The detention of U.S. Baptist missionaries who tried to take 33 children out of Haiti after the January 12 earthquake shone a bright light on complex moral questions related to the country's adoption practices. The Wall Street Journal reports that, even before the earthquake, an estimated 400,000 Haitian children lived in some type of orphanage, and only a few thousand were orphans in the traditional sense. One American arrived in Haiti to find that the girl he planned to adopt not only had a living mother, but that her mother actually worked in the girl's orphanage. When the man balked at taking the girl, the mother assured him it was what she wanted for her child. She beamed as her daughter drove away with her adoptive father.
While Haiti's child welfare system seems uniquely overwhelmed, the focus on Haitian adoptions reveals a broader truth: Adoption is not quite the straightforward, ethically superior choice many of us assume it is.
"Why don't you just adopt?" Well-meaning people say this often to those who have used or are considering reproductive technology to conceive because of infertility or a troubling genetic history. The question implies that adoption is the simplest, most loving, and least selfish choice. Wouldn't it be a better use of resources to adopt a child who needs parents rather than paying fertility clinics to help make a baby? If a couple really wants a child, should they really put their desire for a biological child over the needs of living, breathing children who could use a home?
These questions rely on what theologian and ethicist Paul Lauritzen has called the "myth of unwanted children." Lauritzen, in Pursuing Parenthood, writes that "even to talk about 'unwanted children' may be misleading in situations where a woman is relinquishing a child not because she is unwilling to care for her child, but because she is unable to do so …. To speak about 'unwanted children' is to fail to take seriously what is perhaps the most compelling reason women relinquish children, namely, poverty" (p. 126).
For every mother who weeps in relief as her child leaves for a better life, another mother weeps in anguish that she felt compelled to make such a choice. As Christians called to care for "the least of these," we are also called to help create healthy societies where mothers aren't forced to relinquish children because they are overwhelmed by poverty, violence, and chaos. Given that our Scriptures frequently remind us that our treasure is not to be found in wealth, we need to guard against believing that a well-off parent is by default better than a poor one.
Beyond these tricky dynamics of wealth and wanting are other reasons that adoption is far from a simple solution.
With both assisted reproduction and adoption, prospective parents have to confront questions—about why they want children and how they will behave as parents—that many parents do not. No one responds to a couple's pregnancy announcement by asking, "Why is biological parenthood so important to you?" No one did a home study on my husband and me before we brought our firstborn home from the hospital. Adoptive parents also deal with significant scrutiny and uncertainty: Will a birth mother choose us? Will she change her mind? Will war, natural disaster, or bureaucracy stymie our international adoption process? Will we have to field questions about why our child looks so different from us every time we go to the playground? All parents live with uncertainty, but adoptive parents have to accept a great deal of it up front …
Finally, the desire for biological parenthood is a powerful one. Christians understand the drive to reproduce as God-given, while scientists say we have an evolutionarily conditioned urge to propagate our genes. But the desire for biological children goes beyond a calculated plan to follow God's mandate or widen one's gene pool. Many people have a deep desire to have babies, a desire reinforced by both secular and Christian cultures, in which childless adults can struggle to interact meaningfully with peers wrapped up in parenthood and in churches centered on young families.
I am not criticizing adoption itself, which is a life-affirming, child-loving choice for building a family. Biblical mandates to care for orphans abound. But I am criticizing the question, "Why don't you just adopt?" offered as a no-brainer to people who cannot or feel they should not (because of genetic history) naturally conceive the children they long for.
For Christians, decisions about childbearing go beyond practical matters of whether or not we can conceive, and the physical, emotional, and financial risks inherent in natural conception, assisted reproduction, and adoption. Our faith demands that we try to determine where God is leading us. A friend of mine, an adoptive mother of two boys, adopted not because she couldn't conceive but because she believed it was what God desired. "Ultimately," she says, "as a person of faith, I believe the road is decided by God. This has been the best and only explanation for how our family was created for [our sons]."
Likewise, despite my having a genetic bone disorder with a 50 percent inheritance rate, bearing children has been for me much more than the next logical step after marriage. It became clear, after years of discernment, struggle, and questioning, that God was calling me to biological motherhood.
I would love to see the question, "Why don't you just adopt?" disappear from conversations about reproductive decision-making. Perhaps a better one is, "Have you ever considered adoption?" Although that question might sound as ridiculous as asking someone who has been job hunting for a year, "Have you thought about listing your resume online?" I think it's safe to say that, yes, people who are dealing with difficult reproductive decisions have thought about adoption. Maybe it's best to simply say this: "Tell me what you think about adoption."
Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer who focuses on Christian reproductive ethics and disability theology. She is writing a book for Westminster John Knox Press (forthcoming in 2011) about the ethics and theology of assisted reproduction and genetic screening. She blogs at ChoicesThatMatter.blogspot.com and Five Dollars and Some Common Sense. She has written for CT about disability and genetic testing.
The first image portrays an orphan adopted from Haiti. The second image portrays children from an orphanage in Haiti preparing to head the United States to meet with their adoptive families. Both images were found on Flickr's Creative Commons.