Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy

11 Jul

The following is a guest post by Sophie Grace Chappell, who is a Professor of Philosophy at the Open University

Maybe we should think of it like this: Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents. There are disanalogies of course, and the morality of adoption is a large issue in itself which I can’t do full justice to here. Still, the analogies are, I think, important and instructive.

An adoptive parent is someone who desperately wants to be a parent but can’t be one in the normal biological sense. (At any rate usually–there are families with a mix of biological and adopted children. But here I’ll focus on the commoner and simpler case.) So society has found a way for her to live the role of a parent, and to be recognised socially and legally as a parent, which kind of gets round the biological obstacle.

“Kind of”: plenty of adoptive parents report an abiding regret that they aren’t biological parents, and there can be problems on either side of the adoptive relationship. It is clear that the existence of adoptive relationships creates psychological difficulties, both for the parents and for the children, that would not otherwise exist. But these problems are not big enough to make adoption a net bad thing.

One reason why not is that adoptive parents are, in the nature of the case, deeply committed to parenting. Unlike some biological parents, they aren’t parents by accident. And by and large–though unfortunately adoptive parents do suffer *some* sorts of discrimination–society recognises and values their commitment, and accepts them for many purposes as parents like any others, though of course there are contexts (blood transfusion, organ donation, testing for inherited illness) where the fact that they’re adoptive parents makes a difference.

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s all right, when you find out that someone is an adoptive parent, to get in her face and shout “Biology! Science! You’re running away from the facts! You’re delusional! You’re not a real parent!” That would be incredibly rude and insensitive. It would upset her family. It would be importantly false: there is a perfectly good sense in which an adoptive parent most certainly is a real parent. Yet since this aggressive accusation is also, alas, only too intelligible to the parent who is subjected to it, it would also be stamping up and down in the crassest and cruellest way on what anyone can see at once is very very likely to be a sore point for her. (Here I speak, I’m sorry to say, from personal experience of analogous shoutings.)

Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.

Nobody sensible thinks that, if you refer to an adoptive parent as a non-parent, then you don’t owe it to that parent, as a matter of basic courtesy, to retract, correct, and apologise.

Nobody sensible thinks that the existence of adoptive parents undermines our understanding of what it is to be a parent. On the contrary, it *extends* it.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are, typically and as such, a threat to other parents. Or that they only went in for adoptive parenting as a way to get their hands on vulnerable children or vulnerable parents. Of course it’s not impossible that someone who is an adoptive parent might be bad or dangerous in either or both of these ways, and of course it would then be right to protect ourselves and other potential victims from that person. But if that happened, it wouldn’t throw any shade on adoptive parenthood itself, as such.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s *automatically* a problem about having adoptive parents in parents-only spaces. There might be some special spaces that should indeed be reserved for biological parents only–pre- and post-natal groups, for instance, or a group like this that helped us when we had a still-born child in 1995 We should be prepared to listen carefully and sympathetically to the case that might be made sometimes for biological-parents-only spaces. But in general, adoptive parents have similar enough concerns and interests to biological parents for it to be, in most cases, both natural and useful to include them in such spaces.

Nobody sensible thinks that adoptive parents are necessarily buying into an oppressive ideological agenda of parenthood, and, by their choice to be parents, imposing that agenda on other parents. There are oppressive ideological agendas about parenthood; of course there are. But to be an adoptive parent is not necessarily to buy into them. It might even be a way of subverting them.

Nobody sensible thinks that there’s just one right way to be a good adoptive parent, any more than there is a unique right way to be a good parent in general. Though there are some things that have to be in common between all good parents, there are lots of different ways of being a good parent. The broad schema of what parenthood is, adoptive or not, is set by biology and sociology. But sociology can certainly be challenged and often should be (fighting back is called politics), and even biology is not always just to be accepted (fighting back is called medicine). Within the general role of “a good parent”, there is all sorts of room and scope for creativity, self-expression, and imaginative invention and re-invention.

We don’t always know, on meeting some parent, whether she is an adoptive parent or a biological parent. Often there are visible clues and give-aways, or at least we can see things that make us strongly suspect an adoptive relationship. But in most contexts it would be rude and intrusive to ask. The implicit social convention is loud and clear: you don’t ask, you wait to be told. But when we know all the facts about any parent, we know which they are without any difficulty.

In our society the role of adoptive parent is almost completely uncontested. (Almost, though there can be some resistance, and it can be unreasonably hard to get into the role in the first place.) If you’re an adoptive parent, you’re a parent–for most purposes–and no one sensible scratches their head over that, or decrees that you can’t sit on school parents’ councils, or sees it as somehow dangerous or threatening or undermining of “real parents” or dishonest or deceptive or delusional or a symptom of mental illness or a piece of embarrassing and pathetic public make-believe. On the contrary, people just accept you as a parent, and value your commitment to parenthood as an important contribution to the well-being of our society that you could not have made if you didn’t have the psychological set-up that you do.

Philosophical Technicalities

“Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents”, I said. So is that a “subsetting relationship”, to use the philosophical jargon? Do I mean that transwomen are a subset of women, that being a transwoman is one way of being a woman? Or do I mean a relationship between two different categories–transwomen aren’t literally *women*, but they are something closely related, maybe analogically related as Aquinas would say (Summa Theologiae, Prima Pars, Q13)?

Well, it depends what you want to talk about. For some purposes, sure transwomen are “really women”, just as adoptive parents are “really parents”. For other purposes the relation is indeed analogical rather than literal inclusion.

But maybe we could follow the philosopher Derek Parfit (Reasons & Persons circa p.262) and say that “once we know all the facts”, the further question “Are they really women?” is an “empty question”.

