Illustration: Kira Lodder
You may not be aware of Bill 28, but you should be. Ontario’s government is about to airbrush out the terms “mother” and “father” from provincial laws, while also raising the number of legal parents to four. That’s right – four.
Supporters of the bill say this is about equality for gay and lesbian families, who by default, when they conceive children, must involve another person of the opposite sex. Adopting their own children would be something akin to what heterosexual step-parents needed to do: paperwork and forms when a family comes together. Though this is a real difficulty, it’s one that might be better facilitated by reducing obstacles to adoption rather than Bill 28’s sweeping approach. Here’s the thing: equality for adults is not the only factor to consider. We need to ask whether facilitating up to four legal parents is fair to children.
Anyone raised by two parents today will know we already do poorly enough at maintaining stability for the sake of children. Sociologists studying family change (movement from single to married to cohabiting, or the reverse) have found that family transitions can result in poorer outcomes for children: lower graduation rates, early sexual initiation and behavioural problems, among other outcomes. This is true for two parents, not four. There are so many stresses and strains for families today where only two people attempt to make decisions for children. The move toward four legal parents increases the likelihood of complexity in the contract.
More to the point, it moves care of children into the domain of contract, and out of the realm of relationship. As such, Bill 28 codifies the commodification of children. We have been moving in this direction for a while, with the separation of having children from the sexual act, the introduction of a third party’s parts and the use of surrogates (whether or not they are paid). When parents had children in a relationship, and cared for them, too, the children knew where they came from. Bill 28 does not provide for a registration of who the biological parents actually are, leaving children with an existential crisis of never knowing where they came from as a matter of routine.
There are many other questions: Why only four? This is not a sarcastic question. Polygamous and polyamorous families can and do include more—Bill 28 would appear to legally recognize both kinds of families (so long as they have four parents or fewer) without these special interest groups even needing to fight for it. There are those who desire family and marriage to legally be whatever individuals want it to be. Once we change the traditional number, any new limit is entirely arbitrary and open to change.
Another question: Have we considered the effects of surrogacy on mothers? Surrogacy is rife terrain for exploitation of women. Should wombs be up for rent? Some countries, such as Iceland, Finland, Germany, France and Italy have outlawed even altruistic surrogacy, not merely commercial surrogacy as is the case in Canada.
Another point: There is a research consensus that children fare better when raised by their own, biological married parents. On a range of factors, from school achievement, to physical health, research shows marriage matters. The purpose of state involvement in family life is to ensure that children are not left as orphans. It’s better when parents care for kids, and costly and ineffective when the state has to step in. A valid concern post Bill 28 is that the complexity of four parents will leave kids high and dry in a world where families are already so often far away from the ideal.
Something like this point has been made by fertility lawyer Sara Cohen, as quoted in the Globe and Mail: “The All Families Are Equal Act essentially allows a man to contract out being a parent through sex; if that is the case, a woman should be able to do the same—and if both do so, that could leave a child with no legal parent.”
There are valid questions about what kind of domestic situations we’re setting up in Ontario.
The calls of homophobia for those who express concern about Bill 28 are as tiresome as they are predictable. This is what people say when they don’t have an argument. Unfortunately, these accusations often succeed in silencing speech and debate. Many Canadians today are scared—terrified in fact—to discuss these issues. We are rapidly losing the ability to debate in a civil manner.
People opposed to Bill 28 will be publicly scolded as dinosaurs or religious freaks. My prediction is that we will reach a point when a marriage is legally considered any number of people who desire to be in it for any length of time, no questions asked. At that point, marriage will cease to serve any important social, public function. We will have moved from fighting for marriage equality into passively accepting marriage irrelevancy.
If we reach that point with hardly any public debate, it will be a sad statement about Canadian society.