Let’s start with a little warm-up exercise. Here are three people who have made pronouncements on the family: a government advisor on families and parenting; a filmstar; an academic. See if you can correctly match them with the following quotations:
“Twenty-first century American families come in a dazzling array of sizes, shapes, colours, and gender-slash-generational patterns. This reality deserves to be reflected in the literature that children read. Until recently, however, children’s books have privileged a paradigm of homogeneity and heterosexuality.”
“…what is it that defines family? It isn’t necessarily the traditional mother, father, two children and a dog named Spot. Love is love and family is what is around you and who is in your immediate sphere.”
“People are constantly redefining what it means to be a family. What we are seeing is that family shape is changing all the time, the notion of a traditional nuclear family … certainly isn’t the norm now. … What policy-makers must not do is … [try] to reverse the tide of trends by trying to encourage more ‘traditional families’.”
Not very difficult, was it? The new “paradigm” lady is clearly the academic — Ellen Handler Spitz, Honors College Professor at the University of Maryland. Film star Jennifer Aniston came up with the “what is around you” (including Spot, no doubt) line apropos of her role in the upcoming movie, Switch. And the “what we are seeing” pitch came from the CEO of the UK’s Family and Parenting Institute, Dr Katherine Rake.
From the halls of academe to the hills of Hollywood, from Washington to Westminster and Wellington (the New Zealand seat of government), the cry of “family diversity” rings out ever more confidently and passionately. And the range of family forms grows ever more bizarre. Indeed, if Jennifer Aniston’s idea — that a family is simply “what” is immediately around you — takes hold, Spot may soon be named Second Parent in a household where he does more childcare than the absent dad.
Groups of people may call themselves a family if they want to; we are not concerned about private preferences here but about public recognition. When it comes to public support, both moral and material, the family in focus is the one with dependent, minor children. And since children are first and foremost the responsibility of the parents who begot them, the normative family recognised by society should ideally include both parents. This is what we know as the nuclear family.
And it is, by the way, the norm implied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the charter from which our modern sense of human rights and dignity depends. Here is what Article 16 says:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
The 1948 Declaration sees this “fundamental group unit of society” as built on marriage — between a man and a woman. And it is no accident that the weight of research up to present moment has shown that children are more likely to flourish materially and spiritually in this type of family than in any other.
Of course, even 70 years ago this “natural” family could present a varied face: a married couple could be childless or have many children; they could adopt a child; any one of the family could die; parents could separate or divorce; a widowed or divorced custodial parent might continue to raise the children alone; or marry again, introducing a step-parent to the children and forming something analogous to the nuclear family. The extended family (grandparents, uncles and aunts and so on) might play a supportive role.
But amidst this diversity no-one seriously contended that all the resulting households were equal — that is, equally beneficial to the individual members and to society and therefore equally valuable and desirable. Or if they did so contend, their views carried no weight. (I grew up with a widowed mother and knew that our family lacked a vital member.) That breakthrough had to wait another two to three decades, until the sexual revolution had so thoroughly undermined marriage that there seemed to be no other way to assure the welfare of children but to give social support to whichever adult/s they happened to be with — and to withhold judgement.
Three decades on, we are further down the slippery slope. The idea that a single mother, a “reconstituted family” formed by two divorced people, an unmarried couple with children, and a married couple raising their own children are all morally equivalent (an idea that has gone much further in Britain and north-western Europe than in the United States, for example) has prepared the ground for a new wave of family diversity.
The new model is built on reproductive technology: couples with children conceived with the help of donor eggs and/or sperm and perhaps carried by a surrogate mother; single women with children acquired by donor insemination; same-sex couples with one or more children who might be: a) the offspring of one of them and an ex-spouse; b) the result of gametes from one partner and a donor, or from two donors, and possibly gestated by a surrogate mother; c) adopted or d) fostered.
And here we confront the real and present danger of the whole family diversity trend, because along with it has grown a radical change of focus from the child to the adult/s, from the child’s wellbeing to the adult’s sense of wellbeing. This is the really dramatic “switch” that Hollywood should be putting on the big screen.
An AP story on sperm donor children this week makes this quite clear. Efforts of adult children to find their anonymous parent are being thwarted not only by individual donors but by the industry that uses them. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine says it encourages parents of donor-conceived offspring to tell their children the truth about their conception but it is opposed to the banning of anonymous donations.
“The bottom line in the U.S. — we’ve always been big proponents of individual rights in regard to procreation,” said Andrea Braverman, who serves on the ASRM’s ethics committee. “We’ve always taken the approach that we get our own choices in terms of how we build and manage our families.”
Someone else from the industry puts it even more bluntly:
“It may not be a popular point of view, but when these decisions are made by donor and a parent, the child doesn’t have a say,” he said. “If the contract is for it to be anonymous, it should remain anonymous, and the child just has to deal with that.”
To translate: “Too bad, kids; it’s an adults’ world. Our desires rule. And if our first priority is our own sense of wellbeing, you will just have to muddle through as best you can. One day you too will get the chance to shop for the child of your choice.”
That is why the idea that all families are equal is the most dangerous ever: it shifts the child from its rightful place at the centre of the family to the fringes, and then to the shelf of reproductive choices. I doubt that there is a better way to destroy the human family than that.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.