Is there a conservative case for gay adoption?

The ACT Government’s Civil Partnerships Bill, which lets two persons of either sex form a legal relationship, has again been vetoed by the federal government. According to Attorney-General Philip Ruddock the government’s

first objection was that “it involves a formal ceremony”.

“What it’s doing is equating (gay partnerships) with marriage,” he said yesterday….

He said marriage was a “cultural institution” that provided a basis on which children might be conceived and brought up and provided with proper support.

We are so used to the idea of heterosexual marriage and parenting that the idea of gay marriage and parenting is counter-intuitive. But if you think the issue through from any secular set of assumptions, including conservative concerns with the family, the logic leads inexorably to supporting gay marriage.

As children are already growing up in gay households – with 4% of gay men and 16% of lesbians according to the Private Lives survey – prohibiting gay marriage (or civil partnerships) is not providing ‘proper support’ to those kids, it is lessening the chance that they will receive proper support from two adults by making it easier for one partner to walk out on his or her parenting responsibilities.

Objecting to a ceremony – which the legislation doesn’t require anyway, just one witness – is similarly counter-productive. The guests at a ceremony are there to help the couple celebrate the happy day, but also as witnesses to the commitment they are making and an added source of social pressure to keep to their vows.

Though the conservative case for gay marriage is strongest when children are involved, politically there is no denying that children are the most contentious part of this issue. A Roy Morgan Poll released today found that though only 33% of Australians think homosexuality is ‘immoral’, 57% oppose homosexual couples being able to adopt children. Surveys last year indicated that opposition to the ACT civil union legislation was under 40%. There is a sizeable group of people who support gay partnerships but do not support gay adoption. This is a common pattern overseas; for example the Eurobarometer found that on average around Europe 44% support gay marriage, but 32% support gay adoption.

This question could do with some fine-tuning. Most adoptions of Australian children are ‘known’ child adoptions, usually a step-parent. As with gay marriage, in these cases gay adoption would have the effect of tightening the obligations the non-biological parent already has to care for the child – the ‘proper support’ Mr Ruddock rightly thinks necessary.

Adoptions by people with no former connection to the child are, I think, a different case. Here it is not just a case of making the best of a situation that exists (or would probably exist) anyway. It is creating a situation where there are alternatives that may be better. While equality-based arguments for gay rights would still support gay adoption of kids who are previously unknown to the couple, I think the conservative case for gay law reform stops at this point. There are reasonable prudential arguments that while this kind of gay adoption could work fine, growing up in a gay household would add another layer of complexity to the already trouble-prone condition of being adopted. As there is no shortage of heterosexual couples willing to adopt, they are the safer option.

27 thoughts on “Is there a conservative case for gay adoption?

  1. Andrew, there most certainly are secular, logical arguments against the acceptance of gay marriage.

    First, the idea that gay marriage will help the children of such partnerships ignores the fact that it means giving formal recognition/public assent to a family arrangement in which children are necessarily deprived of either a father or mother.

    So we are then committed to the idea that children don’t really need both a father and a mother, but can do as well with two fathers, two mothers, a single mother, a single father or whatever.

    This then means that there is less of a cultural prohibition for women to embark on single motherhood, or for men to walk away from their families.

    To put it another way, imagine the difference between a culture in which men are convinced that they are necessary to the well-being of their children and a culture which has convinced itself that children don’t really need a dad.

    Second, accepting gay marriage means that the way we define what marriage is not only changes, but marriage itself is left open-ended.

    At the moment, we understand marriage to be the bringing together of male and female in a complementary relationship, ordered around a distinctly heterosexual love and the raising of children.

    There are grounds within this understanding to limit marriage to two people and to make it exclusive, as we have a sense that marriage “fits together” in heterosexual love and in complementary roles, a man and a woman.

    (Furthermore, because heterosexual marriage is so closely linked to motherhood and fatherhood, exclusivity is further boosted by the desire to ensure paternity and by the desire to maintain familial stability.)

    However, if our concept of marriage is to expand to include gay marriage, then we can no longer define it in a way which logically commits us to two people or to exclusivity.

