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'This House would be glad to have gay parents'

Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Last Thursday, the Oxford Union Society debated the motion, This House would be glad to have gay parents. Speaking for the Proposition were student Crawford Jamieson, journalist Benjamin Cohen, LGBT activist Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, and 'Right Said Fred' vocalist Richard Fairbrass. On the other side were Anthony McCarthy of SPUC, Peter D Williams of Catholic Voices, Pentecostalist minister and political campaigner George Hargreaves, and social commentator Lynette Burrows.

Photo: cbr_perso
With the UK parliament soon to vote on same-sex marriage legislation, this debate was not actually about the question of marriage. Instead, putting the parental relationship at the heart of the discussion was one way of avoiding the legal muddles about redefining marriage. I was expecting this shift of emphasis to play in favour of the Opposition. After all, it was precisely this focus on parenting that galvanised the huge crowds in Paris at the recent demonstration defending the current definition of marriage. The principal refrain was: the rights of children trump the right to children.

Although this point was well made during the debate, it was dismissed by the Proposition who interpreted it to suggest that all gay parents were worse than all heterosexual parents. Many speeches, including student contributions from the floor, kept reiterating that many heterosexual parents do worse for their children than do loving gay parents. As a result, who would not be glad to have loving, gay parents? The point becomes especially acute if you have gay parents yourself and do not know one or other of your biological parents: your gay parents are the only ones you know and of course you love them. You are glad to have them because they're your parents. Biological heredity, after all, is not the only thing that defines parenthood; and we cannot ignore the tragedy that many children suffer terrible abuse at the hands of their biological parents.

That is the strongest argument I can see for the Proposition, and yet they did not make it in those terms. Instead, they largely focused on their own experience of being, or desire to become, gay parents themselves; and combined this with more general comments about unjust discrimination against gay people in this country and around the world. As expected, injustices against gay people were roundly condemned by the Opposition too, so that couldn't stand as the principle of division. So it was the point about parents that remained most acute: the Proposition focused on the gay parents' possible right to have children, the Opposition on the right of children to know their biological parents.

On this last point, George Hargreaves referred to the divine precept to honour thy father and mother, the only one of the 10 Commandments to carry a promise (Eph. 6:2). If we deny children access to their biological father and mother, as can happen for instance through surrogacy, then we deny children the ability to fulfil this basic precept. Children can certainly give due honour to adoptive parents, step-parents and guardians if they are their family, but where is it possible for them to be raised by their biological parents, that should be the priority. There is a growing number of voices telling the 'untold view' of children who grew up feeling deprived of one or other of their biological parents; see for example the stories from donor-conceived children at the Anonymous Us project, TangledWebs UK, and many others.

This is why we should be wary of arguments that suggest parental equality is predicated on the interchangeability of the sexes: as children grow up they naturally desire to know their biological parents. It may not be the most important thing, yet it is an important piece in the puzzle about one's personal identity.

Imagine someone complaining about the fact that they grew up with their biological parents. There might be many reasons why the family situation was difficult, and why the child might resent certain things that the parents are or do. But if, in their testimony, they rule out all other factors and insist that it was specifically the biological connection that bothered them, wouldn't that complaint be absurd? Now compare this with someone growing up without one or other of their biological parents. If they are living a happy, well-balanced life, in the midst of a supportive family, and yet still they say that they wish they could know both their biological parents, we cannot rule out this complaint in the same way. The desire to know and love one's biological parents is legitimate and honourable, even if in many cases this is sadly not possible. We need to listen with compassion to the children and adults who have experienced the pain of such a loss.

One great problem with this debate (and many like it) boils down to how we identify an ad hominem argument. Should anyone feel attacked or insulted when someone else mentions statistical data comparing heterosexual and homosexual relationships, or refers to cases where the lack of a mother or father causes genuine distress to a child? As long as we presume the good will of all participants in the dialogue, I don't think anyone should. By way of analogy, single parents who heroically support their whole family are not denigrated by the fact that certain 'social outcomes' for children in these situations tend to be worse. On the contrary: those who are loving and supportive parents in these situations, 'against the odds' so to speak, demonstrate their wonderful qualities all the more clearly.

One of the most overlooked points of the debate was the clarification by Peter Williams of how the motion should be interpreted. The motion would be totally uncontentious if taken in the wide sense described earlier, i.e. that anyone would be glad to have any parents, full stop. But the motion can only be a point of disagreement (and hence worthy of debate) if it is interpreted to compare gay parenting with heterosexual (biological) parenting, with all other factors being equal.

When the level playing field is presumed, and when arguments and statistics are not taken as insults, a fair debate can be had. All four Proposition speeches rested on personal testimony, and while some of it was inevitably endearing, it was insufficient for the general conclusion that gay parenting should be considered interchangeable with 'biological' parenting (which unfortunately sounds like a laundry cycle).

Union debates rarely change people's minds. I think the final result (345 in favour, 21 against) probably reflects the existing beliefs and values of the audience. Although most of the Opposition speeches defused the initial antagonism and put some sensible arguments on the table, the last speech aroused great indignation in the audience and concluded the debate on very emotive terms.

The Proposition insisted we vote in favour of gay parenting to 'make a statement'. I would hope that everyone who voted Yes was making the statement that all people, gay or straight, deserve the same respect for their human dignity. I can say Yes to that too. But a debate should be about weighing arguments and points of view, not just rallying a crowd to a cause. On this complex and sensitive topic of (gay) parenting, I hope that a better perspective will soon be found, one which fully respects the point of view of the child.


Postscript. It must be noted that the teaching of the Catholic Church on questions of human sexuality, marriage, and related issues, has been clearly put forward in many documents. The letter from the President and Vice-President of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales last March is a good starting point; and to find out more, Godzdogz readers may wish to reflect on Pope Benedict's end-of-2012 address to the Roman Curia, and Bl. John Paul II's substantial Theology of the Body. I have not alluded to official Catholic teaching in this article since it did not enter the Union debate last week. Instead, as the Opposition demonstrated, it is possible to make a 'secular' case for 'biological parenting', on the basis of the common good and the rights of children.

Matthew Jarvis OP


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