Parenting Is A Privilege, Not A Right

And family preservation is a moral obligation

Strap in for the Mother’s Day essay you didn’t see coming. Be prepared to get angry with me. It’s fine. I’m used to it. Just maybe sit with this for a while and read the sources, ok?

When I started seriously interrogating my identity as an adopted person, it led me to question adoption more generally. I began researching the ways adoptees are at greater risk for mental health issues, eating disorders, suicide, and even dermatological problems. I found a community of adoptees online who were shouting just to be heard: being adopted is not all society makes it out to be. Organizations like Bastard Nation have been fighting for decades for what they see as basic human rights to be bestowed upon adoptees — namely for us to be able to access our original birth certificates. I decided to join the chorus of those working to flip the script and expose the dark underbelly of an institution that is uncritically assumed to be an unqualified good. As an academic, I have done this primarily through writing and sharing my own story more publicly.

Ever since my adoptee activism and advocacy began, I have been asked the same question, consistently. Though formulated in various ways, the query is roughly: but what about all the kids who don’t have any family and need a home? I patiently explain that true orphans are a rarity, that biological family is more than a mother or a father and that extended family or kinship adoptions are far better for the child if possible, because the child can grow up among genetic familiars. I point out that most mothers who relinquish are not happy with their decision in the long run and that this causes them great sorrow and even PTSD, and that when interviewed, nearly all of them claim if they had just had more financial security and social support they would have parented their children. Most of all, I note that adoption is traumatic to so many adoptees — maybe not all of us, but it is for enough of us to be significant and worthy of consideration.

I expend all this emotional energy and provide this free labor and yet, nine times out of ten, the response I get is something along the lines of “well, I still plan to adopt but at least now I can do it with the awareness of all these issues.”

To me, that is like saying “I recognize the moral reprehensibility of puppy mills, but I’m still going to get this puppy from this puppy store.”

So, I’ve thought about why this response is so frequent and, like the puppy example, it boils down to two simple ingredients: desire and entitlement. There is the very natural desire to become a parent, coupled with a sense of entitlement to satisfy that desire by whatever means necessary. Thus, when something like infertility threatens to make that desire to parent unobtainable, people often turn to assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) of various sorts to try to realize their goal.

I will not wade into any bioethical debates about ARTs in this essay, but it is worth pointing out that to even consider these forms of technologically mediated parent-making processes, one must be in an economically advantageous position. This is because most insurance companies do not cover the exorbitant costs of ARTs, though some states are beginning to enact legislation to do so. If you are like so many Americans without health insurance, then ARTs are completely out of the question.

It is a sad reality that ARTs sometimes fail to allow people to experience pregnancy. When this occurs, it is often the point at which adoption is considered. Of course, some folks decide to adopt even if they are capable of biologically procreating and some folks are infertile but never try ARTs and skip right to adoption. But, the fact remains that for many, the decision to adopt was not their first choice. It might not have even been their ‘Plan B.’ This means that for adoptees, we often live our lives knowing we were ‘Plan C’ in someone’s parenting game-plan. Add to this that so many of us already suffer with abandonment grief and feeling as though something must have been wrong with us for not being kept by our first family, and it’s not hard to see why adoptees often have self-esteem issues.

In any case, when it comes to the decision to adopt, desire and entitlement often get mixed in with a more complicating ingredient I will call pseudo-altruism. Namely, the assumption that adoption is a social good, a means to “save” or “rescue” a child from deplorable conditions, and a “win-win.” Biological parents who are in no position to parent are able to relinquish this responsibility, while those who so desperately want to become parents but cannot achieve it biologically are afforded this opportunity. When you put it like this, it does sound fantastic, doesn’t it? Except this oversimplified characterization of adoption overlooks the adoptee’s perspective, as well as the birth family, who often do not view this decision as a win at all.

