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So, I’ve been waking up in the morning (Well, 2 am is morning, right?) and, in order to get my mind going in “French mode” rather than “English mode”, I’ve been looking at the French news. I don’t have any particular topics I’m following, just “actualités,” so I’ve been starting on the Google news (French mode is working – what is ramasser in English? Yes, I’ll go through a few days when I can’t speak either language.) aggregator page.

So, it seems that on Sunday, they will be having what is being billed as a “Manif pour tous,” or a “Demonstration For All,” an Orwellian term if I ever heard one. Since I had no idea what this “tous” was, I had to do a little digging. I was half expecting some sort of populist May Day in October parade. As far as I can figure, and my French is just shoddy enough that I appear to understand things but I have the permanent sense of uncertainty, the “Demonstration For All” is, in fact, a demonstration against “homoparentalité.”

Living in Canada, I became a little bit fascinated by, not the obvious cultural differences, like smoke meat instead of pastrami, but by the underlying assumptions. It frequently reveals itself when you find you’re talking, talking, talking and no one seems to understand what’s going on. It’s one of the reasons that I’m always objecting when people say that a culture is more or less liberal than another, or better or worse for atheists, or gays, or some other group. Whenever I scratch the surface, there’s often something far more complicated going on underneath. These issues are attached by invisible strings to an entire network of ideas, the deep grammar of the culture, if you will.

When I attended the demonstration in support of marriage equality in Paris in December 2012 (Golly, I feel like a regular international agitator or something.), I did notice that some people carried signs regarding assisted reproduction. Asking about, I was surprised to learn that various fertility treatments are limited by law to infertile, stable, heterosexual couples in France.

The man and woman of the couple must be alive, of reproductive age, married or able to prove 2 years’ living together and give consent prior to transfer of embryos or insemination.

This really quite surprised me because the American image of France is that they are more “liberal” than we are on social issues. The law is very specifically written to exclude single women and homosexual couples. If I may ride my hobby-horse for a moment longer, this is a good example of why simplistic terms like more or less, and better or worse are frequently inadequate to the point of deception when talking about large, amorphous, protean things like a culture.

Getting back to the subject, as reproductive technologies became more commonplace, the government of France underwent some years of examining the issue and then codified it in law, published in 1995.* The main concern of the law is to respect human beings, but as people do not exist without a culture, cultural assumptions are in it, mainly assumptions concerning parenthood, specifically motherhood, attitudes towards single mothers, including widows, attitudes towards homosexuality, assumptions about families, and attitudes towards adoption.

An interesting contrast regarding cultural attitudes can be found in some of the words used regarding adoption. Just now, I wanted to check what the current laws in France were regarding adoption. On the Wikipedia page on the subject, regarding who was eligible for adoption, I saw the expression, “la mere abandonne de son nourrisson.” This seems to be the phrase they use for reliquishing a child for adoption. In the U.S., for the past several decades, we haven’t used the word “abandon” in relation to people who put a child up for adoption because it is seen as having negative or judgemental connotation. It is also worth noting that adoption seems to be a far more recent phenomenon in France than in the U.S. Furthermore, they have two types of adoption in France, simple adoption and plenary adoption. Adoptions in the U.S. closely resemble French plenary adoptions, which only account for two-thirds of adoptions in the country. (France also has another concept called “filiation.” For the sake of simplicity, I’m skipping that for now.)

France has had since 1999 a form of civil union called PACS (pacte civile de solidarité) which was originally intended to recognize same sex unions but is now used by heterosexual couples as well. Strangely, to me at least, single people can adopt a child, but unmarried couples cannot, including couples in a PACS, nor can a person living with someone adopt a child as an individual. Therefore, one of the main issues regarding gay marriage in France was the ability to adopt. When the law regarding marriage equality was enacted in 2013, the ability to adopt a child together went along with it. The Justice Minister, Christiane Taubira, said, “We therefore open adoption to homosexual couples under the framework currently in place. They can, like others, adopt individually or together.” (If I understand correctly, a person can adopt a child as an individual if he or she is single or married, but not if he or she is living with someone. It gets really confusing to me. I hope I’m getting this right. Link to the French government website.)

