Friday, March 20, 2015

Children, Adoption, and Catholic Morality

I awoke, some days ago, to a storm in the internet tea cup. Social media was awash with a poster featuring a phrase located over the image of a flask of Dolce & Gabbana perfume called “Homophobe”. The phrase read “When you just want to smell like a couple of assholes from Italy.”

Quickly captured, the story is that this image was a response following Elton John castigating the Italian designers Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) for their statements calling children conceived through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) “synthetic”. John’s response was “How dare you refer to my beautiful children as ‘synthetic’. And shame on you for wagging your judgemental little fingers at IVF - a miracle that has allowed legions of loving people, both straight and gay, to fulfil their dream of having children”.

This controversy should ideally have been ignored given that the fracas is between two sets of extremely privileged white men. The concerns of their universe are not necessarily those of the rest of the world. And yet, given the manner in which the issue has been turned into one of rights of people, gay and otherwise, to have children, there is sufficient reason to step in with an intervention.

My opinion in this column is not to undertake a defence of D&G. The statements attributed to them have been made via reports that refer to articles in Italian. Given my inability to directly access their statements, my attention is directed largely at John’s statement and the subsequent outrage peddled through the liberal propaganda machine. One of the locations through which I would like to critique this outrage is my understanding of the teachings of the Catholic Church.

An appropriate place to begin the critique would be at the seed of this whole mess, the statement by D&G. While Catholic teaching holds the clear position that IVF is morally wrong, the same instruction of the Church is quite clear that children themselves, regardless of the manner of their birth, are to be treated with respect and love. In light of this teaching, calling children produced via IVF “synthetic” is not merely a case of unfortunate phrasing but morally wrong. Should D&G think that they were toeing a Catholic line this insight should caution Catholics that the teaching of the Church is full of nuances that ought to be appreciated before being used to mount interventions in the public sphere, and in our private lives.

This brings us to Elton John’s denunciation of the D&G. Leaving aside the matter about the morality of IVF facilitated conception, John’s statement borders on the excessive. IVF is definitely NOT an option available to legions of people primarily because it is an extremely expensive option. While estimates in the US put the cost at about $10,000 per attempt, in India, the costs are in the range of about Rs. 2, 50,000. These are not economic options for a good part of the population anywhere in the world. Add to this the manner in which surrogate motherhood often involves the dubious use of the bodies of women. This relationship is especially problematic if these women are from the global South and servicing the needs of prospective parents from the global North.

IVF has gained some popularity in the North, and especially found favour among certain segments of the gay populations. The technique has allowed these groups to have children that they have a biological link with. But it is precisely the celebration of this biological link that is extremely problematic. While Elton John suggests that it is IVF alone that allows people to enjoy the gift of children, he is ignoring the fact that it is also possible for people to adopt orphaned children. If John finds D&G’s statements offensive, I find it particularly offensive that people should suggest that it is the biological link alone that constitutes a tangible bond between parent and child. This is a kind of fetishisation of the genetic that borders on racism and needs to be called out.

While the Catholic Church has drawn much flack for its opposition to IVF, what is often not given much attention is the fact that it does recognise the possibility, and merit of adoption. As in the words of Saint Pope John Paul II, “Adopting children, regarding and treating them as one’s own children, means recognizing that the relationship between parents and children is not measured only by genetic standards. Procreative love is first and foremost a gift of self. There is a form of ‘procreation’ which occurs through acceptance, concern, and devotion. The resulting relationship is so intimate and enduring that it is in no way inferior to one based on a biological connection. When this is also juridically protected, as it is in adoption, in a family united by the stable bond of marriage, it assures the child that peaceful atmosphere and that paternal and maternal love which he needs for his full human development” [all emphasis in the original].

The more astute would have realised that John Paul II crafted his words carefully, limiting the scope for non-traditional families to adopt. I have yet to appreciate the reasons for the Catholic Church’s opposition to adoption by gay couples. Given my own belief that it is not just the parents who raise a child, but a larger society, and that while one’s role models are chosen from a larger network of family and friends, I find the Church’s current position difficult to defend. However, I would like to highlight the fact that while the Catholic Church may close the door on IVF, it also opens up the door for extending our reserves of love to those outside of our biological ambit. It is important to highlight this route precisely because it stands as a counter to the class-privilege and racism that is embedded in the kind of gay politics that people like Elton John represent. 

The politics of the gay rights movement led by the mainstream voices from the global North has long ceased to represent the values of justice and freedom. Instead, they often urge routes that lead to a consumeristic view of the human body and human relations. While it may be important to continue to challenge the Catholic Church to rethink its positions on homosexually inclined and gender non-normative persons, it is also important to call out the biases inherent in the voices that claim to speak for LGBTIQ persons.

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo dated 20 March 2015)

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