The implementation of the new civil-union law in Illinois is leading to a showdown between Catholic Charities as a provider of adoption services for children and a state law that places the private interest of adults over the human rights of children. Catholic Charities will actually be put in jeopardy of lawsuits and losing public funds to serve the poor if they refuse to deprive children they serve of married mothers and fathers. How crazy is that?
Catholic Charities sought an exemption from the law for religious organizations as a matter of conscience, but the bill is bottled up in committee and not likely to pass before June 1, when the civil-union law takes effect. As the clock ticks down, the question remains as to whether Catholic Charities will be forced out of the adoption business in Illinois, as has been the case in Boston, San Francisco, Washington and other places.
To understand the issue, one must first consider who the client is when there is a child in need of adoption or foster care. Is this a service for the child or is it a service to adults seeking to acquire a child? The qualifications for the adoptive parents can be quite different depending on the answer to that question.
If the clients are the adults, the child then becomes a precious commodity. The qualification for the adoptive parent(s) is merely competence in parenting. However, if the client is the child, the process for qualifying the prospective parent is quite different, taking into account the human rights and dignity of the child.
First, let us consider the state of the child up for adoption — deprived of his or her mother and father who for some reason were not able to fulfill their responsibilities to the child. Nevertheless, the child carries the flesh of these people and is a witness to their union for all of eternity. The child has not only lost a very real primordial connection associated with his or her identity, but something that is common to every person without exception and important to human flourishing.
As the child grows in age, the awareness of loss increases. Not only the connection with the persons from whom the child originated is missing, but there are also questions about siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, medical history, sense of family history and ethnic and cultural heritage. The ability, as far as possible, for a child to know and be cared for by his or her mother and father is so precious that it is an internationally recognized human right specified in the “U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.”
Considering the child’s status, adoption is really an accommodation for this privation. It is an act of charity in which strangers make an irrevocable promise to love, to stand in for and to represent the man and woman who gave the child life and who were not able to fulfill their responsibilities. In this sense, they are not only taking on responsibility to the child, but also to the parents of the child.
Only a Man Can Stand in for the Father
It is therefore common sense that only a man can stand in for the father and only a woman can stand in for the mother of which the child was deprived. It would seem that every effort should be made to accommodate the child in this way, as is the case with Catholic Charities’ policy. To disregard this would result in a second privation — a privation of the experience of being loved, cared for and reared by a man and a woman. This second privation, unlike the first, would therefore be intentional if the option of a married man and woman were available to the child. The Catholic Church teaches that this second, intentional privation would amount to an intolerable violation of the dignity and the rights of the child.
A second consideration in adoption is the principle of irreplaceability. What prepares a man and a woman to receive life from their union as a gift is to first freely choose to make themselves irreplaceable to each other through marriage. This starts the circle of irreplaceability that we call the family, both nuclear and extended. In the adoption process the parents choose to make the child irreplaceable to them. Is it not then a matter of common sense and justice for the child to expect the adoptive man and woman to first make themselves irreplaceable to each other through marriage? Should this not be a precondition for receiving the child as a person of equal value and dignity? This is what Catholic Charities does. How can anyone find this discriminatory — unless the child is seen as a person of little value, having no rights, or as a mere commodity? The child is effectively treated as a pet, with the primary consideration that he or she be treated humanely rather than humanly.
The question of adoption policy, as one can see, is really a matter of human rights. When people argue for the “best interest of the child” in the abstract, the perceptions of that can be skewed by the interest and experience of the adults making the argument. It is so easy for weak and vulnerable children to become abstractions, unless we ourselves “become like a child” (Matthew 18:3). Reflecting on the desire we have for connection with our own mother and father and recognizing that this is a common human experience helps us understand that the child in the state of privation is really another self.
However, the deprived child is powerless to express or advocate for his or her interest. He or she does not vote or make political contributions. Children are completely dependent on the charity and sense of justice of adults. They depend on adults to defend their rights even when it is unpopular and takes courage to do so. They depend on adults to treat them with the respect and dignity of true clients, as Catholic Charities does. It is only then that justice for deprived children can be possible.
Human rights cannot be created or changed, only recognized. It is time for the state of Illinois to recognize the human rights of children in need of adoption. It is time for every person of good will to stand in solidarity with children less fortunate than themselves and stand with the Catholic Church against the powerful forces that would deprive these children of married mothers and fathers.
William B. May is chairman of Catholic for the Common Good, an apostolate for the evangelization of culture inspired by Blessed John Paul II.