Doing the Herald editor's job for him

I don't know if the New Zealand Herald editor exercises any oversight over the columns his "opinionators" send to him each week. But I thought I'd do an after-the-fact job on John Roughan's effort on gay adoption that appeared in last Saturday's paper.

Dear John - thanks for this submission for the opinion pages. I've penciled in a few comments on it for you to think about and make the necessary amendments before we could even consider publishing it.

Gay adoption has always seemed to me to be a step too far.

Marriage, sure. A couple's genuine commitment is worthy of legal recognition. But adoption puts a child in the front line of a social challenge. I'm not sure that is fair.

OK ... it's good to see that this isn't going to be a "the gays are a threat to our civilization exercise". We pensioned off Garth George for a reason, you know.

It is not clear what sort of parentage was envisaged when the National Party's northern conference voted last weekend for gay couples in a civil union to be legally entitled to adopt, or precisely what is in a bill that Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye says she has been working on with the Greens' Kevin Hague.

It's not clear what you can mean by "sort of parentage" here. There is only one sort recognised by the law - you either are a child's "parent" or you are not. Sure, there are differing levels of parental rights - you may or may not have custody, for example. And there are other forms of legal relationship between an adult caregiver and a child that are somewhat "parental" in nature - guardianship, for instance. But if someone adopts a child, they become their parent full stop ... just as much as if they had sired the child.

So I think it is clear what was envisaged - that the law on adoption be amended so that any couple (gay or not) who are in a civil union may jointly apply to adopt a child, in the same way as married couples and straight de facto couples can. 

It might go no further than to let a woman be a legal parent of a child born to her partner, which would be a fine thing to do. But in the name of gender equality it probably would allow a male couple to be legal parents too.

Are you really saying that adoption by a birth mother's same-sex partner is fine (so cases like this one cause you no concerns), but adoption by a birth father's same sex partner is not? Really? Because if you are ... well, that seems a very odd position to hold. In fact, so odd as to seem completely untenable.

The Prime Minister was enthused by the conference vote. He said it showed the party was modern. His Government might even sponsor the bill, ensuring it gets on Parliament's agenda, though MPs would have an independent "conscience" vote on any application to same sex couples. 

Key must be encouraged by the public response so far. In the little discussion I've heard a consensus seems to agree with Kaye that the suitability of adoptive parents has nothing to do with their sexuality. As long as a child has a safe and loving home, nothing else matters.

Great! No-one really seems to have a problem with the issue!! Seems like a perfect situation for Parliament to move to bring the law into line with developing social mores. So why are you writing a column on this, exactly?

But I can't help wondering what happens when the child goes to school. Other children might not be as modern as the northern region of the National Party.

When the child goes to school I dare say a new entrants' teacher will get the class seated on the mat and talk to them happily about all the different kinds of parents people can have, and mention, by the way, that Billy has two fathers.

I don't think this would help Billy one bit, especially when the kids later innocently ask him whether he has two mothers too, or just one mother, or what? And things will only get harder when the class enters puberty and the kids are becoming much more intrigued by Billy's household than they used to be.

Oh! I see - it's the children of these people who do not seem to have a problem with gay adoption who may have a problem with gay adoption! Or, if not a problem as such, a curiousity. And might ask questions. Innocently. Before becoming more intrigued later on. And ... I'm still not sure what the concern is here, exactly.

However, putting that to one side, an immediate question a reader might ask is why Billy being questioned about having two fathers is so terrible that gay adoption cannot happen, but Billy being questioned about having two mothers is not. So if your concern is questioning, then you might need to rethink your "the lesbians are alright" position.

And the deeper problem here is, how will allowing gay adoption lead to more such questioning in the classroom? Because many children already live with gay caregivers (their birth father and his partner) - it's just that because those caregivers cannot jointly adopt, they cannot both be recognised in law as the child's parent. So why exactly does the threat of questioning mean that the new entrants teacher must continue to explain to the class that Billy lives with his birth father and his birth father's same-sex life partner, who also is Billy's guardian ... and not that Billy lives with his two fathers? 

True, worse things can happen to a child and much worse does happen at the hands of incompetent heterosexual parents, as we often read. But none of that hardship is the intended consequence of a deliberate act of Parliament.

Those who say the state should sanction adoption by male couples will argue that children are resilient and that so many these days grow up in reconstituted families or in other complicated arrangements that those adopted by two men will not be unduly troubled. I'd like to be sure.

