Book Review: Them Before Us
We live in a society that prioritizes choice to the extent that marriage has become whatever you want to make it. Children are subject to this redefinition of marriage and family structure and are impacted the most by the breakdown of a marriage and the biblical family. Many times, our focus is on the importance of traditional marriage for adults (and that’s a good focus). Katy Faust & Stacy Manning, in their book Them Before Us, shift focus away from adults and instead examine the impact that broken or redefined families have on children, looking at children’s needs rather than adult’s desires.
Who Is Them Before Us?
Them Before Us is an organization founded by Katy Faust (also the author of the book Them Before Us) and it combines an odd coalition of supporters including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, homosexuals, heterosexuals, people who have participated in donor conception, surrogacy, or divorce, or those who have been on the receiving end of these issues. This broad range of perspectives provides a fascinating insight into the world of child rights advocacy and the possibility of broader appeal when pursuing this focus.
What’s the Book About?
Them Before Us encourages the reader to consider the effects of our culture’s singular focus on the desires of adults in terms of marriage and family structure. Instead of an adult-centric narrative, this book exhorts us to put the rights and needs of Them (children) before Us (adults).
Them Before Us is based on the idea that children have a natural right to their parents. Parents who are not biologically related to their children are less connected and invested in the children. Mothers and fathers are both essential to the family unit. Ultimately, the redefinition of marriage and parenting has caused major problems in society, and this book provides the perspectives of kids, teenagers, and adults who have been on the receiving end of broken families. “Children who’ve paid the high price of admission for their parents’ playtime at the sexual-freedom circus find the celebration of the ‘modern family’ joyless” (p. 94). Existing social problems, such as low graduation rates, high incarceration rates, and massive expansions to welfare caseloads “are rooted in the breakdown of the family – more specifically, in fatherless homes.” (p. 13). The authors recognize that parental loss “is not a new phenomenon, but adults’ prioritizing their desires over the rights of their children is specific to modern society” (p. 25).
Them Before Us is very readable, including many first-hand stories that children from broken families have shared. Additionally, it explains various studies and statistics which point to the impacts of broken families on these children. For supporters of traditional marriage and family, Them Before Us provides a helpful and unique perspective by looking not just at why it is wrong to redefine marriage to include cohabitation, same-sex marriage, no-fault divorce, etc. but shifts the focus to the large-scale impact it has on children.
Faust and Manning apply this concept of putting the rights of children before the desires of adults in many different and increasingly prevalent family scenarios. “This book will examine the distinct struggles children in the three groups – divorce or abandonment, sperm and/or egg donation and surrogacy, and same-sex parents – have faced. But there is one constant in every category: The children have been required to make sacrifices to accommodate the adults” (p. xxxiv). Each of these family structures deprives children of the right to be raised by their biological father and mother.
Divorce and abandonment are the obvious examples of how a child is deprived of one of their parents. In these situations, one parent intentionally leaves their children or, at least, makes it harder for them to keep in regular contact. Although step-parents may attempt to fill the breach left by the exodus of one parent, the authors cite numerous stories and academic literature to demonstrate that step-parents don’t care for their step-children as well as biological parents.
Another particularly interesting point is the rebuttal of a common idea that donor conception and surrogacy are similar to adoption because in both cases the child is separated from at least one of their natural parents. The author recognizes that adopted children still experience loss, but “adopted children are raised by adults who seek to mend the child’s primal wound while surrogate-born and donor-conceived children are raised by the adults responsible for inflicting the primal wound” (p. 190). Faust and Manning are therefore strongly against donor conception and surrogacy, in contrast to our modern culture’s perception that this is a loving option. They argue that both donor conception and surrogacy “transforms an adult’s longing for a child into a child who is longing for his or her missing parent(s) (p. 168).