    If two women can marry, then why not three? Why should two be thought to be the right number, if it is not a case of a man and a woman completing each other in a complementary union?

    Similarly, if marriage isn’t the bringing together of a man and a woman in a complementary relationship, then why logically shouldn’t a man marry two women? Or three?

    And if marriage includes those whose relationships aren’t primarily ordered around procreation, then why logically shouldn’t the understanding that marriage is exclusive weaken?

    After all, two women who “marry” don’t have to worry about paternity, nor are two men who “marry” as likely to do so in preparation for family, so why should they be as concerned to uphold exclusivity to ensure family stability?


  2. The state should not be involved in marriage at all, heterosexual, homosexual, bigamous or whatever. The only reason non-heterosexuals want a part of the marriage pie is get all the subsidies the state gives married people. Consenting adults should be able to form whatever civil contract they like between each other, and this in fact what people do. In light of formal marriage contracts, the court recognises defacto marriages, or what used to be called common law wives.

    As far as adoption is concerned, I see no role for the state except to protect children from harm. If a private adoption agency can’t establish whether prospective parents have the capability to parent, then they won’t be in business for very long. Let people decide. A mother giving her child up for adoption should be able to decide what type of parents she wants for her child. If she specifically wants only white, Catholic married straight couples, then she should be able to specify that. If a gay adoption agency can convince her that their clients would be good parents, then that too is acceptable.

    Given the scarcity of babies up for adoption, gay couples and other non-conventional prospective parents amy turn towards those children that aren’t as desirable, ones with physical problems, older children abandoned by their natural parents for instant. From a utilitarian perspective, if someone or a couple are prepared to take in an orphaned or abandoned child and they can pass simple criminal checks. then it is in the child’s best interest to allow that to happen rather than bounce them around multiple foster families.


  3. Andrew, I agree that a culture of heterosexual marriage has already weakened. You are right, for instance, that the taboo on single motherhood has been broken in some social milieux. Even so, you must have met women, or read about women, who very much want children but who refuse to do so without first having married. We haven’t yet quite reached the stage where “have baby first, meet future partner second” is accepted by all women.

    So the real alternative is whether you deal another blow to heterosexual norms, such as an understanding that children should ideally have both a mother and father, or whether you allow children in gay-parented families to have unmarried parents.

    I prefer the option of conserving heterosexual norms.

    As for “basic pressures”, people do in the long run follow the logic of things. If a society establishes a concept of marriage in which there is no persuasive reason to reject polygamy or to maintain exclusivity (i.e. sexual fidelity), then it’s likely that they will eventually win cultural acceptance.


  4. Mark – Most single mothers don’ t start out that way, because obviously it is easier to raise kids with two rather than one.

    Interesting, the norms in favour of monogamous relationships have largely survived the sexual revolution, and I think it is quite implausible that gay marriage would change that.


  5. I would further argue that the entire premise of marriage being a requisite part of relationships, be they with children or not, is diminishing in our society.

    Given that the general populations tendency towards marriage is decreasing anyway, it would appear somewhat irrational to continue to oppose marriage for any sub-set of the community.

    In terms of relationships where children are involved, I understood the consensus was that a stable parental relationship was the most important thing, rather than the consistency of that relationship. Therefore a stable homosexual relationship would be better for the child(ren) than a dysfunctional hetero relationship.

    If people in homosexual relationships want to get married, then let them.


  6. ‘If a society establishes a concept of marriage in which there is no persuasive reason to reject polygamy or to maintain exclusivity (i.e. sexual fidelity), then it


  7. Topically enough, this conversation actually reminds me of the only thing I’ve ever read by Michael Oakeshott, a thought-provoking piece entitled ‘On Being Conservative’.

    In that, I remember him referring to the task of a conservative government being to govern over change, rather than to initiate it, to adapt social institutions to social change rather than seek to engineer society from above.

    It seems to me that laws have, for a long time now, lagged changes in social attitudes on queer rights issues. The only national poll I’ve ever seen showed 38% favouring gay marriage, only 44% against, and a plurality of woman and under-50s in favour. From the ‘Oakeshottian’ perspective I mention above, civil unions seem like a logical step, though the case for marriage and adoption are clearly less overwhelming.


