Some 6,500 children are in Scottish local authority care today – 20 of them babies – but the number of people prepared to adopt or foster them is in chronic decline1. To find more homes, the Scottish Executive has proposed inviting unmarried couples to be screened as potential adopters or foster carers. They are currently able to adopt and foster singly. In future they could register jointly as partners.
David Lacy, the Moderator, told the Sunday Herald on 22 May that “God would never bless such a move” and Cardinal O’Brien twice attacked the bill, saying at the Red Mass that “the radical legislators must be stopped”. Both churches are pressing the Scottish Executive to introduce a ‘conscience clause’ that would free their adoption agencies from any requirement to place children with unmarried carers. In some parts of Scotland they are the only placement-providers.
Somewhere, I think, 6,500 children have faded into the shadows.
A Conscience Clause
The question of conscience is close to Quakers. Generations of conscientious objectors to the compulsory national call-up for war have struggled to be sure that they were not motivated by other emotions, like cowardice, or vanity, nagged always by the knowledge that other people were dying on their behalf. “Testing” individual conscience has always been an important part of conscientious objection for Quakers and we have clearness committees to help us do it. An objector’s readiness to accept hardship rather than fight – either by foregoing their freedom or by going to combat zones as unarmed civilians – has often been proof that they were indeed motivated by something larger than themselves. In Quaker experience, ‘testing’ and ‘sacrifice’ seem to be important elements of the exercise of conscience.
Although numbers of children will forego family homes as a result of the ‘conscience clause’ the churches are proposing, I sense no element of sacrifice on the part of anyone else: no funding foregone, no resignations tendered. Nor do I sense any ‘testing’: the ‘opt-out’ clause would actually give no scope for any Church of Scotland, or Roman Catholic adoption agency to ‘opt in’. There may be a world of difference between this and the landladies who put “No Irish” in their window – but I do not see what it is.
Casual sex and serial infidelity are the hallmarks of the heterosexual life style – if we are to believe the tabloids – as well as sexual predation in the home and the workplace, and the highest divorce rate of any community in the UK. Yet these are the people who adopt and foster children, and are natural parents to others. We each know heterosexuals, some of them are our friends, and so we turn a blind eye to the enormous weight of tabloid ‘evidence’ against them. But sexual minorities do not benefit from our blind side. Footballers are ‘gutted’ and homosexuals are ‘promiscuous’: the words seem to be stuck together on the key board. In his interview David Lacy even spoke of “loving, faithful not promiscuous homosexual couples”. A case of honouring in the breach, perhaps.
Quakers have a testimony to equality, born of our recognition that there is that of God in everyone – child and adult, woman and man. But ‘equality’ means nothing unless people are equal in law and practice. We accept and respect sexual relationships that are committed, loyal and kind, regardless of whether the partners are men, women, or married. I think it is consistent with our beliefs for unmarried partners to be eligible for screening as potential adopters and foster carers too, and I believe it would help many children.
Ministry at our meeting last Sunday concluded: “We are what we are. We experience what we experience. And this is where we find God”. If that is true of us, it is also true of the children who are waiting to find family homes. The Family honoured by the Cardinal and the Moderator is obviously very dear to their beliefs – but over many years it has largely stopped taking troubled children into its care. There are many sorts of family in the world. By respecting them all, I do not think we dishonour any.
The ‘radical’ legislators
This law looks back to human rights obligations the UK has acquired since 1992 and tries to respect them. Faith groups who respond loudest to Holyrood look back further. We too can look far back. The important thing is to be heard.
1 Figures quote in Report II of the Adoption Policy Review Group, presented to the Minister for Education and Young People by Sheriff Principal Graham Cox, 6 June 2005