Meanwhile, in the U.S. it can get really confusing because each state has different laws. Furthermore, many adoptions are done through private agencies, some of which are religious, and may have their own restrictions. According to the U.S. government website

Most people are eligible to adopt, regardless of whether they are married or single, their age, income, or sexual orientation.

However, the question of adoption by homosexual couples, as opposed to individuals becomes more complicated, especially in states that do not have marriage equality. 25 states permit unmarried couples to adopt jointly and have no statutes specifically addressing the sexual orientation of the adopting parents. The status of homosexual couples is uncertain in many of these states. 5 states have laws specifically restricting adoptions by same-sex couples. No state prohibits adoption by heterosexual singles, but two states prohibit adoption by gay or lesbian singles. (Okay, I got really side tracked looking up facts about adoption laws in the states because there’s too many. I’m going to stop here and just put up a link to the Human Rights Campaign’s website. As one website I saw mentioned, the laws have been changing frequently.)

Now, the thing that got me writing about this subject, and this post is already over a thousand words so I should get to the point, was an organization listed as one of the supporters of Manif pour Tous called “les Adoptés.” I will make no bones about the fact that, as an adopted person, this organization ticks me off. There are all sorts of groups that love to advertise how diverse they are, how little they have in common besides on or two little things. Well, I think no group may be more diverse than adoptees and beyond the notion that the best interests of the child should be considered I’d be surprised if we could come to much of a consensus on anything. However, the thing that really annoyed me about this group was the way they seem to me to deceive people into believing that they are an organization representing the interests of adoptees in a general way. In fact, their website doesn’t mention a single subject other than gay parenting. They are not, as far as I can tell, a group of adoptees, but a group of adoptees against gay marriage. As an adoptee who supports gay marriage, this sleight of hand ticks me off. The group wasn’t formed until marriage equality, and with it equality in adoption, was about to become law. They have nothing on their website that doesn’t relate to gay parenting. They do say on their About page that they were formed in the wake of Hollande’s election due to his position on gay marriage, still their name is very deceiving.

They say

If adoptees have differences and discussions on numerous subjects (secrecy about origins, medical information…), there is never the less a position common on the rights of children.

“Adoptees should not become a political game of chance.”

The bill on “homosexual marriage” hadn’t particularly attracted our attention before the presidential campaign. But the declarations of Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, at the end of June 2012, affirming that the “right to marriage and adoption for all would be soon instituted” served to detonate and accelerate the creation of a growing project.

They seem to imply a consensus on this subject that just doesn’t exist.

While searching for information for this post, I came across an interest blog post, by a fellow member of the atheist blogroll no less, that related to this subject and I thought was very interesting.

Zack Ford compares telling people that he is adopted to coming out of the closet.

I was adopted.

Are you surprised? A lot of people are when I reveal this super intimate detail. “Oh,  I didn’t know,” they say.

To answer your other questions: I’ve always known, and I have no interest in meeting my genetic parents. My parents are my parents and I love them very much. Oh, and yes, I do like to pretend I might be the second coming of Christ. (How do you know I’m not?)

But let’s step back. What was with that reaction to the news that I’m an adoptee? Do folks have certain expectations about adoptees that are disrupted by my coming out? Did they expect it would somehow be obvious, or that if they knew me well enough it would be something they could tell?

He then goes on to note that there is still a lot of stigma surrounding being adopted.

Now, of course, when it comes to gay and lesbian adoption, there is the added stickiness of archaic gender expectations. But fundamentally, most people who speak against adoption by same-sex couples use the same language that stigmatizes all adoptions.

He concludes with

Our problem isn’t people against gay adoption. Our problem is people against adoption. It’s the little bit of privilege and stigma revealed by the surprise when I tell someone I’m adopted—as if it’s some big deal (it’s not). People don’t trust adoption, and they use it as an excuse to attack same-sex couples in their family.