  8. Nice article, Andrew.

    Jut in relation to these sentences: “There are reasonable prudential arguments that while this kind of gay adoption could work fine, growing up in a gay household would add another layer of complexity to the already trouble-prone condition of being adopted. As there is no shortage of heterosexual couples willing to adopt, they are the safer option.”

    I imagine that growing up in a gay household wouldn’t present many further complexities until a child came into contact with a number of children growing up in different-sex households. More substantially, I would contend that the genders of the adoptive parents would not be very important in some parts of the country such as inner east Sydney (where I live) where same-sex couples are very common. If same-sex couples are part of the norm of the social fabric, I think that it would be hard to argue from a conservative perspective that it is less desireable for gay couples to adopt than for heterosexual couples to adopt. Similarly, if gay couples are part of the norm of the social fabric, it is difficult to argue that it is undesireable for kids to have gay adoptive parents.


  9. Sacha – Though there are too few gay people overall for same-sex couples to be the norm outside small areas. The same survey as asked the question about adoption also found just over 2% of the Australian population to be gay, which seems to be a fairly robust number now, with 3 different surveys all coming up with similar totals. The Morgan poll did not do a gender breakdown, but from the other 2 surveys it looks to be around 2.5% of guys but less for women, those most likely to want kids I think. While I woud normally say that surveys tend to understate things like this, in this case it is a good figure – if you are not even going to tell a pollster that you are gay, you are not going to try to adopt as a same-sex couple either.

    But Leopold is right that attitudes have evolved, and often ahead of policy. The polls were showing support for decriminalisation by the mid-1970s, but legal change generally occurred in the 1980s. I think attitudes will change further on gay marriage and adoption as well because of the demographic stucture of opinion, and especially if Australia gets the persuasive advocates we have seen elsewhere. A far more conservative country like the US actually has more liberal attitudes than Australians on adoption, probably because they have had a serious debate and we have not.


  10. Andrew,

    If I remember correctly (and I am really stretching my memory here) I was under the impression that adoption was not in fact any more trouble prone than average (to the children) as long as the children were below a certain age when they were adopted. There are a few smallish effects, but nothing that would raise an eyebrow. Also, at least in terms of outcomes in relatively liberal countries (where of course all the studies come from), children of gay parents do basically the same as children of straight ones (there is a big meta-analysis of many studies sitting on one of the Australlian government sites). I’m therefore not sure how reasonable the argument of adding an extra layer of complexity is, nor whether just choosing heterosexual couples based on a false preconception is — This isn’t an argument based on data, it is argument based on false opinions about outcomes.


  11. Conrad – On a quick google search I couldn’t find anything useful on adoption outcomes, though given the effort many adoptees put into finding their natural parents clearly there are issues here. This doesn’t mean they necessarily do worse on the conventional socio-economic indicators, just that there are emotional complexities adoptees have that natural children do not.

    At this stage, I would not revise my conclusion. I’m confident that with known child cases the kids would almost always be better off if there were stronger legal relationships within the household. For other adoptions, while it would probably be ok, this is far more speculative and from a conservative perspective an approach, on your own evidence, that has an ok track record is the better one to take.


  12. I can see your point — but via the same logic we could also exclude anybody on any difference that we felt like (ethnicity is the obvious one, but there are certainly others e.g., age, wealth, location, job status, etc.), although I guess adoption really follows social change rather than sets it, so perhaps there really is no argument.

    It would also be interesting to actually know what the outcomes of adoption in all these cases are. For instance, whilst it seems intuitively reasonable to think that children passed on via some sort of familial link are better off, it isn’t neccesarily so. In one case you have people that feel some sort of obligation to the children (grand-parents who are much older for instance), but in the other case you have people who definitely want to have children that you can select on variables than correlate well with good parenting.


  13. Conrad, there is an increased risk of suicide for adoptees. The risk is higher for foreign adoptees:

    International adoptees had clearly increased risks for suicide attempt (risk ratio 4.5 [95% confidence interval 3.7


  14. Mark,

    I think a meta-study of this would be the most pertinent here (and preferably someone that can judge the data well — which isn’t me!) because there are lots of null effects floating around too. As an example, here is a null effect.

    You also need to be careful when looking at different groups, like adolescents versus very young children. The study you are pointing too is for adolescents (in Sweden). I doubt (in fact guess) the same would be true of very young children excluding ones where there are things like racial differences between children/parents.

    I have someone at work that can probably tell me the answer to this, so I can ask her what the real answer is if I bump into her.


  15. Mark, of course adoptees have a slightly higher rate of problems than the rest of the population – but that’s because many had a disturbed early childhood that led to the adoption, not because of the adoption itself.

    This is a classic case of correlation not saying anything about causality.


  16. The polygamy angle is derided by most people in this argument, but I don’t really know why.

    Many cultures have a long and successful history of raising children in polygamous households. Many more than have a history of raising children in homosexual households. If homosexual marriage is to be recognised then there is absolutely no reason why polygamous marriages shouldn’t be too.

    Polygamous marriages have many good points, not the least being a flatter distribution of wealth (which should please the lefties who currently think introducing polygamy into the argument is some kind of strawman).

    Rich men are the ones who take more than 1 wife in polygamous societies, which has the run-on effect of distributing their wealth more evenly to a greater number of individuals. Which means the state doesn’t have to do it for them.


  17. I havn’t come across any persuasive reasoning against the state legislating for polygamous marriages.

    Although Yobbo brings it up, it seems to me that homosexual marriage has little to do with polygamous marriage (the key feature of polygamous marriage being that more than two people are involved).


  18. it seems to me that homosexual marriage has little to do with polygamous marriage

    It has to do with it in the sense that if we are going to widen the scope of marriage to more than “A man and a woman”, then other types of marriages should be considered too. Polygamous marriages can be just as loving and stable as monogamous heterosexual or homosexual marriages.


  19. I’m happy for polygamy to occur Yobbo, of any type. I’m also sure that lots of people treat it as monolithic and stereotyped, which it isn’t. A good example is the Indonesian minister last month, who wanted to marry a second wife, who was a 42 year old widow with 3 children (if I remember correctly), which I’m sure breaks the stereotype. Not that I care about the stereotyped version either.

    I’m fairly pragmatic about it, so, if in terms of adoption, children grow up fine in these types of families, its all good by me.


  20. I see your argument, Yobbo.

    I recall hearing that a man can have up to 4 wives in the United Arab Emirates, but that each wife demands to be treated the same as the others, so there are dwellings (eg on the highway between Dubai and RAK) comprised of identical houses on the one block of land, sometimes facing each other.


  21. “At the moment, we understand marriage to be the bringing together of male and female in a complementary relationship, ordered around a distinctly heterosexual love and the raising of children.”

    I didn’t understand the raising of children to have been the raison d’etre for the marriage of, say, Bob Hawke and Blance d’Alpuguet.

    Further I’d challenge the notion that there’s something distinctively heterosexual about love between two people. In our society, the notion of the love-bonded, coupled relationship is a powerful cultural icon (of relatively recent origin) and it resonates equally for heterosexual and homosexual. That doesn’t mean that it’s the only legitimate affectional bonding but it’s primacy is undisputed.

    “Then why not polygamy” is often raised as a counter to gay marriage in this context – always by heterosexuals – and I wonder if it’s not related to the inability of some heterosexuals to understand that if you’re homosexual it doesn’t mean that you’re less entitled to express your love in the same relationship framework as heterosexuals. Gay men and lesbian women in Australia tend to aspire pretty much to the same relationship construction as do their heterosexual peers. Validating homosexual coupling doesn’t logically “open the door” to anything – unless you think that homosexual coupling is inherently invalid.

    So I think that the question of whether or not polygamy should be permitted in Australia is a discussion unrelated to the legal validation of gay relationships.


  22. Yobbo – I think you are right on this. It’s like the argument about selecting the sex of a child. It’s a problem in societies where sons are favoured, but the numbers who would do it in a Western society are so small that it would not cause a problem.

    And there could be cancelling out effects – some Mormon men might have 2 wives, but women like Anna Nicole Smith could have 3 husbands.


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