Recently, the most important discussions I’ve had about adoption occurred in my Mazda. For my eldest son, being adopted and Vietnamese looms large in his quest to discover himself; and in the past week, our drives have included discussions about his birth mother and birth culture, whether he is Vietnamese or American, whether he feels happy about being adopted, how “awkward” it is to have white parents.
At 13, my son isn’t sure whether adoption is always a good solution—“no offense,” he says to me—because it means he will not grow up in Vietnam, nor will he know his birth family. That kid is a thinker, and while a small part of me wishes he’d feel unalloyed joy in his adoption, I’m grateful he’s asking these questions, and that he understands the complexity of adoption.
I wish those rallying behind the new documentary, The Drop Box, could also interrogate adoption as my son does. Instead, the movie mythologizes orphan care in ways even my preadolescent kids might find troubling. Presented by Focus on the Family, The Drop Box is marketed as a heartwarming celebration of life (and indeed, the film won the Sanctity of Life award from the San Antonio Independent Christian Film Festival). Yet, the reality of baby boxes undermines the family values the movie purports to champion.
The documentary follows South Korean pastor Lee Jong-rak, who created the baby box as a way for birth mothers, burdened by social stigma or poverty, to safely and anonymously relinquish their children rather than what Pastor Lee believes the alternative: abortion. Pastor Lee is portrayed as a hero, caring for his country’s most vulnerable orphans—and, by extension, spreading the message of hope and need for the 150 million orphans worldwide.
While evangelicals celebrate his willingness to take in hundreds of orphans, including many with disabilities, adoptive families like mine know that receiving these children is only a small part of the story, not the happy ending. Adoption is far more complicated. The issues of orphan care extend far beyond finding homes for “unwanted” babies and children, starting with the social and cultural conditions that lead parents to this option in the first place.
The Drop Box collapses the real-life challenges of adoption into a story of feel-good Christian service and heroism. Narratives like these, which fail to recognize the ongoing struggles of biological families, adoptees, and adoptive families after a child has been placed, do a disservice to us all.
Such adoption mythologies have been critiqued in many places, including by adoptee Angela Tucker here on Her.meneutics, journalist Kathryn Joyce in her book The Child Catchers, and by me, in an article considering Joyce’s work for The Nation. Still, the idealistic view of “orphan care” and international adoption persists, perpetuating a system privileging adoption over family preservation, and the rights of Americans over those of children in other countries—and, even more significantly, over the rights of the parents who birthed them.
Certain adoption critics believe children are better off staying within in their own culture, in institutions (as the babies taken in by Pastor Lee do) or in family-style SOS homes. This is an especially popular approach for older children, who face difficult-to-impossible transitions to new homes, a new language, and new expectations.
Still, many others will affirm that children should be raised with a family. While some perspectives on adoption suggest we in the West can provide children everything they need and more, most of us recognize that privilege does not bestow any of us with better parenting skills, happiness, or ability to love.
Knowing this, we need to work together to counter idealistic messages about adoption, often driven by a lucrative adoption industry. The truth is, ideally, a child should stay with his birth family, rather than navigate the many complexities of international adoption. Even as adoptive parents celebrate our own families, we come to understand the importance of another way. We want more robust systems of support to keep more biological families together, a notion in conflict with the very intentions of a baby drop box.
A social media campaign called #BuildFamiliesNotBoxes has launched a broader discussion around the issues surrounding Korea’s baby box. While this option is designed to help unwed mothers, its existence does the opposite: first, by reinforcing the idea that an unwed mother is shameful; and second, by assuring that an unwed mother, having relinquished her child anonymously, will never know her child. (Similar boxes may be coming to Indiana, pending state legislation.)
Adults who were adopted from Korea, coalesced in Adoptee Solidarity Korea—Los Angeles (ASK-LA), have spoken up to argue that women in Korea “have the right to raise their children with dignity, and should be provided with support to do so.” Little about a woman’s situation should abrogate this right: not her marriage status, nor her financial fitness, nor even perhaps her physical well being, if there are systems in place to support her.
Though Korea is fairly modern and wealthy, unwed mothers still face strong social prejudice, given the country’s cultural traditions. These attitudes about become entrenched further as Westerners swoop in to adopt “unwanted” babies, ostensibly because they see themselves as better suited to parent.
Instead of building baby boxes, ASK-LA suggests changing the culture that stigmatizes single mothers and their children. In several Facebook posts outlining the issues surrounding baby boxes, ASK-LA recommends policies to help women who want to raise their children, through social safety nets and laws requiring that biological fathers pay child support—policies that, to this time, do not exist in Korea.
Plus, those who place their children in baby boxes are not the only ones to bear the cost of relinquishment. A woman can anonymously surrender her baby without a birth father’s permission, even if he would like to raise the child. Once put in a baby box, tracing a child’s identity becomes nearly impossible. Thus birth families (grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings) also lose the opportunity to know children who share their DNA, the seeming virtue of anonymity in fact eroding a family’s chance for reunification.
Perhaps most significantly, baby boxes take away a child’s right to her identity and her access to important medical and familial information. In “Why I #ThinkOutsidetheBabyBox,” Kimberly McKee notes that baby boxes transgress rules outlined by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Children, violating a child’s right to know her biological parents.
For a child who has been surrendered anonymously, establishing identity can be nearly impossible—and, without a formal identity, a child cannot be adopted internationally. This means a baby placed in Pastor Lee’s box will either remain in an institution until he is 18 or 19. In some scenarios involving babies surrendered anonymously, children are given a false identity in order to be adopted internationally. In either case, a child loses her connection to family, to a past, to a large piece of who she is.
The hope of Pastor Lee and his ministry is that the baby box saves children from their tragic fate: death via abandonment or abortion. As I’ve journeyed with my own children, though, I’ve realized adoption is rarely an either/or proposition, and that there are more than two choices available to every at-risk child. My own feelings about adoption’s complexity have shifted as I listened more intently to the voices of adult adoptees who ask critical questions about adoption, identity, culture, and race.
Through all this, I’ve started to recognize that solutions to social problems require that we think beyond the mythology that glorifies adoption as the best form of care for those without intact biological families; that we recognize adoption or abortion are not the only two options for vulnerable children; that the biblical mandate to care for “orphans and widows” does not solely mean adoption. Indeed, caring for the least of these might mean something else entirely.
Like most adoptive parents, I am exceedingly grateful for my two sons, but must acknowledge that the very act of adopting a child is fraught with complexity and paradox. My joy in raising them comes at great cost to others, including the birth mothers who bore them, then (so we were told) anonymously relinquished them to orphanages.
As they grow into adulthood, my sons will deal more and more with this anonymity, this lack of connection with their birth families and cultures. While I will certainly help them negotiate their loss, I will not alleviate it for them. And thus, I cannot wholeheartedly celebrate a system that perpetuates the loss they have experienced, and must also critique propaganda—like The Drop Box—that presents family values in a way that compels me to ask: Which families are we hoping to value?
Melanie Springer Mock is a Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Christian Feminism Today, Adoptive Families, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Mennonite World Review, among other places. Her books includeJust Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World, The Spirit of Adoption: Writers on Religion, Adoption, Faith, and More, and a forthcoming book on evangelical popular culture and Christian Feminism, due out in July (Chalice Press). Melanie blogs at Ain't I a Woman?