Friday, 23 November 2012

New book chapter available open access: The Best Interest of Children and the Basis of Family Policy: The issue of reproductive caring units

As some of you may recall, a little while ago, I flagged a forthcoming book called Families: Beyond the Nuclear Ideal (edited by daniela Cutas and Sarah Chan and published by Bloomsbury Academic in its Science, Ethics and Society series), where I have a chapter, together with my colleague Thomas Hartvigsson. What I was perhaps not entirely clear about is that, in fact, this chapter and – indeed! – the rest of the book is avaliable open access for reading and non-commercial sharing under a Creative Commons lisence, while the book can also be purchased as both hardcopy and e-book in the regular fashion. To me, a rather clever solution for trying to combine the commercial requirements of running a publishing business and still satisfy the very sound and strong arguments for having all sort of research material and academic output freely available for anyone.

Our chapter is called "The Best Interest of Children and the Basis of Family Policy: The issue of reproductive caring units" and deals with an issue that we introduce, thus:

The notion of the best interest of children figures prominently in family and reproductive policy discussions and there is a considerable body of empirical research attempting to connect the interests of children to how families and society interact. Most of this research regards the effects of societal responses to perceived problems in families, thus underlying policy on interventions such as adoption, foster care and temporary assumption of custodianship, but also support structures that help families cope with various challenges. However, reference to the best interest of children can also be applied to a more basic issue in family policy, namely that of what is to be considered a family in the first place. This issue does not raise any questions regarding the proper conditions for when society should intervene in or change the family context of a child. Rather, it is about what social configurations should be recognized as a potentially fitting context for children to enter into and (if all goes well) eventually develop into adulthood within. Any social configuration so recognized constitutes what we will call a reproductive caring unit (RCU). An RCU is a social configuration such that society's default institutional arrangements allow it to have (by sexual and artificial reproduction, adoption, and combinations of these), care for and/or guard children – the approved RCUs thereby being the basic ‘menu’ of what families with children there may be in society. Opinions on what should be allowed to be an RCU will frame any further discussion of the questions already mentioned, but also policies having further implications for, for example, the practices of adoption and reproductive technology, as well as regulation of custody in the event of separation or parental disagreement.
There is a communicative problem involved in talking about this issue in terms of the word ‘family’, however. Due to a combination of biological necessities, socio-economic and developmental circumstances, prejudice and custom, people around the world tend to associate this term with the presence of romantic or sexual relationships (between adults) and/or genetic links (between adults and children). However, the question indicated above does not necessarily imply such things to be in place in the case of a legitimate RCU. What should be awarded the standing of a family in this sense, then, may be something that many people find strange to call a family. At the same time, if you ask the question whether a single mother and her adopted child, or four adult siblings living together and caring for a foster child could constitute fitting social arrangements for children to enter and develop within, people would not (we presume) rule out this question as empty just because the word ‘family’ seems odd to apply to them. Rather, we suggest, social configurations within which children are raised are called ‘families’ as we tend to view them as legitimate RCUs. Thus, to the extent that there are reasons to allow RCUs not involving the ingredients of romantic/sexual relations or genetic linkage, this will be a reason to change linguistic practice.
The question we want to address, then, is about what is implied by arguments in terms of the best interest of children for the issue of what should be allowed to be a family in the sense of an RCU. This is a question not about particular cases, but about general institutional arrangements. Society needs policies as to what RCUs to allow and within these frames, any single initially legitimate RCU may be found unfitting for serving this purpose, just as in the case with dysfunctional ‘nuclear families’. Arguments about what is in the best interest of the concerned children in such cases can (and should) be brought to bear on this issue. However, as will be seen, these arguments involve quite different considerations compared to when assessments in terms of the best interest of children are applied to the issue of RCUs.

If you feel tempted by this, please just click on the chapter link, and read it in its entirety, as well as the other contributions to this book, by authors such as Adrienne Asch, David Gurnham, Paul D. Hastings, Kerry Lynn Macintosh, Julie McCandless, Melinda Roberts, Joanna E. Scheib, Mary Lyndon Shanley, Naura Irene Strassberg, and several others.

And if you like that, please consider buying the book, or at least liking its Facebook page, or in other ways contributing to spreading awareness of its availability. Thank you!