Honest question John - if it could be shown that the children of adopted parents suffer questioning as to their family situation ("who is your real mum?", "why didn't she want you?", etc, etc), would you argue that adoption as a practice should cease? Or does potential questioning of the children of divorced parents mean that divorce as a practice ought to be revisited? How far do we push this "troublesome questions must veto laws" line?

It worries me that questions such as this will not be asked in Parliament or anywhere else because it is not fashionable to imply that homosexuality carries any stigma any more. But the hard fact is, it does.

It is still the one human condition that can be defamatory. If a newspaper ascribes to you the wrong race, religion, age or gender you are unlikely to sue, or win much in damages if you did. But it dares not describe you as gay unless you have declared yourself to be.

We'll pass over the legal question of whether it is still defamatory to wrongly call someone homosexual today - it would take an actual court case to sort that one out. 

If a gay adoption bill appears and proceeds to a conscience vote in Parliament, legislators should carefully assess the prevailing social climate as it is, not as they think it should be.

I'll just point you back to the earlier part of your column where you noted that the National Party's northern conference (and I'll repeat that in bolded italics to emphasise its import ... the National Party's northern conference) voted in favour of this step, and that since then, "In the little discussion I've heard a consensus seems to agree with Kaye that the suitability of adoptive parents has nothing to do with their sexuality." So what, aside from your fear that little kids are homophobic monsters who will make Billy's life a living hell (sorry, sorry ... will innocently ask questions about Billy's family arrangements), do you base your assessment of the "prevailing social climate" on?

Their experience of civil unions might tempt them to believe that this sort of legislation can be passed for the sake of a principle without much practical consequence. There have been remarkably few civil union ceremonies in the years since Parliament extended marriage in that form to same-sex couples.

Adoption generally has become rare since the advent of the pill, easy abortion and benefits for sole parents. Gays applying to adoption agencies these days would join a sad waiting room of young heterosexual couples who have also been penalised by nature.

You might want to do a bit more research here, John. There are no "adoption agencies" in New Zealand. The process is solely handled by Child, Youth and Family. And, as you note, this agency handles less than 100 "stranger" adoptions a year (i.e. where a birth mother chooses to adopt her child out to a couple she does not know to, but instead picks on the basis of "profiles" put together by couples who have entered the adoption pool). But that doesn't mean "adoption has become rare" - there are considerably more adoptions than this each year within existing family structures.  

So, if your concern is that allowing gay adoption will result in more children growing up in gay families (as opposed to allowing already-existing gay families to bring their legal status into line with the reality of their relationships), then you have to think that in some of those 100-odd yearly "stranger" adoptions a birth mother is going to choose to adopt her child out to a gay couple in preference to the numerous straight couples already in the adoption pool. And if this is the case, then what is the problem? Why should your (or other's) vague concerns about the "questioning" children may experience during their school years override the birth mother's assessment of which people will do the best job of raising the child in the future?

If the Kaye-Hague bill is going to ask agencies to disregard the sexual orientation of applicants when they assess their suitability, I think it would be asking too much. Since it mainly aims to update the law on surrogacy and other reproductive variants it might concentrate on adoptions that same-sex couples arrange for themselves.

A liberal society cannot prevent private adoptions but when it is asked to sanction them with law it has to be careful.

OK - now you are just being incoherent. What do you mean by "adoptions that same-sex couples arrange for themselves", or "private adoptions" as opposed to those "sanction[ed] ... with law"? 

I assume what you mean by "arranged" or "private" is situations where a member of a same-sex couple arrange with a person of the opposite sex to have a child, with the understanding that the same-sex couple then will raise her or him. Which is what the proposed change in the law is primarily intended to address - joint adoption will allow both members of the same-sex couple to have equal parental rights. So the whole point is to "sanction" such adoptions "with law".

If you then mean to contrast this situation with "stranger" adoptions, where a child is placed with a gay couple by CYF with the end goal of adoption, then you overlook the role that the birth mother plays in deciding where a child is placed. In short, why is it OK to change the law so that a birth father can agree to terminate his parental rights in favour of the gay partner of the birth mother (which you said at the outset causes you no concern), but it is not OK to change the law so that a birth mother can agree to terminate her parental rights in favour of two men that she chooses as the best available option out of all the couples she sees for raising her child?

Adoption does not exist for adults' status or acceptance.

It is not a banner for equal rights or a test of whether someone is modern, liberal or young. It is a decision that shapes a life.

It should not use children as shock troops for social change.

That's true. But nor should claimed concern for the welfare of children be used as a screen for some awfully shoddy thinking and plain misunderstanding of the issues.