Or maybe we can say what I would want to say, which is related to Parfit’s move, but different: that the question is not empty at all, but it has different substantive answers for different substantive purposes. And provided we keep the score carefully in our language-game(s), there’s no reason at all why anyone should be confused about any of the semantic-logical ins and outs of “transwoman”. Any more than they are with “adoptive parent”.


9 Responses to “Transwomen and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy”

  1. Constance Gardener July 11, 2018 at 4:13 pm #

    I think this piece is a very helpful analogy, as far as it goes. But one way it breaks down that you don’t mention is that no adoptive parents are trying to force people to abandon all sorts of ordinary language or discussion of shared experiences, or insisting on redefining ordinary language in the way that trans activists are. In a world where ‘women’ are called ‘uterus owners’, cervical smear tests are done on ‘cervix owners’, and so on and tediously on, women start to get a bit peeved. I don’t hear adoptive parents complaining about prenatal classes, or insisting that no one talks of giving birth.
    Secondly, the hardest ‘are trans women women’ question, it seems to me, is ‘are trans women members of the class of people that lesbians are attracted to?’ This isn’t the same as: does a lesbian have to sleep with a trans woman – obviously not. No one has to sleep with any particular person, or even find them attractive. The question is whether it is ‘transphobic’ or ‘trans-exclusionary’ for a lesbian woman to say – I’m only attracted to natal women. Lots of trans people and activists think so; lots of lesbians say their attraction is homoSEXual, not homoGENDERal.

  2. mstrinkovsky July 12, 2018 at 11:16 am #

    I think what Constance says about language modification (or “concept engineering” as Kathleen Stock calls it) is important, not just because language policing is an aggressive and entitled thing to do, but also because the genesys of this policing is the claim that non-trans women *no longer have a legitimate claim to the term women*. So we are told we must use the modifier “cis” because “woman” is no longer a term that properly applies to us. And that’s more than just words: in your analogy it would be the same as saying all non-adoptive parents must use the modifier “biological/birth parents” because the term “parents” to refer to biological parents is exclusionary and detrimental to th eliberation of someone else. The further analogy would be a demand that non-adoptive fathers relinquish the term (now inclusive of adoptive and non-adoptive fathers) and refer to themselves as “sperm providers”. There is more than a change of language there, but a demand that people reconceptualise very intimate physical facts about themselves.

    Where the analogy really breaks down though is of course with self-ID. No sane person anywhere would dream of making justice for adoptive parents contingent on them being able to self-declare themselves as parents to a specific child[1] without the intervention of the state or any outside regulating agency. Yet this is the very change that ia currently being campaigned for in the case of gender.

    [1] Or parents /without/ the presence of a specific child – as you say, the categories can be played with, and if Alex Drummon can be a lesbian with a beard, why shouldn;t I be a mother without a child?

  3. Justin July 16, 2018 at 1:18 pm #

    One seemingly significant disanalogy between the two cases is that transwomen claim that they have always been women, and transmen that they have always been men, long before they sought social recognition of that fact. But it wouldn’t make sense for a parent (biological or adoptive) to claim that they have always been parents, or always felt like parents, before they actually had a child (by giving birth or by adopting).

  4. houinkyouma July 17, 2018 at 7:39 pm #

    Nobody sensible thinks that it’s an infraction of Jordan Peterson’s human rights to impose on him a social, ethical, and sometimes even legal requirement that he call adoptive parents parents.

    Mightn’t he reasonably refuse to be compelled to use speech he doesn’t choose to? And if he preferred ‘adoptive parents’ to ‘parents’ you may disagree but is it a position impossible for a sensible person to take?

  5. M Merk July 18, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

    To become an adoptive father, I had to appear before court, together with my (adopted) daughter. We were inquired as to private details, our long term family relationship etc. In the end, I was permitted to be adoptive father.

    What would, in your opinion, be the required legal process to transition from legal “man” to “(trans) woman”?

    • tom July 20, 2018 at 5:31 am #

      I agree with Justin

      Transwomen seem to me more like a Parents that is searching for thier lost biological child.

      An adoption is a not an innate relationship , is a willed choice of a relation you never had.

      With Transwomen its an innate one sided relation that is missing the other side.

  6. Miranda Yardley July 20, 2018 at 3:24 pm #

    Adoptive parents form the role of a parent, that of raising the child within their family, (hopefully) making the child feel loved and providing a supportive foundation for their evolution into adulthood.

    A woman is a member of the female reproductive class. She is inculated into sex-based cultural stereotypes which prepare her for that role, and to support the husband she is supposed to take.

    The ‘trans woman’ claims to be a woman and this is based on ‘feeling like a woman’, this claim materialises by reference to those cultural stereotypes above, even though the ‘trans woman’ has benefited from generally positive male cultural stereotypes.

    The claim to be ‘feeling like a woman’ is comparable to Wittgenstein’s ‘beetle in a box’ or Nagel’s ‘how is it like to be a bat’. What is known about the etiology of transgender behaviour suggests the ‘trans woman’ may be confusing ‘feeling like a woman’ with ‘feeling sexy’. I am not kidding.

    Perhaps ‘cuckoo in the nest’ would be a better analogy.


  1. Mini-Heap - Daily Nous - July 16, 2018

    […] “Transwomen are to women as adoptive parents are to parents” — is this a useful analogy? Sophie Grace Chappell (Open U.) thinks so. […]

  2. Trans Women/Men and Adoptive Parents: An Analogy | Blog of the APA - July 20, 2018

    […] earlier version of this article was originally posted by Sophie-Grace Chappell on Facebook, then hosted on Philip Goff’s website. The post, in edited and expanded format, is reposted on the APA blog with Sophie-Grace’s […]

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