I want to pause here briefly and express my empathy for adoptive and hopeful adoptive parents. There is nothing inherently wrong about wanting children. As I said above, it is a natural desire. It is selfish, yes, but all desires are selfish. A desire is merely a longing for some form of self-fulfillment. It’s equally as selfish to not want children. This is not an essay about the pro-natalist vs. anti-natilist debate, however. I am simply noting that using selfishness as a means to shame anyone — whether they decide to try to become parents or not — is vacuous. It’s like shaming someone for desiring to take up walking for exercise. The desire is not the problem.

Likewise, the aim to help children is noble. Promoting child welfare and protecting the most vulnerable among us are admirable goals. The intention, in other words, behind many people’s decisions to pursue adoption, are often good. This does not imply, however, that the impact of that decision is good.

This brings us back to all the studies, stats, and testimonials I bring up so often, only to be met with “thanks for your laborious explanations, but I am still going to adopt.” Why is it that these facts are not enough to dissuade people from pursuing adoption? I think it’s that pesky second ingredient I mentioned: entitlement. People feel it is their right — indeed maybe even their god-given right — to become a parent.

If you think you have a right to parent, you have elevated the desire to do so to the status of a right to do so.

Here is where I become a killjoy and say that parenting is not a right. It’s a privilege. If you think you have a right to parent, you have elevated the desire to do so to the status of a right to do so. Desires are not the same thing as rights. I might have the desire to run a 6-minute mile, but it makes no sense to claim that I have the right to do so. But perhaps being a parent is one of those inalienable rights or natural rights, so maybe the desire to parent does entail the right to parent?

Is Parenting a Human Right?

Let’s briefly examine the distinction between a right and a privilege to see whether my thesis — that becoming a parent is a privilege and not a right — is defensible, or whether becoming a parent has a special status as a human right.

Much ink has been spilled regarding rights and I will only skim the surface of that deep literature so as not to lose my readers to boredom. Rights are often distinguished between “positive” and “negative”. A person is said to have a positive right to X if they are entitled to X. So, a child’s right to basic welfare would be a prime example of a positive right. You are said to have a negative right if you are entitled to the absence of something. You have the right not to be sexually assaulted, for instance.

There are many ways to conceive of what the proper definition of a right ought to be, so I will examine a couple of these major contenders to see if “becoming a parent” can be justified as a right under any of these criteria.

One way rights are characterized is to think of them as claims. A person claims X as their right, if and only if it is another person’s duty to provide X. So rights-as-claims always involve at least two persons. It is interesting to note that this understanding of rights allows for children’s rights. Despite being a minor, a child still has the right to bodily integrity, which often translates into the negative right, i.e. the right not to be abused by any other human. As an adult, I have the right to fair treatment under the law, and so on.

But can an adult make a claim to become a parent? It hardly seems so. How would we even state such a claim? A person claims X (and here X = a child) as their right because it is some other person’s duty to provide them with X. That cannot be correct, and I suspect no person hoping to become a parent thinks it is someone’s duty to provide them with a child. If so, their supposedly noble intentions behind adopting would suddenly be very suspect indeed.

Another way to think of rights is to see them as powers. A person is said to have power-rights if they can alter their own or another’s rights. This conception of rights has obvious connections to the legal system and various forms of social hierarchy. A mental healthcare patient has the right to confidentiality, but the doctor can alter that right if, for instance, the patient admits or threatens to physically harm someone. We can also see how those who are already parents or legal guardians of children have power-rights over those children. While I wholeheartedly defend my children’s right to privacy —e.g. I don’t publicly share sensitive details about their lives— their right to privacy can be trumped by my duty to keep them safe, so I might need to share some of their personal information with a doctor, for example.

