At age 34, I'm trendier than I've ever been. When my husband and I adopted our son in 2008, we didn't know anyone else whose family looked like ours. We were more oddity than poster family. But, by 2011, when we adopted a second son, the evangelical orphan care movement had gained momentum, and, like it or not, we were suddenly cool.
Kathryn Joyce's new book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, focuses on the negative consequences of this movement, contending that Christian adopters, "wrapped in the enthusiasm of their new calling, didn't recognize the problems."
Through investigative reports on adoption cases worldwide, she seeks to uncover the implications of what she calls, in a related Mother Jones article, "the evangelical movement's adoption obsession." Joyce criticizes the theological motivation for human adoption, accusing evangelical theologians of "crafting an extensive orphan theology to undergird the movement" as if the doctrine of adoption were something new. Adoption language has been a feature of Christianity from its beginning.
Fundamentally, Joyce believes the evangelical adoption movement has created a supply and demand situation, where the number of adoptable children is much smaller than the growing number of evangelical prospective adopters. In foreign countries, Joyce pins blame for relinquished children on lack of social services, misinformation, shame-inducing moral codes, and poverty. In the U.S., she argues that crisis pregnancy centers use dishonest and coercive tactics to pressure women to give their children for adoption.
While much has been written about the mischaracterization and selective anecdotes used in Joyce's book, sadly, there are even deeper issues about her approach to adoption, children, and women in particular.
As a Christian and adoptive parent, I found Joyce's pro-abortion stance to be one of the book's bitterest ironies. Calling the abortion debate a "culture war" and referring to abortion restriction as "a return to patriarchal sexual morality," Joyce refuses to acknowledge abortion as a children's issue with disastrous consequences for the weakest members of society. Compared to the numbers of children aborted annually (some 43 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization), the 260,000 annual global adoptions seem almost insignificant. For every one child who is placed for adoption, 200 of the world's children are killed in the womb, and those aborted children are often only a few months younger than the ones Joyce's book proposes to protect.
The Child Catchers rightly expresses concern for women who face the difficulty of relinquishing a child. Joyce focuses on advocating for greater social services and support for unwed and poverty-stricken mothers. She accuses Christians of embracing orphans but ignoring other groups: "The complexities of working with the adult poor—the real risks of perpetuating dependency and disempowering aid recipients that are recurrent issues in international development—aren't there in the same way with groups who work only with children." Not only is this profoundly untrue in my own experience—many adoptive families I know are actively involved in family preservation and community development in the birth countries of their adopted children—Joyce refuses to concede that Christians throughout human history have always been on the front lines of caring for the world's people. The local church everywhere welcomes and nurtures the whole person, adult and child alike, both spiritually and physically. Additionally, hospitals and schools have always been, and continue to be, prominent among the ministries piloted by Christians.
And, by placing blame for relinquishment on external factors, Joyce actually marginalizes women who are unable or unwilling to parent. By her logic, American women would almost never give up a child for adoption. They live in a culture where abortion is legal and largely destigmatized, where single parenthood is so common as to be normal, and where social services exist to meet needs. They also live in an information-rich society, where facts about parental rights are readily available. And yet, 14,000 American women give up their children for adoption annually.
No matter how much support exists for women, there will always be situations where illness, death, or immaturity make it difficult or impossible for a woman to be a mother to her child. Yet, Joyce admits of no instances where adoption would be a valid—or indeed beneficial—option for a woman and implies that a woman would only do so if she were coerced.
The abortion statistics alone demonstrate that there are many, many women in the world who believe they are unable to be a parent, and the sad effect of Joyce's book is that, rather than empowering these women, she is shrinking their options. In what might be the book's most hypocritical sentence, Joyce laments, "In the decades between 1945 and 1972, when abortion was illegal and single motherhood taboo, women who became pregnant out of wedlock faced a small range of options." In 2013, by removing the dignity of adoption, Joyce herself is removing one more legitimate choice for women who will always have very few.
Despite these flaws, a few of her criticisms are worth reflection. The book's caution to adoptive parents about the potential for fraud, coercion, and misinformation ought to be taken seriously. Joyce's heavy reliance on anecdotes about adoptions-gone-wrong makes it easy to categorize these stories as exceptions. But the fact that any instances of child trafficking have occurred in the name of the orphan care movement should cause Christians to think carefully about the potential consequences of their actions. From the time I completed my first adoption application, I knew the day was coming when I would have to answer questions about the ethics of adoption. I have to answer them, not to a journalist like Joyce, but looking into the eyes of my own adopted children. Telling my child his story is a moment of serious reckoning.
The Child Catchers also has an extensive and helpful discussion of the term "orphan crisis." In my experience, Christians are quick to toss around statistics about worldwide orphans without a nuanced understanding of what those numbers mean. Joyce disputes the most popular statistics with data from the UN and writes, "those flogging 143 (or 210) million on their chests, their blogs, or at conferences are laying claim on ideological grounds to tens or hundreds of millions of children who live with a parent or other family, ignoring the distinction between unparented 'double orphans' and the much larger number of 'vulnerable children,' and implying that they all belong in American homes."
When Christians reduce a complex issue to a bumper-sticker (and an ill-informed one at that) damage is done, turning individuals into a cause. This sloganism can wrongly give the impression that Christians believe adoption is a singular answer to the problems of the world's children. Realistically, adoption creates problems even while solving other ones. Because of their adoption, and despite my best efforts, my children may never have the easy sense of belonging and identity that comes unquestioned to my biological son. In the midst of broken circumstances, adoption is a good solution, but not a perfect one.
Ultimately, The Child Catchers is heavy on criticism and light on proposing a new direction for adoption, or even acknowledging any good that results from adoption. Last night, my children and I played flashlight tag… a mother and her children, stepping through the immense dark to catch one another with a tiny beam of light.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingEvangelicals Are the Most Beloved US Faith Group Among EvangelicalsAnd among the worst-rated by everybody else.
- From the MagazineBhutanese Nepali Refugees Turn Their Trials into Zeal for EvangelismThousands found Jesus while displaced, which prepared them to plant churches and settle in a new land.
- RelatedJinger Duggar Vuolo ‘Disentangles’ Her Faith After Gothard UpbringingShe says her new book is “not just for me, but it’s also for the victims.”
- Editor's PickDante Bowe Navigates Worship in the SpotlightAfter leaving Maverick City Music, the singer is launching his own label focused on authenticity in a field increasingly crowded by celebrity.