The ethics of defying nature's plan for parenting

flickr / ocadotony / 2007 Bishop Tom Frame, an Anglican theologian in Australia, has just published a book on alternative parenthood, Children on Demand: The Ethics of Defying Nature. Here he shares with MercatorNet his views on IVF, surrogacy and childlessness.

MercatorNet: In your book you recount your own experience as an adopted child? How did this affect you, now that you look back on your life from an adult perspective?

Frame: I am in favour of adoption, but I admit that I was deeply affected by my own adoption. My adopted mother and father were an older couple when I was born. They were constrained by their age from doing some of the things other parents did with their young children. My father died when I was in my early 20s and my mother when I was in my early 30s. Regrettably, my own children now have only vague memories of my mother and none of my father.

Extended families play an important part in the nurture of children. I feel my own children have missed out on having only one set of grandparents while I miss having my parents available for conversations about major decisions. I feel no shame as a 45-year old male in saying this. We always benefit from the advice of those who love us.

I was also affected by my father’s behaviour. Partly as a reaction to infertility, my father was afflicted by alcoholism and was frequently violent towards my mother, adopted younger sister and me. Although I frequently lived in fear of my father and abhorred his violent conduct, my parents strived to love me and to provide a stable home. This experience has made me an advocate of the need for careful selection in both adoptive and foster parents.

MercatorNet: Your book is subtitled "the ethics of defying nature". But what's wrong with that? Isn't progress about overcoming nature?

Frame: There are some things that are mandated by nature: such as the requirement for a man and a woman to be involved in the conception of a child. This may suggest to us that both a man and a woman are required for the nurture of that child because we know that men and women bring complimentary gifts to parenting.

My argument is simply that we need to respect natural processes and to go with rather than against the grain of nature until we are assured that some departure from natural processes, such as parenting, until we are convinced that there are no deleterious consequences to the actions we propose. This is simply a call for prudent decision-making. In the case of nurturing children, we need to ensure that whatever we do does not conflict with their best interests.

MercatorNet: About a quarter of Australian women are childless. Many of these have chosen not to have a child, but for others it seems like a tragedy. In this day and age, this seems like an avoidable tragedy.

Frame: There are many reasons for female infertility. Hopefully, most women are now aware that female fertility is halved when a woman reaches the age of 35 years and practically zero by the time she reached 42 years. If men and women intend to have children, they need to be thinking about this decision earlier in life rather than later. It is simply a matter of being more aware of human biology. I suspect that we will have fewer men and women being surprised by their inability to have children as infertility rates attract more and more public attention.

As I argue in my book, childlessness is not a plight that must be overcome no matter what the cost. "Childlessness is not a tragedy. It is not a basis for condemning anyone or urging them to try ART (assisted reproductive technology). The absence of children in a marriage does not necessarily make adult life less purposeful, nor should it make living any less fulfilling. We need, therefore, to be more liberal and generous when it comes to attitudes and assistance in relation to families that do not include dependent children. I suspect this will require a substantial shift in perceptions and a realignment of values if we are to recognise that a person's ultimate worth is not determined by their ability to be a parent."

MercatorNet: There are many opinions on whether IVF children need to know their biological parents. Although the first of these are not yet 30, some industry studies of them claim that children are happy without that knowledge. But there are heart-rending stories of young adults who are terribly resentful because they have been denied a chance to know who they are? What's your position?

Frame: The desire for information varies with individuals. Some children want to know the identity of their biological parents, others do not. I believe that the desire to know increases with age when the information becomes steadily more significant. In my view, it should be possible for an adopted child and a donor conceived child to at least have the opportunity to seek information about their birthparents should this be their wish.

No one should connive or conspire to keep this information secret because it is information that has a bearing on a person’s identity and their evolving sense of themselves. The provision of accurate and reliable information is also a requirement of the United Nations protocols that Australia has signed, and which it must continue to honour.

MercatorNet: There is an ideal family structure, you seem to argue, and this excludes gay parents and single-by-choice parents. But isn't family structure a malleable construct which changes with the times?

Frame: In this book I am concerned with family structures only to the extent that they have a bearing on the nurture of children. If those structures deliberately exclude either the child’s mother or father then I believe they are not in the best interests of the child. In these instances the state should neither assist nor offer an encouragement. If it can be demonstrated that children suffer no disadvantage or disability in "alternative" family structures, I would be willing to revisit my concerns.

MercatorNet: Far fewer children are adopted nowadays, and most come from overseas. How do you propose to rehabilitate adoption?

Frame: There are three ways that adoption can be rehabilitated. First, I would encourage women with unwanted pregnancies to consider giving birth to their child and relinquishing it for adoption. Abortion is not the only solution to unwanted pregnancy. Second, I would stress that children who are relinquished and adopted can thrive with their adopted parents. Third, I would ensure that all parties have the opportunity for the exchange of information and perhaps reunion when the child reaches majority. I am open to limited contact between the relinquished child and its birthparents before he or she turns 18 but it would need to be tightly regulated. Adoption need not be a life sentence.

MercatorNet: What could possibly be wrong with surrogacy if it brings happiness to a childless couple and compensates the surrogate mother adequately?

Frame: In Australia there is a deep abhorrence of commercial surrogacy. I believe this is a prudent policy position. I am not convinced that it is ever possible to compensate a woman for bearing someone else’s child and then obliging that woman to relinquish the child.

In terms of altruistic surrogacy, in addition to the pain women feel at having to relinquish a child they have carried, the close proximity of the surrogate to the commissioning couple can make for very complicated and sometime difficult relationships. We need to remember that for a period of nine months the surrogate was the child’s mother and that the in utero bond is a strong one that is neither easily nor readily severed.

Professor Tom Frame is an Australian historian, academic, and social commentator. He was Anglican Bishop to the Australian Defence Force from 2001 to 2007 and is currently director of St Mark's National Theological Centre in Canberra.


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