Blood and Water: A Child of One’s Own- A Moral Assessment of Property Concepts in Adoption (2005)

Source:   Smith, Janet Farrell. “A Child of One’s Own: A Moral Assessment of Property Concepts in Adoption.” In Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays. Edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt, Pages 112-131. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

“A Child of One’s Own: A Moral Assessment of Property Concepts in Adoption” by Janet Farrell Smith questions the morality of viewing children as possessions (as the phrase “a child of one’s own” suggests) and the repercussions notions that one must have a child “of their own” (i.e. biologically produced by themself) have on adopted children.

Smith argues that looking at children in this way has affected and still affects the “moral psychology of parenting.” She offers, as an example, a question often directed toward adoptive parents (one that I have been witness to many times, and can remember being the subject of myself): “Is she your own or did you adopt her?” (Smith, 112)

Smith asserts in her article “the equal worth of all children” (112). She warns against the “morally harmful” inclination that parents have to be overly possessive of their children, or to expect their children to behave in a certain way to “pay them back” for all the time and energy they “invested” in their progeny.  (113)

Even more sinisterly, viewing children as property leaks into laws related to children’s rights. In many ways, argues Smith, our “social system of property rules eclipses the ethical significance of the child as a moral subject having intrinsic worth” (116). This devaluation of children leads to ambivalence on the part of social agencies in the case of children within families. In the case of children in “the system”– either foster care or, earlier in American history (as in the case of many city-children prior to the afore-mentioned advent of mid-nineteenth century children’s aid organizations), orphanages and workhouses, this leads to marginalization and general lack of interest in these “displaced” children– of no value and little concern without parents to care for them.

Ultimately, Smith stresses in her essay that parenthood “need not be framed as proprietary or exclusive rights based on biological ties” (130).

In lieu of this view, children and families would most benefit from a cultural shift that recognises parenthood as the “necessary social condition to the responsible rearing of children” that is marked by commitment and responsibility– not by the simple act of birthing a child. This revised definition would grant children more protection (abusive parents, for example, would lose their parental rights) and offer adoptive children validity that their place in their families is just as legitimate as that of any biological child. (130)

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2 thoughts on “Blood and Water: A Child of One’s Own- A Moral Assessment of Property Concepts in Adoption (2005)

  1. Thinking about the phrasing of “a child of one’s own” was eye opening for me, as I had never considered the way children are often seen as commodities or possessions. It reminded me of our discussion about the 1950’s, how one of the reasons there was a booming adoption market is that having a child was seen almost as a status symbol, and the perfect way to enter into true womanhood (for married women, at least).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think the topic of this article is poignant. Parenthood being “marked by commitment and responsibility– not by the simple act of birthing a child” seems in some senses radical. The intent to improve the situation of children is great. But if we define parenthood this way, would that somehow delegitimize the act of child birth? I would hope not, but I do see some serious tensions in seeing parenthood in a way that says, “Well if you don’t take care of the child then you’re not the child’s parent.” Important to think about these things, because I like the intent, and I recognize the problem, but a solution to this problem is so difficult to find and the consequences might be negative.

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