But what about the supposed ‘right’ to become a parent? Is it a power? Again, this doesn’t seem to compute. To be sure, when a person adopts a child, they assume power-rights over that child, but they did not have those rights before the birthparents terminated their own power-rights. Given that the termination of parental rights — by birthparents or by those parents who have had their children removed by child welfare agencies — is often not the explicit choice of those parents, it would be wrongheaded to assume this “transfer of power” over a child is always done ethically. More importantly, when we try to frame the desire to become a parent as a power-right, it simply does not add up. A person hoping to become a parent does not have the right to alter the rights of a child who is not already in their custody. There are exceptions, of course, like teachers, who have a special status called in loco parentis, which means they do have these power-rights over children during school hours. But a person hoping to adopt a child does not have this authority over any potential adopted child. And they certainly do not have power-rights over the biological family members who face the potential of relinquishment.

There is a whole other essay to be written (indeed several folks have written about this already) about how hopeful adoptive parents and adoption agencies use coercive tactics to try to assume power-rights over biological families. For instance, referring to a pregnant person as “birthmother” before she has even given birth is a manipulative way to ensure she thinks of herself as merely a vessel to provide another family with a child. Disallowing mothers to breastfeed and otherwise bond with their newborns is another way these power-rights are asserted unethically over biological mothers. And in the case of children under the age of 18 whose parents attempt to force them into giving up their babies for adoption, these parents are using their power-rights to trump any desires or rights their child has regarding her own baby.

In any case, it is clear that no one has the power-right to become a parent. If you are fortunate enough to conceive naturally, this is not a power-right — it is just a biological process, the details of which I trust my readers understand perfectly well. If you are able to afford ARTs and conceive this way, this is also not a power-right, though it is a quintessential example of privilege.

One final way we can think about rights is to conceive of them as freedoms. A person has the freedom-right to X if and only if they have no duty not to X. This one is tricky because it leads people to believe all sorts of things are rights that are not. Driving is the classic example brought up here. Though it logically fits within the definition — I have the right to drive because I do not have any duty not to drive — we know that driving is not a right. Driving is a privilege, and one that can be easily revoked, if you do not follow the rules or endanger others while doing so. Thus, a better formulation of this notion of rights might be something like, a person has the right to do X so long as doing X does not infringe on any other person’s rights. Driving while drunk would be a violation then, because you are putting others’ lives and your own unnecessarily at risk — thereby disregarding the right to life and bodily integrity.

When we plug in the desire to become a parent, it becomes even murkier, because on its face, the idea that I have the freedom-right to become a parent because I do not have any duty not to sounds fine (unless of course you are an anti-natalist or childfree advocate, but again, we are not going there in this essay). In fact, it seems just peachy to say not only do I have the freedom-right to become a parent because there is no duty not to, but there is another duty — to protect the welfare of children — that I would be upholding if I adopted. And we have come full circle to the ‘adoption as a win-win’ narrative discussed earlier.

Shifting the Focus: Our Duty to Children

Let me be fully clear here: we all have the duty to protect children and to ensure their welfare. Adoption, however, does not guarantee this duty will be fulfilled. It is not as if every adoptive parent is a saint that properly cares for their adopted children. Adoptees are abused and even murdered by their adoptive families. Adoptees are “rehomed” when adoptions “fail,” which is a re-traumatizing event (google Myka Stauffer for a recent high-profile case of this). Biological families are also guilty of abuse and neglect and this is why children are sometimes removed from homes — because parenting is a privilege not a right.

Laura Carroll writes, “in our society, driving is a privilege because if we aren’t able to drive well, it will result in harm to others. Because parenthood can potentially cause great harm to children and society, and because it’s arguably the most important job in the world, it’s time we get more serious about holding these same attitudes when it comes to having children.” I like the end of this quote because she is turning the idea of “right to become a parent” on its head. Not only is it not a right, but the decision to even try to become a parent needs to be thought about more critically because children’s rights are so often neglected by bad parenting.

