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January 11, 2005

Velleman on family values (or, in praise of hydroponic babies)

David Velleman has an interesting post at Left2Right in which he argues that the value of consanguity is widely underestimated. In other words, he thinks that, all other things being equal, it is far better for children to be raised by their biological parents. In Dr. V.'s opinion, adoption is "second best" because it deprives children and their adoptive parents of the pleasure of blood relation. I agree, but it seems to me that the logical response is either a) to have more open adoptions, or, b) not to tell children that they are adopted.

Velleman goes on to criticize anonymous sperm and egg donation because these practices produce babies who only know one of their biological parents at most. He argues that it would be perverse for adoption agencies to create babies just to meet the demands of infertile couples.

I disagree. If we could grow affordable, healthy hydroponic infants for adoption by qualified infertile couples, I would applaud the practice. Velleman points out that a world in which a couple grows a baby is not as good as a world in which those people conceive and gestate their own child. I'm inclined to agree. However, this is not a relevant comparison. So what if it would be better for infertile couples to have children? The fact is that they can't. In real life, we can't grow babies hydroponically, either. Yet, there are many children whose parents don't want them. Many of these children are much better off in an adoptive home than they would have been with their blood relatives, and many adoptive parents and grandparents are much happier than they would have been without the opportunity to adopt.

Many couples who undergo IVF choose to donate their excess embryos to other couples. Velleman would presumably consider this practice even more ghastly than unilateral anonymous gamete donation because it produces infants who are genetically unrelated to their birth families. It is interesting that embryo donation is ethically uncontroversial in our society. (Perhaps this is simply because the alternatives are to donate the extra embryos to medical research or to destroy them outright.) However, I would argue that donating embryos is a commendable in its own right. The world is manifestly better off when couples can become happy parents and wanted children are brought into the world. I'm sure the symbolism is powerful for the donor couple, too. Most IVF couples struggle for years to become parents. I'm sure it's very gratifying for them to know that they are also helping other people to realize the same dream.

Valuing families should imply valuing the creation of families for people who want them.

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Velman states among other things: "Surely, being adopted is second best, other things being equal; it's just that other things have a way of not being equal.
...The use of anonymously donated gametes is now generally rationalized by an ideology claiming, in effect, that ties of blood do not matter -- that a child born already estranged from a biological parent is not born significantly deprived.  But if ties of blood don't matter, why do half of all adoptees go in search of their biological parents? ...."

This last statement reeks of an ideological bias. Why do "half" seek biological parents, well a multitude of factors can help to identify this, one of the more pronounced being dissatisfaction/disfunction/anger/and a host of other emotional and social issues that affect ALL CHILDREN, yet this enables an additional outlet for the adopted individual. It's an inane conclusion to make from that statement. I will assert that blood ties do NOT matter, a loving, psychologically healthy, open family is ALL that matters utlimately. I do know family/friends who have had a real need to find their biological parents and in each instance I can think of (being 3) a look at the family and parents were all that was needed to see why the person felt inclined to NOT IDENTIFY WITH THEIR ADOPTED PARENTS AND SEEK OUT AN ALTERNATIVE.

Velman's essay has quite an ugliness underlying it.

Possibly I've taken greater critical offense because I am adopted, do not remember a time in my life when I did not know it and never have had a motivation to seek out my birth parents. Has it ever crossed my mind, of course, it is an obvious, unavoidable thought to have, but unlike the other adopted individuals I mentioned above, where there is a loving family and a reasonably secure self-image and identification there is no desire. It would seem an awkward, superficial and cumbersome act.

I realize their are others, who were adopted and raised in healthy, loving families who have seeked out their birth parents and I wouldn't criticize or overanalysize those who have. Mr. Velmen's essay however slings that inclination for those to seek out birth parents with a self-righteous, ideological muck. The family and clan is important and vital for a child, the blood ultimately irrelevant.

I've not read Velliman's piece, and I really don't have much interest in doing so. I've found his other contributions to Left2Right to be facile at best. Velliman's position, as Lindsay summarizes it, is profoundly offensive to the tremendous number of loving families (and this is a personal issue for me) that are the products of one form or another of adoption and/or reproductive assistance/technology. There are, as Bob Crane notes, alternative explanations for the empirical facts (I'm assuming that Velliman has some actual evidence behind his claims) that Velliman cites. Bob's suggestion that the wish/fantasy of having different parents than one's own is not unique to adoptees makes good sense. I would also suggest that, in a society in which genetics/blood relations are ideologically valued, it is hardly surprising that many adoptees seek out their biological parents.

Hi, Lindsay, I've trailed you back here from left2right. I think with this comment you're doing a good job taking DV to task for a conclusion he drew, but at the risk that I'm relying on mind-reading skills I don't have, I would say he you've caught him in an act of slightly hyperbolic rhetoric that he doesn't really mean to stand by and ought to be read in the cultural context of blogging. To illustrate how he's playing fast and loose, consider Exhibit A:

"Surely, being adopted is second best, other things being equal; it's just that other things have a way of not being equal. Sometimes a child's biological parents are ****unavailable, unwilling, or unable to care for it,**** and then adoptive parents are a godsend. But if the child could well have grown up in its biological family, it should have, and we do not dishonor the adoptive family by saying so."

I imagine you and I both read that as an argument with premises and a conclusion, which we see in the 2nd sentence and which I think is one of the points you took on. But that conclusion is a non-sequitor unless we read it as talking about the converse of the situation in the immediately previous sentence [which I've framed in ****] expressed in shorthand. So I think you've taken on the shorthand--which is fair, that being the conclusion DV chose to shout from the roof tops--but not something that in the quiet aftermath he'd pretend to have made an argument for. In such a context he would substitute the longhand more "conditionalized" conclusion.

