The Ethics and Reality of Adoption

By Kersley Fitzgerald

L. was talking to another friend, F., a tough, pregnant fighter pilot, about L's impending adoption of a baby boy. Typical questions like how is it going, when is the birth-mom due, are you ready. In a moment, the reality of the situation hit F. A pregnant mother was going to give up her baby. She started crying.

Child Trafficking is not Adoption

Philomena is Judy Dench's movie about a woman who finally reveals her great shame — when she was 18, she gave birth to a son in a convent and was forced to give him up for adoption. The nuns and the culture that the Roman Catholic Church fostered in Ireland taught Philomena that she was evil for having sex (despite the fact she'd lived in a convent since she was 6 and had never been told what sex was) and for getting pregnant. Her son was adopted spontaneously, almost accidentally, by an American couple who noticed how close he was to the girl they had come to take. Despite the fact he eventually became senior legal advisors for both Reagan and Bush I, and that both he and Philomena had returned to the convent several times to find more information on each other, the nuns refused to disclose what they knew. British journalist Martin Sixsmith helped Philomena track down her son, but too late. After they found his grave, at the very convent Philomena had visited repeatedly, Sixsmith wrote an article and book about Philomena's ordeal — and the ordeal faced by hundreds of other young Irish women.

Does this happen today? Absolutely.

What can we do about it? Jen Hatmaker has a three part series that goes into more detail than you probably thought possible. Part One talks about the reality of unethical adoptions. And bear in mind that "unethical adoption" is equal to "child trafficking." Part Two gives thorough guidance on what prospective adoptive parents need to do in order to ensure, to the best of their ability, that their adoption is ethical. This includes choosing to work with a country that has agreed to Das Hague Convention standards, which include full documentation that the child is a true orphan or voluntarily abandoned before adoption can take place. In Part Three, she goes into why international adoption is not enough (only 0.002% of true orphans are adopted), and why we must support in-country programs that help parents care for and keep their children.

This is huge. An international adoption costs around $25,000 — similar to the cost of a private adoption in the U.S. But it's possible that a $50 micro-loan to a struggling family could give them the ability to climb out of poverty, prevent disease, and keep their children from becoming orphaned in the first place. Hatmaker mentions several things to look out for when adopting, including working with a country that has strict oversight of its adoption agencies. Something I'd add is finding an in-country agency that includes child and family social services and that makes keeping families together its first priority — as ours does.

Adopted Children are Children

Hatmaker is also careful to affirm that most adoptive parents are trying to do good, not steal babies from mothers. Motivations vary. Some adopt because they want children and are unable to have any "bios."* Some adopt because they feel a social responsibility to rescue the orphan. It's become somewhat common for churches to promote adoption as both a social good and an in-house evangelistic tool — which can bring great tragedy and condemnation if handled incorrectly or misunderstood.

I have a problem with this. It's a child, not a mission field. It is your child, not your badge of self-sacrificing awesomeness. This is a poopy diaper, three years to potty train, harass his little sister, expensive braces, back-talking child. Badges of honor don't cut off their eyebrows. Happy little domestic mission fields don't cut class. Status symbols don't scream at the tops of their lungs because they're not getting their way.

It took me two years to attach to JT, and I knew it would take a long time, and I was okay with that. He was a child, and I made an oath to be his mother. I didn't expect him to fulfill me, to complete my family, to be a shining example of God's providence, or even to be thankful. That wasn't his job. His job was to grow up. Mine was to parent him.

Part of his growing up is like anyone else's. He fought potty-training. He loved the dog. He struggled in school but excelled at making friends. He chooses daily what he believes about God and struggles when things don't make sense. He chooses to obey us or not. Really normal stuff.

Part of his growing up is specific to being adopted. He wonders about his foster-brothers and his half-sisters. He wishes his eyes changed colors like mine. He doesn't like that he's shorter than everyone else in his class.

He is who he is: charming, musical, moody, frustrating and easily frustrated. I accept that because that's who he is. He's my kid, not my idealization.

Adoptive Parents are Parents

As horrifying as the stories of baby trafficking are the horror stories of abusive and even murdering adoptive parents. Some blame the agencies — that they don't screen prospective parents well enough or don't provide enough services after the adoption. Some say it's a sign that adoption is bad. I don't think it's that simple.

Adoption, especially foreign adoption of older kids, does have a unique set of stressors. That doesn't make it wrong. What's wrong is unrealistic expectations of adopted kids. And bad parenting. And being too prideful to ask for help.

Because adoptive parents are parents, and sometimes parents are stupid, sometimes they're overwhelmed, and sometimes they're abusive. While the stress of adoption can trigger those particular characteristics, it's not the fault of adoption.

Honestly, it didn't sound like the parents mentioned in the Mother Jones article were terribly good parents to their bios. There were a lot of things wrong in that situation, and the agency should have caught at least a hint, but it doesn't mean that giving kids in Liberia good homes in America is wrong.

And it doesn't mean that Christians adopting from overseas is wrong. It's true that foreign adoption was started (Harry and Bertha Holt) and continues because of Christians. God told us to take care of the orphan and gave us the example of adoption. There's nothing wrong with that.

Of course, plenty of things can go wrong. Adopting a child so that you can make him a Christian is, if not wrong then terribly inefficient. Just sponsor 100 kids from Compassion International. Expecting the kid to conform to a new culture too quickly is wrong (and we made plenty of mistakes there!). Being inflexible, being unkind, being hide-bound is wrong. Taking a child into your home isn't.

Christians should be Christians

What happened to Philomena was evil and criminal and played out today all over the world. Eleven years after his adoption, JT is still a kid. He will never be an idealization, but we would never want him to be. The birth-mother of L's baby approached L and her husband and asked them to take her baby. He will have two loving, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed parents — just like JT and every bio kid out there.

There are good adoption stories and bad adoption stories. As believers, we have the obligation to make ours the best we can be. And it's interesting to note that L, her husband, and Dev and I sponsored kids through Compassion long before we adopted. We believe both sponsoring and adopting are what God wants us to do, so we try to do it in the way He would have us do it.

* "Bio" or biological child is the correct term; to say "Do you have any children of your own?" is to infer the adopted child does not share equal standing with the bio kids and that adopting is a poor substitute for biological children. It may sound annoyingly P.C. to the outside, but it's a big deal among adoptive families.

Philomena watching her son being driven away; from the movie.

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Published 3-4-14