Suffer the children
IF I were gay and wanted to give a child a home, my first thought would not be to head off to a Catholic adoption agency. Any more than if I were a man, I would take my medical problems to a well-women clinic. Not unless I was looking for confrontation; not unless I was more concerned about making a statement than achieving my goal.
But then gesture politics is at the heart of the escalating row over whether or not Catholic adoption agencies should be exempt from anti-discrimination legislation. It's not really about the best interests of a handful of vulnerable children. It's not even about protecting the rights of minorities to access services. It's about two mutually hostile lobby groups resuming their entrenched positions in a long-running power struggle that takes no prisoners.
With the Section 28 skirmish now a fading memory, the old enemies have found a new battleground for their opposing value systems. And this time round, the standoff threatens to undermine First Minister Jack McConnell and jeopardise the future of the very children both parties insist they are trying to protect.
Let's rewind to the start of this stramash. A month ago, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill which allowed gay couples to adopt. But the Executive assured the Catholic Church its adoption agencies - one in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh - would not be expected to handle any of those cases.
Then, last week, as Westminster prepared to pass an Equality Bill outlawing discrimination against anyone on the grounds of their sexuality, high-ranking Cabinet members, including Education Secretary Alan Johnson, insisted Catholic agencies should be forced to comply with the new laws or shut down.
Central to Johnson's argument is the conviction that discrimination against minorities is wrong and should be eradicated from society. And yet, as individuals, we discriminate against people every day: on the grounds of their looks, their accent, their class or their lifestyle choices. Furthermore, some of this discrimination is enshrined in law. The banning of smokers from public places, for example; and the fact that a Catholic can never be the monarch.
Since one person's human rights are often directly opposed to another's, the best we may be able do is to broker some kind of compromise. Take the strange case of the woman who was refused cigarettes at WH Smith because the sales assistant was Muslim and opposed the use of tobacco. Clearly this discriminates against the smoker, who has a right to obtain her nicotine fix in any shop licensed to sell it. But to reverse the decision discriminates against the Muslim. You can argue all day about whose rights should take precedence, but in practical terms it doesn't really matter because the smoker/Muslim can always shop/work elsewhere.
Far from being a hindrance, discrimination is intrinsic to the adoption selection process, which, by its very nature, involves applying subjective value judgments to other people's characters and lifestyles. In the past, prospective parents have been ruled out because they are too old; too fat; too unhealthy; too religious; or too white. In other words, someone, somewhere has decided certain couples will be less capable of providing a positive environment on the grounds of age, appearance or lifestyle choices.
Naturally, Catholic adoption agencies discriminate according to their own value system. When they refuse to deal with same-sex couples, they are doing so, not to penalise them, but out of a genuine conviction that children's interests are best served by being brought up in a traditional family unit.
These values may not shared by the majority of the population, but it is difficult to see how they have an impact on gay couples in real terms. Catholic agencies, after all, handle only 4% of all adoptions. Are you seriously disadvantaged if the agencies handling the other 96% are all able and willing to help you?
Indeed, if you strip away the emotive religious vs gay rhetoric, it is possible to see Catholic adoption agencies not as agents of bigotry, but as providers of a niche service. When homosexual couples are turned away from their door, they are not being told: "You have no right to adopt," but simply: "We are not the best people to help you. Here are the numbers of others more tailored to your requirements."
A more pressing concern, perhaps, is whether allowing one faith group to opt out of legislation would set a precedent. But the conflict between law and conscience is not new. Gynaecologists who oppose abortions on moral grounds are neither forced to carry them out nor to give up their jobs. This is not seen as discriminatory to those who are pro-choice, because women who want abortions are able to obtain them elsewhere.
Nor is the notion of certain institutions being exempt from equality legislation trail-blazing. A refuge for victims of domestic violence, for example, would not be expected to employ a man to look after its traumatised clients in order to comply with gender equality legislation.
As always, the Catholic Church is its own worst enemy. As last week wore on, its stance became more belligerent, its language less temperate. But just because the Catholic Church is pig-headed is no reason to meddle with the good work it does in this field. Although Catholic agencies handle only a tiny fraction of total adoptions, they oversee a third of "special needs" cases; in other words the adoption of children who are the most difficult to place. Thus, the problem with Catholic adoption agencies is the same as the problem with Catholic schools. At the same time as acknowledging that their very existence is ideologically questionable, you cannot help but recognise they punch above their weight. And, however sceptical you are about religion, it is difficult to shake off the suspicion that their success is linked to their faith.
If Tony Blair bows to the demands of his Cabinet colleagues and forces Catholic adoption agencies to flout the law or close, he will do nothing to further the cause of homosexual couples who want to adopt, but a lot to damage the chances of society's most disadvantaged children. And that's a high price to pay to prop up a spurious notion of equality.
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