Ditto for his conclusion "Surely, we would be horrified at the thought of intentionally creating abandoned children in order to satisfy the desires of prospective adopters." I think here too there are implicit conditions going unstated to spare the vocal chords and generate the kind of spritely polemic we look to blogs for. I read both of these conclusions as being about idealized circumstances ala the physicist's frictionless plane, but with the frictionlessness unstated, because you've got to give general public real planes or else they'll fall asleep. I suppose to simplify is to lie, but better to have a whole nation that knows Newton's Laws than a nation of ignoramuses and one Einstein who knows about special relativity as well.

" it deprives children and their adoptive parents of the pleasure of blood relation."--This is said with half a tongue in cheek, but that blood relation is not a pleasure for a good many people, as has been pointed out in various ways by the people commenting.

Also to put something in a slightly different way: I think most kids at some point in their lives wish, at least for a moment, that they themselves were adopted, THESE weren't their parents--kids who were actually adopted and know it can explore this little fantasy further, and it's no suprise that some of them do.

I fully agree with MT's post but must challenge some of the comments above that are dismissively simplistic concerning an adoptee's need to connect with a birthfamily.

Continental Op and jp imply that it is wish fulfillment on the part of adoptees who pine for some connection with their biological families; however, their examples refer primarily to minor children who are unhappy with their current living situations and fantasize of a better life. That is of course often true of children, but it is generally only adult adoptees who search.

Bob Crane is, I assume, male. I don't remember the actual statistics, but male adult adoptees are far less likely to initiate a search, the conventional wisdom being that it is women, as childbearers--who most closely identify themselves with their blood ties (my adoptive brother has never felt the slightest inclination to search). For myself, as a woman, this was certainly true: After turning 18 I searched off and on for about 20 years, giving birth to two sons during that period. It wasn't until shortly after my 3rd child, a girl, was born that I felt such a profound need to find my birthmother that I continued on until successful about 7 years ago.

BTW, we grew up in a loving adoptive family and never lacked for anything. In fact, my adoptive parents gave me the $3,000 to ultimately hire a private detective when my own search efforts failed.

Another important point which can be exemplified by my experiences are the medical history ramifications. The familial medical history that is provided to the adoptive parents is often never updated after adoption, thus ignoring any future--possibly hereditary--medical findings. Upon finding my birthfamily, I learned that my birthmother had perished of breast cancer at the age of 47. Yet it was at the time (and still is, I believe) against the law for the state in which I was born, NY, to allow me access to my birthfamily for the purpose of learning medical history.

Personally, finding my birthfamily (all of whom were glad to have been found--we maintain relationships and they've even met my adoptive family) had a profound effect on identity--I'm a more secure person and better parent as a result.

Would I have been ok if I never found them? Of course. But the fact that adult adoptees in this country are bound their entire lives by a contract in which they had no input is probably a violation of contract law, an opinion shared by many legal experts. Adding IVF births and even the hypothetical "hydroponic" births into the mix without first addressing these decades-old problems with "normal" adoptions will create future generations of disaffected adults. (There IS a valid reason that adoptees have disproportionately high rates of suicide, drug addiction, and behavioral problems.)

I didn't mean to be derisive at all to adoptees who seek out their birth parents, though re-reading my comment I can see how easily it would be to take my comment that way. Sorry for not being more clear.

What I meant when I said 'little fantasy' was to refer to what I see as a general fantasy of children to, at least once in a while, think about 'better' parents. Now, kids who find out that they are adopted can at least take this fantasy further--and I did not mean this statement to preclude that there are all sorts of other (and, as you point out, more important) reasons to think about/decide to seek out one's birth parents.

My point was supposed to be more along the lines of 'the original article might not take into account a comman desire to have different parents'...and again, I'm sorry that I wasn't clearer on that.

That said, being raised an only child by my single mother, never having known my biological father, I really have trouble identifying with adoptees who want to find their birth parents. I just have no desire to know the guy. Never have, and I'm gettin' pretty old now. I imagine meeting him would be sort of like going to a high school reunion--it's interesting to see what people are up to/have become, but I don't really care that much about it...which is not to say that others wouldn't.

There was a study several years ago which purported to show that adopted children were much more likely to be abused/molested than children living with a birth parent. ( I am not vouching for this study and I don't have a link to it.)

When you take into account the careful screening process that proceeds adoption in this country, that result is shocking. Biology, in the form of the selfish gene, seems to win out.

jp, no offense taken

It's sort of a knee-jerk reaction--any chance I get to sway public opinion about the issues faced by adult adoptees. Hopefully people pay more attention to me here than when I lecture the wingnuts in my office about the evils of bush... (I've given up on that).

elspi--I'm not easily persuaded by the selfish gene stance regaring adoption, simply becuase I think that the conclusions in the study that you (sort of) cite need to explain the causality of it all, and it's tough to pin down causality on biology, at least in some circumstances. For instance, I think it's possible that we might develop a culture where adoptees are in a sense valued MORE than non-adoptees by the culture in general ("You're adopted? Oh, how cool..."), in which case the sort of study you (sort of) cite could find have the opposite results.

elspi--I'm not easily persuaded by the selfish gene stance regaring adoption, simply becuase I think that the conclusions in the study that you (sort of) cite need to explain the causality of it all, and it's tough to pin down causality on biology, at least in some circumstances. For instance, I think it's possible that we might develop a culture where adoptees are in a sense valued MORE than non-adoptees by the culture in general ("You're adopted? Oh, how cool..."), in which case the sort of study you (sort of) cite could find have the opposite results.

That we don't have such a culture doesn't have to be a result of (only) our biology, either--there are all sorts of cultural options within one biological framework.

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