To put it differently, by agreeing to parent, we are signing onto the responsibility to protect and ensure the welfare of children. As Mavis McLean puts it, “a right to parenthood in my view is unhelpful because it focuses on the rights of adults rather than the needs of children. If we look ahead in the life of the child this kind of rights based approach has become associated with the kinds of arguments which have been raging over the rights of fathers to equal rights to their child’s time after separation or divorce. A concentration on parental rights, in my view, leads us towards the danger of regarding a child as a piece of property to be divided.”

The objection looming here is reminiscent of the response I get so often when I explain why I am critical of adoption and it goes like this: “yes, but I would be a good adoptive parent and there are plenty of children who need homes. In fact, if I foster, I can maybe adopt one of the kids who was removed from an abusive situation.”

First of all, the goal of fostering is family reunification. The idea is to help the parents get back on their feet, kick an addiction, get medical care, etc. so they can resume parenting their child(ren) while upholding their duties to them. So, let us once and for all stop thinking of fostering as the “cheap alternative” to adoption and dispense with using the term foster-to-adopt. Again, if you want to be believed that you have every good intention in your desire to adopt, this is not a way to prove it. Foster-to-adopt means you are fostering with the desire that the family never be reunified. That is not a noble desire. Full stop.

But what about those children whose parents really don’t want them? The ones whose parents cannot shake that drug habit, or the ones whose parents have died? My answer to this is, as stated earlier, explore all other genetic kin options first. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, etc. Family does not only mean mother + father + kids. All the studies about adoptee mental health, suicide, cultural identicide, and trauma strongly indicate that these effects are mitigated when a child is raised with biological mirrors and genetic connectedness.

And if those options are not available? Guardianship allows for parental rights (aka power-rights) over a child just as much as adoption, but without the permanent sense of loss that is necessarily attached to adoption. When you adopt a child and change their name, e.g., it makes it that much harder for that child to relate to their biological kin. In my case, coming from a closed adoption where my records remain sealed to this day, I had a completely different family name growing up, and as such, when I desired to know my family of origin, I didn’t even have a last name to use in my search. Even in open adoptions, which are more common today, adoptees’ names are almost always changed to their adoptive family’s name. For transracial adoptees in particular, this can mean a traumatic loss of ethnic and cultural identity. Guardianship, on the other hand, not only promotes keeping the child’s heritage intact, but it allows the door to remain open for a potential future in which they can rejoin their family of origin if they choose or if extended family come forward with the desire to be connected to the child.

If we want to talk about rights, I think we need to shift the focus, as McClean says, to children. Children have the right not to be traumatized. Adoption is a source of trauma, especially if it is a closed adoption or transracial adoption. Children have the right to know their genetic family. Alice Diver has framed this discussion in a compelling way by developing a notion of rights that includes the “right to avoid origin deprivation.” In other words, it is a violation of a person’s rights to disallow them access to their original birth certificate, information about their genetic relatives, health information, etc. The right to privacy of birth parents is trumped by this right to avoid origin deprivation because of obvious bioethical problems inherent in denying a person this information. Any adoption that fails to satisfy this basic right is unethical, and no person has the right to become a parent through these means.

But what about the ‘Exceptions’?

This leaves the question regarding those extenuating circumstances where all ethical options have been exhausted and a child is truly without genetic family to care for them. I will repeat that guardianship is the best answer to that question. But I fully recognize that the adoption industry is going to continue churning out adoptions no matter how much I or other adoptee activists fight. Until systemic change takes place, there will be unnecessary adoptions, by which I mean adoptions that occur without fully exploring family preservation measures.

Money, for example, is a huge hurdle for so many people facing an unplanned pregnancy. It costs anywhere from 25,000–60,000 dollars to adopt an infant in the U.S., and for every infant genuinely in need of a home, there are at least 30 sets of parents with the desire to adopt. Something doesn’t add up, and worse, we have to wonder how adoption agencies are increasing the supply for this high demand (see earlier discussion regarding manipulating vulnerable pregnant women). It should fail to be surprising that the anti-choice evangelical church is one of adoption’s biggest supporters and many agencies in the U.S. are run by these churches.

