Second Class Parents?

May 25th, 2010

by Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse. Originally pubished at National Catholic Register, March 22,2010.

“Domestic partnerships make us second-class citizens. We want marriage, just like everyone else.”

This is the constant refrain of the marriage-redefinition advocates. Drawing a legal distinction, any legal distinction, between same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples is unfair and amounts to ill treatment of the same-sex couples. But does this argument really hold up?

I am reminded of a time in my life when I felt the law was treating me as a second-class citizen.

Back in the late 1980s, my husband and I were confronted with infertility. Powerful feelings of inadequacy and deprivation swept over us, threatening to sweep us away. The world, we felt, had dealt us a raw deal.

It was unfair. Why couldn’t we have a child? We were every bit as worthy as people who conceived naturally and easily. Why were we being cheated?

Going through the process of adoption only intensified the feeling of being less than everyone else. We had to undergo a criminal background check. We had to be “investigated” through a home study. We had to be fingerprinted. Biological parents don’t have to endure these indignities. We felt like second-class citizens.

But then, during one interminable day at the immigration office, it finally occurred to me that all these requirements — so unfair, onerous and offensive — actually weren’t about me at all. We had to jump through all these hoops for the benefit of children, and not just the particular child we would adopt.

We had to go through all these extra steps because it really is a big deal to bring a little boy halfway around the world to give him to someone other than his natural parents.

The legal requirements are in place to protect children who cannot protect themselves. The forms, the fingerprinting, the investigations: These minimal inconveniences really do nothing more than weed out the worst and most obvious of the bad actors among prospective parents. And complying with these rules conveys a tacit but unmistakable message: Giving a child to an unrelated adult is not something to take lightly.

That day in the immigration office, it finally dawned on me that adoption exists to give children the parents they need, not to give adults the children they want. Any benefits to adults are strictly incidental. The basic way children get parents is that they are born to them. Adoption handles the exceptional cases of children whose biological parents cannot take care of them — without undermining the general rule that biology determines parentage.

I resolved to let go of the self-pity as a first act of love for a child I hadn’t even seen yet.

What does this have to do with same-sex “marriage”? The plain fact of the matter is that same-sex couples cannot have children together. Any child born to one of them has another biological parent somewhere outside the couple. Parental rights have to be detached from that person. Parental rights have to be attached to the nonbiological parent within the same-sex couple. These are not insignificant steps. The legal system does not, and should not, automatically compress those steps into one by trying to treat same-sex couples the same way as opposite-sex couples.

Once we think about this from the child’s point of view, we can see that it actually makes more sense to have two different systems: biology for the ordinary case of natural parents and adoption for everyone else. Marriage supports the biological principle in the case of opposite-sex couples. The husband of the mother is presumed to be the father of the child because, more than 90% of the time, he is. But changing the “presumption of paternity” to a “presumption of parenthood” actively undermines the biological principle in the case of same-sex couples.

The “presumption of parenthood” separates the child from his or her natural parent in 100% of the cases of same-sex couples.

So, no, I don’t believe that domestic partnerships make same-sex couples into “second-class citizens.” The differences between marriage and the other legal arrangements are tracking substantial real differences, not mere prejudice.

Likewise, I don’t believe my husband and I are “second-class citizens” because we had to get fingerprinted before adopting our son. I learned to put up with this mild humiliation because I came to see that it serves a greater good: the good of keeping the biological principle intact even while allowing for exceptional situations.

Whatever security same-sex couples may claim for the children they raise can be obtained some other way than same-sex “marriage.” Redefining marriage to be the union of any two persons, instead of the union of a man and a woman, certainly undermines the general principle that biology determines parentage.

We should not allow ourselves to be misled in redefining marriage, “for the sake of the children.”

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  1. May 25th, 2010 at 19:35 | #1

    Jennifer … ” … adoption exists to give children the parents they need, not to give adults the children they want” is simply profound.

  2. Joe
    May 26th, 2010 at 07:11 | #2

    This is one of the most enlightening articles i’ve read in awhile. Absolutely, profound.

  3. Marty
    May 26th, 2010 at 08:29 | #3

    What makes same-sex couples “second class” is their sameness. Separate is never equal — how could it be?

    If having “two moms” is supposed to be equal to having a mother and a father, then surely having a husband is equal to having a wife. And we all know THAT’s not the case! How callous and insensitive for me to suggest that a woman marry a man instead of another woman!

    Likewise, how callous and insensitive to suggest that a little boy have a redundant mother instead of a father of his own.

    Separate is never equal. Haven’t we learned this lesson already???

  4. Betsy
    May 27th, 2010 at 12:51 | #4


    This is a great article – as an adoptive parent (domestic, twice – and interviewing for a third), I have had many of the same feelings as our journey has evolved. And just as you indicate, it has driven home for me the seriousness of the adoption decision. Permanently removing a child from one or both biological parents. Possibly removing them from their home country. Permanently rewriting their birth certificate. In fact, I’ve thought with some irony that the adoption decree has far more actual permanence than some marriages into which those children are placed – this should NOT be so. As I watch my sons grow, I realize ever more how much God – and birthparents – do and should expect of me.

    I really enjoy these emails and the work you and the team are producing!

    My sincere thanks,


  5. May 28th, 2010 at 13:30 | #5

    This is profound! I linked it to my blog. Thank you for your insights, which are much needed in this world right now.

  6. Heidi
    June 2nd, 2010 at 13:29 | #6

    Biology does NOT determine parentage. PARENTING does. Wonder when people will finally figure this one out. Glad to see how much you all value the children of same-sex parents. Too bad you don’t believe these children deserve the security of married parents. Because like it or not, you won’t stop gays and lesbians from parenting.

  7. Lefty
    June 20th, 2010 at 22:22 | #7

    Biology doesn’t determine parentage, Heidi?

    Fine. Let’s stop tagging the newborns in the hospital nursery. No point in keeping track. From now on, one simple rule: you bring a baby, you leave with a baby. Doesn ‘t matter which one.

  8. AndyM
    July 29th, 2010 at 18:14 | #8

    I’m with Heidi. Just because you share genetic material with a child doesn’t mean you’re its parent. Sure you sired or gave birth to it, but it takes more than donating sperm and an egg to raise and PARENT a child.

    Lefty, your statement is both profoundly ignorant and completely unrelated to the issue at hand.

  9. Ruthisandidiot
    November 6th, 2010 at 08:28 | #9

    “Democratic forms of government are vulnerable to mass prejudice, the so-called tyranny of the majority.”

    -Maggie Gallagher.

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