Next time you hear someone challenging gay adoption, go through all the motions. Remind them of all the data that proves they’re wrong. Show them pictures of loving families (like Scott, Robert, and Riley who I met at the National Equality March). Correct all their assumptions about the importance of gender roles. But then, make sure you also challenge them on adoption in general. The attacks on gay adoption aren’t just hurting same-sex couples; they hurt all of us connected to adoption and all the children waiting to be adopted.

While Zack Ford mentions the stigma in the United States, I’ve always felt it less here and in Canada than elsewhere. I remember once having a conversation with someone from Saudi Arabia and it took a lot of time to simply explain to him what the word adoption means. As much as there is a stigma here, I’m under the impression that North Americans are more comfortable with the subject than Europeans. Perhaps the concept of an individual flourishing without deep roots is less alien to us.

The different attitudes about the relationship among individuals, medical professionals and the state informs the question that is still unresolved, that of assisted reproduction for same-sex couples. During the last presidential campaign, the Socialist Party supported extending assisted reproduction to lesbian couples, a practice that has been common for a long time in the U.S. At home, I have a history of lesbianism in the U.S. that mentions a late-eighties / early-nineties baby boom. The difference in the laws in the two countries results from attitudes shaped by many things, not simply attitudes to gay rights.

* (This is a blog post not a doctoral thesis, so while I tried to do some reasearch, I may have missed major changes to the law. Here as ever, reader beware.)

I’ve tried my best to get the situation in France right in a short amount of time. If I’ve made any mistakes, let me know in the comments.

Addition: Just for fun, I thought I’d put up a link to the Wikipedia page for Smoked Meat.(There’s a “d” at the end. Who knew?) On the side bar, it said that it was part of a series on Canadian Cuisine. It was accompanied by a photo of a plate of La Poutine! Just thought I’d leave you with that image.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my first unwanted pregnancy and the subsequent abortion. My original intent was to put it in its proper place as I was recounting my memories, but that project has been moving so much more slowly than I originally planned and a post on Robert Nielsen’s blog made me decide it was time to write about it. Robert’s post was about Ann Lovett, a fifteen year old who died from hemorrhage and exposure while giving birth in a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the human woman who, according to Christian legend, gave birth to a god. The child died from exposure as well. The realization that I had had a safe, legal abortion within a month of her death affected me strangely. For ages, I have said that women who have had abortions should come out of the closet about it and lately, as the right to choose to terminate a pregnancy is being whittled away, that sense has only grown stronger. Therefore, I decided to write about my own.

Another post I did a while back was inspired by the movie Philomena. Based on a true story, the main character of the movie had been sent to a Magdalen Laundry after she became pregnant out-of-wedlock. The laundries were run by the Catholic Church and the women were forced to engage in unpaid labor, usually against their will, with the complicity of the Irish government who would return any runaways. Any children born were put up for adoption, and the women often felt that they were forced into it.

Scandals regarding the Magdalen Laundries have been rocking Ireland for a few years now as survivors have sought redress and the Catholic Church has guarded its money. (The Magdalene Laundry – CBS News ; Magdalene survivors ‘being punished twice’ ; Excessive burden of proof on Magdalene survivors, Dáil told ; The slaves of Magdalene ; there are a great many other articles on the subject online ) The last of the laundries closed as recently as 1996. Sinead O’Connor, a singer who had a couple of hits back in the early nineties had been in one. This is far from ancient history.

So, it is not surprising to hear the latest news coming from Ireland. Some time ago, I went to hear a Celtic rock band, a young woman in the audience turned to me and said, “Don’t you wish you were Irish.” I just smiled and shrugged because, “What are you fucking crazy?” struck me as containing a sour note. In any case, it’s not likely. I was born out-of-wedlock and, in Ireland, twenty-five percent of children born out-of-wedlock never reached their first birthday. In the home portrayed in Philomena, the death rate was an astounding fifty percent. I was small, delicate, underweight, colicky and prone to skin rashes. I feel fairly certain I would have been one of the children tortured and killed. So, in all likelihood, would have my sister who was also born out-of-wedlock and who suffered very badly from asthma. The word torture seems inflammatory even as I type it, but what else are we to call it when one of the causes of death is malnutrition and some of the others are illnesses associated with malnutrition. With women imprisoned and forced to work for virtually no pay and children who are starved to death, it’s hard to see these places as being anything other than concentration camps.

