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Adoption and the golden rule

In a recently published book, ‘When the Bough breaks’, Julia Hollander
describes her difficult decision to give up her severely disabled
daughter Imogen to foster care. Her decision has been roundly
criticised by some
, who have described her choice as ‘selfish’ and

We have good reason to admire parents who are able to care for children
like Imogen. The challenges that they face are enormous, and the
personal sacrifices that they make are often extraordinary. But should
we demand parents sacrifice their own interests, those of their other
children and their partners? What weight should we put on the interests
of future children – who would not be born if the parents continue to
care for this child?

Some actions are judged to be morally good, but are nevertheless not ones that we expect every individual to do. For example, it is morally good for a doctor to give up his practice, move overseas and to work for an overseas aid agency like medecins sans frontieres. It is also morally good for someone to give away all of their money and possessions to a charity. However we do not think that such extraordinarily good acts are required of all of us. It can be still morally good for us to do less than this (perhaps for the doctor to do some volunteer work in the local community, or for someone to give away 10% of his income to charity). In part that is a recognition that such actions go above and beyond what is required for us to be good citizens or good people. It is also a recognition that there are other causes and interests that are affected by our decision. (For example, there are friends, family and patients who might be affected by a doctor’s decision to move overseas). Acts like these are sometimes called ‘supererogatory’.

In a similar way it seems that for a parent like Julia Hollander, who was faced with the break-up of her marriage, the loss of her career, the breakdown of her relationship with her other daughter, it may have been a morally good thing for her to continue to care for Imogen. However this sacrifice is more than can be reasonably expected. One way of understanding Julia’s choice is that it was also morally good for her to do less – in the case in point to give Imogen over to foster care.

However an alternative way of looking at Julia’s choice might yield the conclusion that she made the best choice available to her. A fundamental ethical principle, common to many schools of ethics is the so-called golden rule

“when faced with a decision which affects the interests of different people, we should treat the interests of all of these people (including ourselves if we are affected) as of equal weight, and do the best that we can for them”(1).

In this case there were several interests that were highly likely to be adversely affected if Imogen had stayed with her birth family. On the other hand, it is not clear how strong Imogen’s interest was in being cared for by her birth mother as opposed to a foster carer. If we are to treat interests equally it is not clear that Imogen’s interests should outweigh the interests of other members of the family. In fact Julia Hollander vividly describes her, and her partner’s feelings of anger and frustration, and their real concern that Imogen may come to harm if she stayed with them. Given this, it seems that her decision to give Imogen to foster care (assuming that she had reason to believe that Imogen would be well-cared for) was the best choice available to her, and that it would have been wrong for her to keep Imogen.

One final thought. Since her decision, Julia and her partner have had another child Beatrice, a child who almost certainly would not have been born had Imogen stayed with her birth family. Beatrice has gained enormously from having been born, she has a strong interest in her having come into existence. If Beatrice’s interests count in choices like Julia’s they may be decisive. A strong interest in coming into existence would seem to outweigh a mild interest in being cared for by a biological as opposed to a foster parent. On this basis, the golden rule may direct families to adopt or foster out their disabled children.

(1) RM Hare The Abnormal Child in Bioethics, an anthology (Ed P Singer, H Kuhse) Blackwell 2005 p330-333

When the Bough Breaks – Amazon

Writer Julia Hollander on her painful decision to hand over her daughter to foster care Guardian 8/3/08

Brave to give up a baby? Never India Knight Sunday Times 9/3/08

‘I had to give my baby away’ Daily Mail 1/3/08

Behind the child – blog by the foster carer of Imogen

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5 Comment on this post

  1. I agree with most of this interesting post, but just on two points:

    First, I’m not sure that looking after one’s own child could be called a supererogatory project. Parents have a duty to look after their own children, however they happen to turn out. So to look after them is not above and beyond duty’s call. In this case, there’s probably a very good excuse why the mother cannot fulfill her duty. The costs to her own well-being would be too high, and she judges (quite possibly rightly) that her disabled daughter would suffer in her care. To me that seems a good enough excuse to transfer the duty of care to a foster parent. But if the foster relationship breaks down then it would revert to the natural parents. To have an excuse not to fulfill a duty oneself and to make arrangements for a surrogate to fulfill it is different from not having the duty at all.