When I see hopeful adoptive parents setting up crowdfunding accounts to raise money to adopt, I cannot help but wonder if they have even entertained the idea that instead of raising this money to compete to buy someone’s child, they could sponsor a vulnerable family in need and became a sort of ‘godparent’ to the child rather than permanently severing that child’s ties to their family of origin. Our idea of a nuclear family consisting of two parents and a couple children — impenetrable to any extra members — is a bizarre construct of our capitalist society, but I digress. The point is that there is cognitive dissonance in our being perfectly willing to allow “family” to include adoptive families, or families with two dads or two moms, but we cannot conceive of a family that includes a much larger social network of support — you know, the proverbial “village” that our ancestors seemed perfectly happy to utilize. In short, there are plenty of ways to fulfill the desire to parent that do not involve neglecting one’s duty not to infringe on a child’s right to avoid origin deprivation, or their right to maintain cultural connectedness, or their right not to be traumatized by adoption.

The takeaway

I close with the recognition that I write all of this from a place of great privilege and great sympathy. I am fortunate to have been able to have children biologically. I will never know the pain and anguish of infertility, much like I will never know what it is like to be a BIPOC in this country and to have to endure the racism that comes along with those identities. I do, however, know what it’s like to have my right to avoid origin deprivation violated. I know what it’s like to grow up adopted and to experience the complex emotions surrounding that identity, as well as the silencing and gaslighting by a society that constantly tells me I should be grateful I was “rescued” from my terrible, awful biological family (I’ve met lots of them and they are not scary at all, by the way). I know what it’s like to be Plan B and what that does to your self-esteem. Like many adoptees, I know all too well what it’s like to feel like someone’s desire to become a parent was more important than a person’s right to know who they are.

Like I said, however, I also know that I will never have to accept the fate that my own adoptive mom had to endure realizing she’d never be able to make a child herself. She and my dad didn’t know all that we now know about adoption trauma and children’s rights. I’ve written about them in the past because I do think they were and are exemplars of good parents, adoptive or otherwise. They took the duty to protect me and my welfare seriously, and for that, I am grateful, just as I would be grateful if my biological family had raised me with nourishment and love. But I’m not grateful I was adopted.

If you are even still reading at this point, I give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you too would take your responsibilities as a parent seriously, even if you still choose to adopt after reading this essay. For the love of all adoptees, however, if you do adopt, respect all the rights of your adoptee to be a part of their biological family’s lives. To do otherwise would nullify all your claims to the altruistic goodwill behind your intention to adopt.

I sympathize with that desire to parent so much, I promise I do. But it’s not your right to become a parent. It was not mine either. It is no one’s right. It is a privilege and with privilege comes responsibility. But not everyone is fortunate to get that privilege and that’s just reality, cruel though it may seem. Again, I cannot pretend to know the pain of infertility, but I can say with certainty that being traumatized — whether by infertility, being marginalized for being BIPOC, or queer, or any other form of suffering — does not grant you the right to marginalize or traumatize others.

I highly recommend reading these two essays, one by Chidimma Ozor Commer and the other by Pascal Huynh. Both are written by persons who face oppression because of their identities, as a black woman and a queer man, respectively, and both authors have come to the conclusion that they cannot justify becoming a parent through adoption. And here is why: because they listened to adoptees and thought long and hard about many of the things I’m saying here. They realized that their desires are not rights, especially not when those desires almost assuredly involve violating the rights of others. That, by the way, is allyship in action.

Be sad. Rage out. Hate me. Hate the world. It’s not fair. You are seen and heard and I sympathize with you. I promise. But you still don’t have the right to become a parent just because you want to.

Constant collisions between the personal and political. Professor. Adoptee. Advocate. Activist. I write about dogs a lot. michelemerritt.com

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