.
Children who might otherwise be identified as in need of parental care or eligible for adoption may be overlooked during the pandemic, and travel bans and strict border controls significantly decrease the possibilities for international adoption. This is at a time when international adoptions have been severely restricted by sending countries, and rates of international adoption in many of the top receiving countries have sharply declined over the past few years. For example, the number of children adopted within the UK over the past five years has dropped by over a third. In Canada, the rates of international adoptions have also plummeted. (There are various reasons for this, including sending countries’ attempts to promote domestic adoptions in “the best interests of the child”, restrictive policies driven by international relations, and perhaps also higher standards set by the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.)
The pandemic has also created more challenges for youth “ageing out” of care. In the UK, approximately one-third of children in foster care exit the system when they turn 18. A similar situation affects thousands of youth who age out of care in Canada and the United States annually, though some provinces and states provide limited continued support for youth until they turn 21 or 24.
Even in non-pandemic circumstances, young people who age out of care are at a higher risk of experiencing poverty, homelessness, mental health issues, criminal activity, and incarceration. When funding for their education, accommodation, healthcare (including mental health services), and employment assistance is cut off, these youth are left without basic support. As a result, they are more likely than their peers to drop out of high school or leave post-secondary education, and face unemployment and financial precarity.
The pandemic has made the systemic disadvantages even more challenging. For those who do not have a familial support system, the many life challenges that accompany independent living are compounded by the pandemic-driven economic downturn, along with unprecedented rates of job loss and income insecurity. For many youth, even when government supports extend beyond 18, the state’s sudden severing of Crown wardship responsibilities is akin to an expulsion or abandonment rather than a supported transition into adulthood.
In response to the pandemic, some states in the US and some provinces in Canada have extended certain types of support to youth who have aged out of care. But these supports are limited both in timeframe and meaningful assistance. At a time when many young adults are leaning on familial networks for financial, accommodation and psychological support, foster youth are being forced by the state to fend for themselves.
Moreover, strategies for limiting the spread of the virus, like lockdowns and “bubbling”, may well reinvigorate notions of “nuclear families”. As people retreat into their biological family units during this time of crisis, social norms (including pro-natalist ones) reassert themselves in ways that are harmful to adoptees and children in foster care systems.
These considerations throw the choice between procreation and adoption into even starker relief. If we care about children, if we believe the pandemic has accentuated the difficulties faced by those in care, then why procreate rather than care for existing children whose circumstances are worsening?
Veromi Arsiradam and Adam Ferner
From The Philosopher, vol. 109, no. 2 ("Authority and Knowledge").
Artwork by Joanna Borkowska