    Secondly, in the weighing of interests, I wonder in what coherent sense Beatrice herself (as distinct from her parents) has gained from her having been born. I don’t see that before we exist we have an interest in coming into existence or that we can be said to lose anything by not coming into existence. If something has interests – can suffer harm, benefit, loss or gain – then it must already exist. Otherwise we would harm all the potential children we might have but choose not to. It’s a tricky area, of course..

  2. I urge anyone interested in this debate to read my book. The articles that have appeared in the press give only a very superficial rendition of the dilemmas I faced as Imogen’s parent. The Sunday Times opinion piece had many of its facts wrong; the Mail, through extraordinarily liberal editing, presented an exceedingly warped version of the story. Please, if you are serious about analysing this situation, consider the 250 pages of context available to you in ‘When the Bough Breaks’.

  3. Dominic Wilkinson


    the question is not whether parents’ duty to look after their children is supererogatory in ordinary circumstances. Parents often give up a good deal of their own wellbeing, projects and goals for the sake of their children. And we might well feel that parents had not lived up to their moral duty if they chose not make some sacrifices for their children. Rather it is whether parents are morally obliged to make extraordinary personal sacrifices for their child, for example in order to meet the demands of looking after a child who is profoundly disabled. Is a parent obliged to give up their life for the sake of a child? For example, imagine if a child had kidney failure, required long term dialysis, and there was no prospect of a cadaveric organ being available anytime soon. One of the parents is blood group and HLA matched, and would be able to provide a donor organ, but this parent (the mother) has only one kidney. If she donates her kidney to her child she herself will have to go on dialysis, and puts herself at significant risk of serious illness and death. We would admire a parent who made this sacrifice for their child, but should we demand it of them? What if there were someone else (non-related) who matched (but less well) with the child, and was willing to donate one of their (two) kidneys?

    In terms of your second point, as a society we respect that some parents reach this decision, and make provisions to care for children whose parents are not able (for a variety of reasons) to care for them. If foster care were to break down for a child like Imogen, her parents might feel able to take over her care once more. However I do not think that they would be obliged to do so.


  4. I think the dilemma of whether this is a supererogatory duty or not can be seen if we compare this scenario, with a teenaged mother whose child is completely normal. In some ways it may be better if the child is raised by someone else… But a teen can still raise a child…
    I think the more interesting question is can someone have a moral obligation NOT to raise a child that they have. Could a teenaged mother, or in this case Julia, have a moral obligation NOT to raise their child because perhaps they cannot provide for their child as well as someone else?
    I think this is intresting, because I think a lot of people share this belief, but at the same time, rarely do we think of the reprocussions of accepting such a belief. Wouldn’t all of our children be better off if they were raised by someone else other than us? I mean there is always someone more qualified than ourselves no?

  5. Dom

    Yes, I agree we wouldn’t demand the extraordinary sacrifice in the example, or (quite probably) in the real case in question. We wouldn’t demand it of the parent – nor would we demand it, or even a lesser sacrifice, of a complete stranger. If a stranger were to make the sacrifice it would be admirable but not required; and if the parent were to make it, it would also be admirable, but not required.

    But perhaps there is a distinction between the self-sacrificial act of a stranger and of a parent in both the imaginary and the real case. I’m suggesting that in the case of a stranger there is no duty at all toward the child. There would be an admirable sense of charity and an enlarged sensibility towards humanity in general. In the case of the parent, there is a duty to look after the child, however great its needs and whatever the sacrifice required. But we don’t demand the fulfillment of the duty because there is a very good excuse not to, i.e. that both child and parent would suffer unreasonably as a result. This distinction is perhaps marked by the fact that whilst a parent may feel it appropriate to explain why they did not make an extraordinary sacrifice (and there may well be excellent reasons why they did not), no such explanation is called for from others, strangers, who might have stepped into help out of charity.

    Of course some people would say that even the stranger has a duty to help, if she can do some good.

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