LAST FRIDAY, on an allegedly free vote, the House of Commons accepted an amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill which would permit unmarried couples to adopt children. The reason given for this proposed development is that more children ought to be adopted; and that since — so it is claimed (in the teeth of the evidence) — not enough prospective adoptive parents can be found who are married, the legalisation of adoptions by cohabitees is an urgent necessity.
Certainly, far more children ought to be given the stability of life in a loving family. It has for some time now been common ground across the political spectrum (except among those who man local authority departments of social services) that far too many children are in the care of "the community"; and that for a child to be "taken into care" has a massively adverse effect on his or her chances of a halfway decent life thereafter. In the words of the sociologist Dr Patricia Morgan (in her definitive book Adoption and the Care of Children): "There is little doubt that care children are the most disadvantaged of the child population." Another study found that care is "insecure and unstable, subjecting children to repeated changes of placement and caretakers, or to institutional environments where emotional links are hard to forge". A high percentage of those who sleep rough on the streets have been in care; a child left in care is 50 times more likely than other children to end up in prison; a quarter of all girls leaving care are or have been pregnant.
So it is vital that more children be found suitable adoptive parents. The question is not whether or not unmarried couples ("gay" or "straight") ought, as a matter of their own human rights, to be allowed jointly to adopt: the question — the only question — ought to be whether or not this is in the interests of the child. And all the evidence indicates clearly that only relationships based on marriage have the necessary degree of predictability and permanence.
As Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham commented this week: "The present debate must centre on the good of the child.... Stability and permanence of loving care are most important to the well-being of the child. Such stability is best underpinned by marriage. If a couple are willing to give a public and life-long commitment to a child in adoption, why are they not also willing to give a public and life-long commitment to each other in marriage?"
It is an excellent question: and one answer has to be that in many if not most cases the couple concerned will not marry precisely to make it easier to be free of each other, if they decide at any time that that is what they would like to do.
But speculation on such questions is beside the point; the simple fact is in the end that there is overwhelming evidence for the intrinsic instability of unmarried cohabiting relationships. One recent study found that there are "high rates of dissolution. For example...only 76 per cent of cohabiting relationships survive the first year....After. three years, only slightly over 40 per cent of cohabitiations...have survived. After five years, the proportion surviving is down to 28 per cent....". The study goes on to ask the all-important question: "How fragile are these relationships compared to marriages?" The answer is unambiguous: "approximately 90 per cent of first marriages are expected to survive for 10 years. The comparable figure for cohabitations is only 12 per cent. There is no doubt that cohabiting unions are more vulnerable and less stable than marital unions."
If Parliament flies in the face of public opinion by adding — to the instability of all unmarried relationships — the hazards for a child of being adopted by a homosexual couple, it will add, to the deadly dangers of impermanence, other difficulties, including the high likelihood of being singled out for hostile attention by schoolfellows with heterosexual parents — a danger which has already become apparent in a number of cases when a divorced birth parent cohabits with a gay lover.
Above all else, this is not a question of "gay rights". In 1998, Jack Straw, then Home Secretary, opposed gay adoptions because "we should not see children as trophies". Last November, the Health Minister Jacqui Smith told Parliament that "the Adoption Law Review ... concluded that joint adoption should remain limited to married couples on the grounds that adoption by a married couple was more likely to provide the stability and security that the child needed because married couples have made a joint, publicly recognised legal commitment to each other".
Precisely so. The question now has to be "what has changed"? Are there — as some suggest — murky political considerations here, to do with the internal dynamics of the Parliamentary Labour Party? We could not possibly comment.
But one thing is quite clear. If this appalling amendment survives and becomes law, the price will be paid in the shattered lives of children who have already had the odds stacked heavily against them. Those Members of Parliament who voted for the amendment will bear a heavy burden of guilt: those of them who claim to be practising Catholics (we publish their names on page 1) have particular reason to feel thoroughly ashamed of themselves.
They do, it is true, have this excuse: no Catholic bishop gave any guidance on the matter before the vote; and after it, such episcopal comment as we could elicit was (with only one possible exception) woefully deficient in either intellectual content or moral clarity.
The only Catholic spokesman prepared to stick his head over the parapet and to issue a firm and unambiguous condemnation of these pernicious amendments was Jim Richards, director of the Catholic Children's Society (Westminster), who made repeated media appearances in order to say what had to be said. His was a lonely and courageous voice, and we all owe him a debt of gratitude.