The remains of approximately 800 infants and young children have been found in a septic tank in Tuam. The mass grave was first discovered by two boys playing in the nineteen seventies.

Mr Sweeney said: ‘It was a concrete slab and we used to play there but there was always something hollow underneath it so we decided to bust it open and it was full to the brim of skeletons.”

The men say they have nightmares even to this day.

It seems a sick irony that the infants were buried in unconsecrated ground. Supposedly, the justification of the harsh treatment of the young women, many of them the mothers of the murdered children, was that this life was less important than the afterlife and that the women were presumably paying penance for their sins. What terrible sins had these children committed? Children less than one year old? Did the murderous nuns think they were sending these children to an eternal torment? Do they even believe their own myths? What was the rationale of the treatment of the children?

A local historian, Catherine Corless, has been researching the Home in Tuam. A report from 1944

described the children as “emaciated,” “pot-bellied,” “fragile” with “flesh hanging loosely on limbs.” The report noted that 31 children in the “sun room and balcony” were “poor, emaciated and not thriving.” The effects of long term neglect and malnutrition were observed repeatedly.

The pot-belly, emaciation and loose flesh, these are the widely knows symptoms of starvation. It’s hard to see hunger on this scale and for this length of time as anything other than intentional. The writer of the article doesn’t say so in so many words, but it’s hard for me to come to any other conclusion.

Corless believes that nothing was said or done to expose the truth because people believed illegitimate children didn’t matter. “That’s what really hurts and moved me to do something,” she explains.

Later in the article, the writer elaborates:

Living and dying in a culture of shame and silence for decades, the Home Babies’ very existence was considered an affront to Ireland and God.

I am put in mind of the “honor killings”, which we are very quick to condemn in the Muslim world. I do not disagree that these killings should be condemned, however, I wonder if we can see the parallel when it takes place in a culture that is a little bit closer to our own. Some of the young women sent to the workhouses had been raped. Some were only suspected of sexual behavior. Some came from families unable to support them. Most chillingly, some never left, staying in the Homes until death, life imprisonment for minor infractions or even being a victim of rape.

Somehow, I find it deeply disturbing that the Catholic Church which has for so long opposed birth control and opposed abortion was complicit in starving to death hundreds of children because their births were inconvenient.

 

If you haven’t been spending tons of time reading atheist blogs, you may be unaware that the topic of abortion has been raging like wildfire. There are so many aspects to this argument, that I’m only going to discuss one paragraph I’ve read. It was “A Response to a Pro-Life Atheist and the Friendly Atheist,” by Avicenna.

I know this is a hard lesson to swallow because these things look like us and indeed all of us were once foetuses. When we think of abortion we think of what would happen had WE been aborted. About all the experiences lost and all the life unlived. We never think that we would probably not care if we had been aborted or not since we would in effect have been just cells.

This idea is not abstract for me because my biological mother was fourteen when I was born. She was never taught about her own biology and did not know she was pregnant. Her period had not yet become regular and she didn’t think much of it when she missed it a few times. Finally, it was only when she began to show in the fifth month that her aunt told her she was pregnant. Even still, she was unsure how it could have happened since she thought you had to be married in order to get pregnant. If they had found out earlier, I would have most certainly been aborted. Even though it wasn’t legal at the time, her female relatives are confident that they would have been able to find a back alley abortionist.

When I say I should have been an abortion, I’m not expressing some bizarre sense of self-hate. I’m saying that what my biological mother should have done, had she had a clue that she was pregnant earlier than she did, was to have an abortion. No one would hesitate to say that I shouldn’t have been conceived. Some people may think she should have used a condom. Others may think that she should have not had sexual intercourse. However, everyone agrees that I should have not been conceived.

