Adoption Ethics
It is difficult to read these stories of adoption fraud.

Some blogs write themselves. Words and thoughts flow in perfect harmony. Writing other blogs is like walking uphill in ill fitting boots. I have found that the uphill blogs are usually when I lack clarity or am struggling with what to think. This is one of those blogs.

I have posted three disturbing stories lately on our Adoption in The News page. One was a video segment produced by the Australia Broadcasting Corporation showing an agency going into villages in Ethiopia and “recruiting” families to give up their children for adoption. Another was an article in the LA Times about “over quota” babies being forcibly removed from their families by population planning officials in China. And last was a story about over zealous (or cruel depending on how gracious you’re feeling) crisis pregnancy centers in the US pressuring woman to place their children for adoption. These stories shake the ground under adoptive parents everywhere—including me. How do I assimilate their reality into my life and, most important, into my children’s lives?

Adoptive parents have always known that along with our overwhelming joy in adoption, a heart breaking sadness coexists for our children’s first parents. We can live with that because we believe adoption is best for our shared child. Most of us also believe that on some bigger level, we were meant to be this child’s everyday mom or dad. In most cases we know that our child’s birth parent made the wrenching decision that they were not in a position to raise this child, and we live with a daily appreciation for their selfless love. To even contemplate that our child’s first parents were coerced or tricked into placing their child is every adoptive parent’s nightmare—for us, for them, and for our child.

I have no doubt that these particular stories are true, or at least partly true. The decision to place a child for adoption is always a complex one—usually part willing and part unwilling. I’ve talked with first mothers in the US, Guatemala, and Korea and most regret some aspects of the decision and the process. They regret the circumstances that led to the decision, they regret the timing, and they regret that they could not or should not raise this child. Some find solace in blaming something or someone for the unfairness and unbelievable pain of being in the position of having a child that they can’t parent. And yes, in some cases, they regret the decision itself.

But knowing that regret and blame are human nature doesn’t come close to explaining the acts committed against the woman in the news stories. The woman and their children were treated as commodities, which undermines the foundation of the inherent goodness of adoption. These articles serve as a good reminder for me. Coercion and trickery do exist in adoption, and the first step to stopping it is acknowledging its existence.

Unfortunately, the reality of adoption is far from black and white, and I suspect even these cases that I posted are riddled with shades of gray. Crushing poverty exists, social stigma against unwed mothers and their children exists, alcoholism and abusive husbands exist, and the difficulty for children being raised in any country by a poor single woman also exists. The existence of these conditions makes it not only hard for the first mother, but potentially harmful for their child.

So how do we live with the ambiguities? Some would say that because I have personally benefited from adoption, I am biased. They’re right. I firmly believe that adoption is good for kids. Happy successful adoption stories aren’t news worthy, but my experience shows that this is the reality in most cases. More important, so does the research. But adoption is not good for kids if their first parents were tricked or forced into giving them up. It is not good for kids to grow up wondering and worrying. There is a whole generation of kids from Guatemala, Cambodia and Vietnam that are growing up right now with this question hanging over them. They don’t deserve this, and neither do their first or their forever parents.

I’m still far from clear on what these stories mean for adoptive and first families. I do know that those of us who love the institution of adoption have to take a zero tolerance position on any type of adoption fraud. We can’t turn a blind eye to treatment of birth mothers. It’s not only cruel to women; it’s bad for our kids. Adoptive parents also have the obligation to honor not only the letter, but also the spirit, of any openness agreement they made with the birth family. Even if it is not a legal obligation, it is a moral one.

In an ideal world each and every child would be able to be raised by her birth family. Each and every child would have parents that could afford to feed, clothe and educate them. In this ideal world, abuse, neglect, and overpopulation wouldn’t exist. In this ideal world, there would be no need for adoption. But we don’t live in an ideal world. And regardless of these recent stories of adoption abuse, there is a very real need for adoption. But adoption should only be one arrow in the child welfare quiver. For our aim to be true, we also need to provide support to keep families together. Good adoption agencies, domestic and international, do just that. I have always said that a good adoption agency should look a lot like a child welfare agency. Take the time to find one.

P.S. We talked about the story of “harvesting” children in Ethiopia on the September 23, 2009 Creating a Family radio show on Adopting from Africa with representatives from leading adoption agencies working in Ethiopia.

Image credit: Brian Auer