In the case of same-sex marriage, Faust and Manning argue that same-sex parents can be good parents, but that by definition they deprive a child of one parent. Instead of being raised by a father and a mother, the children are raised by two fathers or two mothers. This leaves them without the unique love and care that a mother provides or without the unique strength and guidance that a father provides. Them Before Us argues that, since marriage is “a pro-child institution, not a gay-versus-straight issue” (p. 216), everyone can (and should!) support traditional families.
A Missed Opportunity?
Although the author of Them Before Us is a Christian, she does not write from an explicitly Christian perspective, instead seeking to appeal to a broader range of people through stories and statistics. She states, “Advocating for policy within a church community by citing the authority of scripture is legitimate, but if you are to successfully advocate for a particular public policy, the general public must acknowledge the authority on which you are basing your case. In this arena, natural law is the authority, and few Christians appeal to it effectively” (p. 220). While this approach has value, there is an opportunity to include a more focused biblical perspective alongside the details included in the book. A biblical perspective does not contradict what the book says, but rather gives it a stronger foundation.
While many people try to divide a biblical perspective from an issue such as child rights advocacy, the two are inseparable. God gave the creation mandate to Adam and Eve, after creating them “in His own image, … male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over everything that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28). Them Before Us explains statistically and experientially why traditional families are best for children, and why children need their own natural parents, but it doesn’t explain the bigger foundational question about why the statistics and stories point to that reality.
Some people might say, “I feel like children’s rights are important” or “I believe the statistics pointing to the importance of a mother and father” while others say the opposite. Statistics are disputed, and stories are subjective. The foundation of Scripture gives evidence that we were created a specific way for a specific purpose, and it is authoritative. Scripture also points to the value and blessing of children. In contrast to our culture’s focus on children as a commodity – that adults should get however many children they want, when they want, and, in the case of donor conception or surrogacy, with whatever features or genetics they want – the Bible presents children as a blessing from the Lord. “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3). While the authority of the Bible is not universally recognized, we can still present it as objective truth.
Application to Canadian Policy
Them Before Us is written in an American context, but a few Canadian examples came to mind while reading through the book. The authors point to the implementation of the first no-fault divorce law in the U.S. in 1969 as the beginning of the erosion of marriage in the country. No-fault divorce was introduced at the federal level in Canada the year prior, leading to a great increase in the rate of divorce. Rates of divorce reached their peak around 1990 and have declined slightly since (though divorce rates have not been published nationally since 2008). However, the decline is comparable to the decline in marriage rates. Cardus has a helpful map to look at marriage and family structure within Canada.
The Assisted Human Reproduction Act was implemented in 2004 in Canada and lays out regulations for donor conception and surrogacy. Without going into too many details (for further details, see ARPA’s policy report on In Vitro Fertilization and Surrogacy), this law has certain limits on the process of assisted reproduction, but it commodifies human life, allowing it to be purchased, sold, or created as pleased. Them Before Us points out multiple harmful practices of the industry and its negative impacts on children born by these methods.
Same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States in 2015, and Them Before Us points to concerns with same-sex parenting already six years later. In Canada, on the other hand, same-sex marriage was legalized in 2005. In 2016, there were nearly 50,000 same-sex common-law couples, and nearly 25,000 who were married. The pressure to redefine parenting, or to give preference to same-sex couples to adopt a child continues to place more importance on the desires and choices of adults instead of the rights of children.
In Ontario in 2016, the All Families Are Equal Act redefined Ontario law by removing the terms ‘mother,’ ‘father,’ and ‘natural parent’ and allowing for up to four ‘intended parents’ to share the parenting of a child. This breakdown and redefinition of the family is what Them Before Us warns against.
Them Before Us gives a unique perspective that we can use in talking to our friends or neighbours – or in advocating for public policy, with the qualification, of course, that it should also be used with the biblical foundation for our reasoning, not instead of it. The statistics and experiences relayed in this book complement what we know from Scripture and help point to tangible evidence that points to the family as the basic unit of society.