Monday, January 28, 2008

Ethical Ambiguity

I had a student in my office this morning talking about her paper and then about the readings for next week. She said that she hadn't realized that international adoptions were such a political thing "you know, that the reason that the kids need to be adopted is because of political decisions." She was also shocked at how much money changed hands. Then we started talking about domestic adoption. I explained to her a little about how adoption practices varied in different countries. At one point I said, "We tend to forget in the US that adoption is a response to a tragedy that should never have happened."

She was totally confused. I occurs to me that she could be part of the adoption triad for all I know. I decide to be careful. "I think that adoptive families can and often are wonderful families. I just also think that in an ideal world no woman should have to go through the experience of bearing and giving birth to a child she cannot parent."

She is a bright student, and not all that long ago I could have been her. The mythology of adoption as an unambiguously good thing, a win-win-win solution to a rather inconvenient problem is so pervasive that trying to shake it off is initially disorienting. One feels like one has fallen down the rabbit hole. I try again.

"I adore my sons who came to me from foster care. I love them without reservation or guilt. They deserved that kind of love. I am very grateful that they are part of my life. I also believe that they are in my life because of a series of events which in a better world would not have happened. Foster care is a necessary thing and it has given me my family, but it is not simple or beautiful."

We talk for a little while. She ponders these strange ideas. Finally she says, "I think I understand what you are saying, but it so weird to think of adoption as bad."

"I don't think of it as bad. I think of it as being like organ transplants. If your sister was dying because she needed a heart and finally got one I would expect you to be over-joyed. You should be happy. At the same time though I think you would remember..."

She interrupts me, "...someone else had to die."


  1. So many times I say to my two beautiful children (mine through adoption) when they are grieving, suffering and able to share it with me - that I would do nearly anything to make it so that they had never had to go through the loss of birth family and everything else.

    The idea that they somehow would never have been mine is a devastating one but I would gladly and knowingly suffer that if it meant that they had never had to.

    It is something that should always be up front when involved in any kind of adoption.

  2. I know you've mentioned before thoughts along these lines of in a perfect world, adoption wouldn't be necessary. I've been thinking about it a lot and intended to comment the next time it came up. :) I have to completely disagree with you. What about me--in your perfect world I'm devastated. If children weren't available for adoption, I would never have any children. I wouldn't know my daughter who I love so dearly. I wouldn't know Helen, my SIL, who even when she was apart from the family for 3 years (returned to her bio family) was never far from our thoughts. I don't want to imagine a world where I didn't know these people. (and others I know because they were adopted into my family.)

    More importantly is that in your statement you deny the great desire of people who cannot have biological children the joy of having children. What about us?

    Or, to get less personal, what about women who are surrogate mothers and willingly get pregnant but do not want to raise the child? And why must it be a great tragedy to carry a child to term but not raise the child? Some people just don't want to be parents (or not right now). Your perfect world assumes that only those who want to be parents get pregnant AND that all those who want children get pregnant and carry to term. And that no one ever falls in love with someone not biologically related to them.

    Yes, there's separation and loss, but that's true in all sorts of other situations as well, not just adoption. (I think it a far greater tragedy to kill the child in an abortion, which means the child never gets to know the love of a family and the potential family never gets to have a child. There are tens of thousands of families who would adopt if more children were available for adoption. I know that if adoption were easier, we would have had a second child already and maybe be hoping for a third.) Why is adoption loss so much greater than any other loss kids (or adults) experience?

    Also, I think this attitude about adoption is relatively recent. In past generations, fostering, apprenticeships, or growing up with someone other than your bio parents wasn't all that uncommon. Many women died in childbirth and children would be brought into extended families or neighbors. In some cultures (I've read about it in at least one Arctic culture, although I don't remember which one), childless couples would be given a child by another family so that they didn't grow old without children. Generally speaking, the orphan trains of the late 18th and early 19th century were successful at finding families for children. (I've read extensively about them, and am aware that some children were little more than servants or farm hands. But most were adopted and/or raised as a member of the family.)

    I guess I just don't find it strange for non-biological people to become a family. Heavens, it happens every day with marriage! Nor do I think it's a tragedy for children to be loved and raised by someone they don't share biology with. That would mean that step-families and blended families shouldn't exist either. What's wrong with them?

    I love and adore my daughter and am eternally grateful she's mine. I would not choose to have her not be my child just so that she didn't suffer the losses inherent in adoption. But then again, I personally know a number of people who were adopted and none of them experience any great pain due to the adoption nor do I expect my daughter to (although I'm prepared for it in the future).

    I appreciate your philosophical commentaries and I hope you don't take this as an attack on you or your feelings. It's just that you have written philosophically so you got be thinking about that phrase in a way I hadn't before and I've been thinking about it. (And talking about it--dinner conversation the other night with my husband to see what he thought of it.)

  3. cathy9:19 PM

    The comparison with organ transplants pretty much hits the nail on the head. One familiy's overwhelming joy coming at the heart rendering sorrow of another. Because, no matter how much the birth mother knows she is doing the very best thing she can for her baby, heart rendering sorrow follows giving that baby up.


Comments will be open for a little while, then I will be shutting them off. The blog will stay, but I do not want either to moderate comments or leave the blog available to spammers.