My biological mother had wanted to be an engineer. This wasn’t a particular crazy thought. There are engineers in her family. Her brother is today a software engineer. Instead, she dropped out of high school and worked for a number of years as a maid. She eventually went back to school and doesn’t have a bad life at all now. Of course, a few years later, in her early twenties, she found herself pregnant again and had an abortion. Since then she got married. She got her GED, the general equivalency diploma, and she went on to take courses at a community college that enabled her to get a job that paid well. It’s hard to predict the future, but many of those things might not have happened if she had been forced to bear a second child.

She never did become an engineer and sometimes I feel a little guilty about that. If I hadn’t come along, she may very well have become one. Let’s not forget, that everyone agrees that I shouldn’t have been conceived.

I’ve got to say, I never really thought that I’d be writing a post that combined those two subjects to quite the extent that they are going to be combined in this post. For the record, I’m adopted and I’m an atheist.

A few days ago, I was watching the Daily Show with my mother on her brand new tv. She’s a big Jon Stewart fan. Steve Coogan was on talking about his latest movie, Philomena. My mother said she had seen it already but she would see it again with me.

After seeing the movie last night, I asked my mother if she felt her reaction to the movie was any different being someone who adopted two children. She said that it reminded her of my birth mother. Specifically, it reminded her of the moment when she was in the offices of the adoption agency and she read the paper they had given her describing my birth mother. I have an older sister and she said that reading about her mother didn’t make her sad. My sister’s mother was in her twenties. She came from a stable family, had a career and had had an affair with her boss. My mother said, “It’s sad, but not that sad.”

“But your mother, she was just a child herself. Her parents were divorced. She was shuttled from home to home. I wanted to adopt her too. She asked the agency if there wasn’t any way that she could keep you. It just made me incredibly, incredibly sad.”

Then she turned the question on me. One moment in the movie stood out. The main character, Martin, goes to the graveyard near the home for unwed mothers run by the Roman Catholic Church and he discovers the graves of women and children who died in childbirth. The camera pans across the neglected field of black crosses over grown with weeds. Then it rests on one and the text comes into focus. “Aged 14.” The audience gasped. I thought of my biological mother who was fourteen when I was born. Thank goodness she received proper medical care when she was pregnant.

Philomena, if you haven’t yet seen it, is about a former journalist who has recently lost his job in the Labour government and is now sort of depressed or something. At loose ends and casting about for a project, he decides, rather cynically, to try a human interest story. He apparently has no interest whatsoever in the (ridiculously obvious) larger themes of the stigma of single motherhood, the power of the Roman Catholic Church, forced labor, inadequate health care, gender and class based injustices, the relative poverty of Ireland vis-a-vis the rest of the Western World, etc., etc. I mean, the Roman Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions in the world, was forcing poor Irish women into slavery, or near slavery, through contracts with the Irish government and enforced by the police who would return any escapees, allowing a disproportionate number of them, and their children, to die in childbirth, and selling their children to wealthy Americans. Really? This guy is a journalist?

Okay, so now to make a few bucks this depressed journalist decides to help a woman who was coerced to relinquish her child for adoption fifty years earlier track him down. Spoiler alert: He’s dead. However, in the end, Mr. Snottypants learns a thing a two about the indomitablity (is that a word?) of the human spirit through the simple heart of this salt-of-the-earth Irish woman. And it’s not nearly as bad as I just made it sound.

The skilled acting and excellent direction plaster over the holes in a pretty shoddy script. There’s a point when Martin and Philomena are in a field… (Why? It’s Ireland. Ireland’s green. So people drive to fields to have conversations, apparently.) They’re in a field talking about sexual pleasure. The landscape is beautiful. The sun is setting. Steven Coogan’s hair is ringed by sunlight, like an angel. Meanwhile, I’m thinking, I would so totally fuck you… it’s too bad you’re an actor… on a screen… with a wife way hotter than I am… I think Steven Coogan’s fan base of dumpy middle-aged American women just increased exponentially.

It moves along at a nice pace. My mother didn’t fall asleep once. Just when the subject starts getting a bit serious, there’s some humor to lighten it up and make it more bearable. Coogan (may I call you Steve?) is a comedian, among other things, and he co-wrote the script.

It was hard for me to enjoy the movie, to suspend disbelief, because I spent too much of the time thinking about the unspoken assumptions about society, about adoption, about atheism and about class that are whirling about this story. One critic called it a “middle-brow feel-good movie.” Apparently, the bar on feeling good must have been dramatically lowered because my mother cried throughout. So did the woman sitting on my left. Meanwhile, I’m sitting there thinking, “I don’t buy the waitress latching onto a party goer to tell him her mother’s sob story, I don’t buy him storming into the private quarters to confront nuns, and I sure as hell don’t buy that stupid bit about the Celtic harp.”

Now I feel bad. I like Steve Coogan, I mean as much as I can considering that I don’t know him. He has that sort of hang-dog look that makes you want to start petting him. Considering that this movie has been criticized by a small portion of Catholics who have seen it as “anti-Catholic,” I feel like he certainly doesn’t need me jumping on him accusing him of class bias, but it’s hard to avoid that Philomena and Martin are broadly drawn stereotypes. I mean, really, would an actual Englishman (If you’re an Englishman please feel free to comment.) sit in an Irish abbey and declare that a piece of fruit cake is like “pandolce?” Doesn’t the English writer speak English?

At one of the most grotesque moments of the movie, Martin says on the phone something to the effect of “I have now seen what a steady diet of romance novels and the Daily Mail can do to the human mind.” That pretty much sums up the movie.  Martin is smart, educated, upper middle class, professional, and an atheist. Philomena is slow, uneducated, working class and religious. Needless to say, most of the jokes come at her expense. As comic characters they work. As dramatic characters, they fall short.

I said to my mother that I felt that it wouldn’t be very hard to find individuals who are more complex. I recall once reading a book titled The Other Mother  by Carol Schaefer, about a woman who was sent to a home for unwed mothers run by the Catholic Church and, years later, searched for the son she was forced to abandon. She is in college and in a steady relationship when she gets pregnant. One of the motivations for her to place her child with another family is to be able to finish her education. She falls away from the Catholic Church, although she does not become an atheist. Birth mothers have suffered from a great deal of stereotyping. I can recall growing up having other kids taunting me telling me that my biological mother must have been stupid or a slut, sometimes that implication that I, too, must be stupid was not left unspoken. Like Carol Schaefer, the experience of having a child out-of-wedlock turned my biological mother against orthodox forms of religion. She asked the adoption agency to not place me with a religious family.

This also feeds into stereotypes about atheists, that they’re a bunch of privileged white guys. When discussing the question of religion with my mother, I said, “I imagine some of those women must have distanced themselves from the Catholic Church.” My mother suggest that perhaps it was a function of education. I pointed out that my Philomena, as a nurse, would have had a higher level of education than my biological mother.

I almost feel bad making all these criticisms about a light, funny, tear-jerker of a movie. Almost.

I was adopted through a secular agency. At twenty-four I went to the agency to try to find my biological mother. Within a month they had put me in contact with her.

A stone staircase rising alongside a hill in a park in Philadelphia.

Fun stuff from around the internet:

As we know, man domesticated dog, but cat civilized man. The history of civilization is nothing more than man’s search to serve his (and her, let’s not be sexist) feline masters (and mistresses). When we read articles about how the tablet will replace the desktop, this is clearly what they have in mind. So, here are some tips on how to improve programs for cats. (Of course it’s cute! It’s about cats!)

Hummingbirds snore.

If you’ve ever worn a bra, you will probably laugh at this: Bras We Have Known.

Neither cute, nor funny, just stupid trivia: Famous People Who Were Adopted.

As usual, if you’ve found something interesting on the internet, please share it below.