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It's children, not parents - straight or homosexual - who are important

Gay adoption has always seemed to me to be a step too far.

Marriage, sure. A couple's genuine commitment is worthy of legal recognition. But adoption puts a child in the front line of a social challenge. I'm not sure that is fair.

It is not clear what sort of parentage was envisaged when the National Party's northern conference voted last weekend for gay couples in a civil union to be legally entitled to adopt, or precisely what is in a bill that Auckland Central MP Nikki Kaye says she has been working on with the Greens' Kevin Hague.


It might go no further than to let a woman be a legal parent of a child born to her partner, which would be a fine thing to do. But in the name of gender equality it probably would allow a male couple to be legal parents too.

The Prime Minister was enthused by the conference vote. He said it showed the party was modern. His Government might even sponsor the bill, ensuring it gets on Parliament's agenda, though MPs would have an independent "conscience" vote on any application to same sex couples.

Key must be encouraged by the public response so far. In the little discussion I've heard a consensus seems to agree with Kaye that the suitability of adoptive parents has nothing to do with their sexuality. As long as a child has a safe and loving home, nothing else matters.

But I can't help wondering what happens when the child goes to school. Other children might not be as modern as the northern region of the National Party.

When the child goes to school I dare say a new entrants' teacher will get the class seated on the mat and talk to them happily about all the different kinds of parents people can have, and mention, by the way, that Billy has two fathers.

I don't think this would help Billy one bit, especially when the kids later innocently ask him whether he has two mothers too, or just one mother, or what? And things will only get harder when the class enters puberty and the kids are becoming much more intrigued by Billy's household than they used to be.

True, worse things can happen to a child and much worse does happen at the hands of incompetent heterosexual parents, as we often read. But none of that hardship is the intended consequence of a deliberate act of Parliament.

Those who say the state should sanction adoption by male couples will argue that children are resilient and that so many these days grow up in reconstituted families or in other complicated arrangements that those adopted by two men will not be unduly troubled. I'd like to be sure.

It worries me that questions such as this will not be asked in Parliament or anywhere else because it is not fashionable to imply that homosexuality carries any stigma any more. But the hard fact is, it does.

It is still the one human condition that can be defamatory. If a newspaper ascribes to you the wrong race, religion, age or gender you are unlikely to sue, or win much in damages if you did. But it dares not describe you as gay unless you have declared yourself to be.

If a gay adoption bill appears and proceeds to a conscience vote in Parliament, legislators should carefully assess the prevailing social climate as it is, not as they think it should be.

Their experience of civil unions might tempt them to believe that this sort of legislation can be passed for the sake of a principle without much practical consequence. There have been remarkably few civil union ceremonies in the years since Parliament extended marriage in that form to same-sex couples.

Adoption generally has become rare since the advent of the pill, easy abortion and benefits for sole parents. Gays applying to adoption agencies these days would join a sad waiting room of young heterosexual couples who have also been penalised by nature.

If the Kaye-Hague bill is going to ask agencies to disregard the sexual orientation of applicants when they assess their suitability, I think it would be asking too much. Since it mainly aims to update the law on surrogacy and other reproductive variants it might concentrate on adoptions that same-sex couples arrange for themselves.

A liberal society cannot prevent private adoptions but when it is asked to sanction them with law it has to be careful.

Adoption does not exist for adults' status or acceptance.

It is not a banner for equal rights or a test of whether someone is modern, liberal or young. It is a decision that shapes a life.

It should not use children as shock troops for social change.