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Rainbow families caught in ethical storm

In Switzerland, it is estimated that at least 6,000 children are being raised in lesbian or gay families AFP

While France remains divided after the approval of a “marriage for all” law, the Swiss parliament is also reconsidering gay rights, focusing this time on adoption. A proposed legislative change is raising as many ethical as scientific questions.

“Various studies in the United States show there are no differences in the sexual orientation, construction of identity or social representation of children raised by two people of the same sex,” says Nicolas Favez, a psychology professor at Geneva University.

“However, most researchers are limited to those children who are born into a straight family but grow up in a gay one following a divorce. In these cases, the child has from birth two reference figures: one male and one female.”

Favez points out that very little scientific work has been carried out on those children born into a gay or lesbian household – precisely the sort of “rainbow family” on which the adoption debate is focusing.

Interacting with a man and a woman is fundamental for a child’s development, according to Gianluca Magnolfi, a psychiatrist, psycho-educational centre coordinator in canton Ticino and consultant on adoption.

“In this sense, it’s legitimate to ask whether problems could arise with homosexual couples. However, the important thing is that in their social network children can find reference points regarding both sexes.”

Magnolfi says the situation is like when an unmarried single person wants to adopt a child. In Switzerland, this is currently possible only if the potential adopter is over 35 years old.

“Children have a fundamental need for a figure who can look after them. In our culture, that’s usually a woman with whom the child builds a dialogue made of sounds, looks and movements,” he said.

“The research undertaken in the field of adoption – now carried out in every western country – shows that it’s possible to build a parental bond even when there isn’t a biological bond. Biological children aren’t children more than non-biological ones.”

In Switzerland, same-sex couples are forbidden from seeking fertility treatment or adopting, including the biological children of a partner. In the case of a lesbian couple, if the sperm donor recognises the child, the female partner has no legal right over the child.

However, Swiss law permits a single gay man or lesbian woman to do so. This peculiar situation – which essentially punishes couples who have made a formal legal commitment to each other – is what sparked gay rights’ groups to ask legislators to amend the law.

In 2011, they handed in a petition with 19,000 signatures, calling for equal opportunities for all families.

The text, which became a bill, was adopted, so to speak, by the House of Representatives in December 2012. However, it was not as liberal as the original version approved by the Senate.

The Senate had approved a motion granting adoption rights regardless of marital status or sexual orientation, as long as the arrangement was the best option for the child in question. However, the House of Representatives altered the motion – specifying that a homosexual could only adopt the child of his or her partner.

Once approved by parliament, the amendment to law can be challenged by a popular initiative, a tactic already used by the Evangelical Party and the rightwing Swiss People’s Party in 2005 to counter the registered partnership law.

Social landscape

In Switzerland, there are an estimated 6,000-30,000 children in rainbow (LGBT) families. There are various permutations: gay or lesbian couples who raise their own children as a foursome; two men or two women who live on their own; adoptive children who come from abroad, from a surrogate mother or from a previous marriage.

Children of homosexual couples are therefore an integral part of a social landscape in which the so-called traditional family seems to have lost its dominance a long time ago.

Like any child growing up in a minority context – and not fully accepted by society – the psycho-social consequences can sometimes prove difficult, Favez said.

“What counts is that these rainbow families don’t keep any secrets but can explain freely to their children where they came from and how to react with other people.”

The issue of origins is another central topic of child psychology, agrees Gianluca Magnolfi.

“Parents should be able to offer their children a credible story and to help them make sense of it,” he said, adding that the risk when debating this issue is of falling into talk of right or wrong families.

“It’s clear that for centuries our culture has been based on a certain type of family, but whether we like it or not, we now have to deal with other types of reality.”


But dealing with these rainbow families does not mean recognising them by pushing through laws, according to Denis Müller, a theologian and professor of ethics at Geneva University.

“I’m not against gays or lesbians raising children, but they can’t be considered real parents. The state should send a clear message: a child is the result of two people of opposite sexes. To admit the opposite would mean introducing ambiguity into the concept of parenthood which is the foundation of our society.”

This view is not shared by another professor of ethics at Geneva University, François Dermange.

“The current law is discriminatory,” he said. “If one believes that it’s not necessary to have parents of opposite sexes to raise a child, then this right [to adopt] should also be extended to homosexuals. And not only to the partner of the biological parent.”

But he warns that Switzerland should bear in mind that the right to adopt is often the start of a broader debate, of an ethical and cultural nature.

“If the state recognises gay parents as a beneficial structure for society and for the passing from one generation to another, then it should also allow these couples to have children,” he said.

“And this is where the debate starts on fertility treatment, surrogacy and even cloning. Because the moment when we accept that we no longer need a link between sexuality, procreation and filiation [being descended from someone], we’re faced with various paths. Some relatively acceptable, others less so.”

Adoption by same-sex couples and fertility treatment for gays and lesbians wanting children is guaranteed in law in Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Britain, Spain, Argentina and in various states or regions of the United States, Canada and Australia.

In Germany, “stepchild adoption” is permitted under certain conditions – the partner in a registered partnership can adopt the natural (or sometimes even adopted) child of his or her partner.

In France, President Hollande has pushed through a campaign promise to support gay marriage and adoption. This, however, recently triggered protests in Paris of hundreds of thousands of opponents, mostly rightwingers and religious people. Supporters also took to the streets.

(Translated from Italian by Thomas Stephens)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR