With the re-election of the Turnbull government, the likelihood that marriage equality in Australia will be the subject of a harmful, expensive, and non-binding plebiscite becomes ever more likely. That may also mean the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ campaigns will receive public funding to put their cases.
If we’re going to go ahead with this, then we need to hold both campaigns to the highest standards of public reason. We need to call out bad arguments whenever and wherever they appear, and expose any hidden premises for scrutiny.
The response of prominent ‘no’ voices to new adoption reforms in Queensland suggests we’re going to have our hands very full doing so.
On 6th August, the Queensland Communities Minister Shannon Fentiman announced changes to the state’s adoption laws, allowing same-sex couples, singles, and couples undergoing IVF to adopt.
Shortly thereafter, the Australian Christian Lobby, probably the most visible proponents of the case against allowing same-sex couples to be legally married, put out a press release condemning the changes:
Today’s announcement by the Palaszczuk Government to allow single people and same-sex couples to adopt orphaned children ignores society’s obligation to provide them with a mother and father.
“It is not like there is a shortage of married couples who cannot have children who would gladly provide orphans with the stability and nurture that comes from an adoptive mother and father,” the Australian Christian Lobby’s Queensland Director Wendy Francis said.
We’ll come back to that emphasis on orphans in a moment. Francis goes on:
“They are, through no fault of their own, without biological parents, and are in need of a new permanent family. To deny them a mother’s love, or a father’s care, is compounding their loss. As we know, and social science proves, it is in the best interests of a child to experience the love of a mum and a dad, wherever possible,” she said.
Who is a parent?
There’s at least two meanings to the term ‘parent,’ though the fact many of us are parents in both senses tends to obscure the difference.
One meaning is biological and purely descriptive. Parenthood in this sense is also an either/or proposition: a DNA test, for instance, reveals you’re either the biological father of a child, or you’re not.
The other sense of ‘parent’ is social and normative. A parent in this sense is a person who fulfils a particular role in a child’s life. That role is complex, but includes distinctive types of responsibility for unconditionally loving, raising, and protecting children. This sense admits of degrees, too: you can be more or less of a father in the social sense.
Darth Vader is Luke’s father only in the biological sense. Conversely, many step-parents and adoptive parents are parents in the second sense – not merely substitute parents or guardians or in loco parentis, but actually, substantively, parents.
The ACL often give the impression that their concern is fundamentally about biological rather than social parenthood. ACL’s managing director Lyle Shelton has framed much of his organisation’s opposition to same-sex marriage on the basis that it would legitimize same-sex parenting (despite the fact this already occurs, perfectly successfully) and that this form of parenting involves “taking a baby away from its mother, from the breast of its mother and giving it to two men.”
That, pretty clearly, puts the biological ahead of the social sense of ‘parent,’ given that Shelton also insists “Our objection … is not that same-sex parents cannot be good parents – of course they can be.”
However, ACL’s opposition to allowing orphans in particular to be adopted by same-sex couples explodes that argument. If your objection to same-sex parenting is based on the premise that children should be raised by their biological parents wherever possible, that objection can have no force in cases where there’s no possibility of that happening. As orphans by definition cannot be raised by their biological parents anymore, the adoptive “mum and dad” Francis insists upon must be parents in the social sense, not the biological sense.
So if it’s not about biological relation, why should the gender of the adoptive parents matter?
It seems we’re left with two options: either parents need to ‘model’ gender roles for their children, or men and women parent differently in ways that are jointly beneficial. Let’s consider these options in turn.
Commentators like the ACL often rail against the understanding that gender is “fluid.” This opposition suggests, then, that they believe gender (or some part thereof) to be fixed, innate, and biologically essential.
But if that’s the case, then it’s not clear why kids would need parents of specific genders to act as exemplars at all. Surely innate gender traits would develop regardless of who does the parenting? Left-handed kids don’t need a left-handed parent to show them how to be left-handed; if ‘boyishness’ and ‘girlishness’ are similarly innate, why would they need to be modelled?
On the other hand, if gender roles are not innate, it might make sense that they need to be modelled and taught in order to be acquired. Or perhaps they’re more like talents: innate, but requiring training and practice to realise. But in either case, we now need to hear a reason why they should be taught and realised. We need a reason to believe gender roles matter, or at least matter enough to frame laws around who can adopt.
But what reason could that be? ‘No’ proponents clearly think gender is important, but never tell us why. And given the obvious harms gender norms inflict on people – telling women to be submissive, men to be emotionally distant and aggressive etc. – any attempt to argue in their favour would be starting from a very long way behind.
That brings us to the second option: the claim that men and women parent differently, and children benefit from having one of each. Shelton has made this point too: “no matter how great a mum is, she is not a father. And however great a dad is, he is not a mother.”
But again we’re left wondering why having ‘one of each’ should be best for children, or why we’d think a lack of both harmful. Even a full-blown gender essentialist who thinks the differences between ‘fathering’ and ‘mothering’ are biologically grounded owes us an account of why that makes those differences valuable. (Aggression and selfishness might also be biologically grounded, but we don’t think that makes being aggressive or selfish morally obligatory – quite the opposite in fact).
Ideology and theology
The ACL, Marriage Alliance, and other such groups like to warn of the dangers of a vaguely-defined “rainbow ideology.” More broadly we’re told that programs like Safe Schools are “ideological,” which we’re instantly meant to understand as a Bad Thing. As Louis Althusser, the French Marxist philosopher (three strikes right there…) put it, “the accusation of being in ideology only applies to others, never to oneself.”
That, according to Althusser, is precisely how ideology works: it makes a given state of affairs seem as if it was obviously how things must be, “common sense” rather than contingent and changeable. Such as, for instance, the view that that men ‘naturally’ parent in a certain way and women in a different way.
That the ACL’s view is ideological isn’t a fault, by the way. All views are. But the ‘No’ campaign need to be honest with us about their premises. They aren’t just worried about children’s access to their biological parents. As the reaction to orphan adoption shows, their concern is that they think gender roles and heterosexual parenting are somehow normative.
In short, they’re relying on unstated assumptions that are deeply contentious, and hard to motivate properly unless you first believe that human beings are created by God, and that this creation infuses aspects of our biology, such as gender and reproduction, with moral purpose.
That’s a view with a long and rich history. It’s also one that has no place determining policy in a genuinely secular society that rightly excludes revelation claims from public ethics.
The ‘no’ campaign has a right to prosecute its case (though not, as I’ve previously argued here, in a way that violates norms against vilification). But doing so brings with it a responsibility to be honest with the public about what they’re really arguing. Now would be a good time for them to start.