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May 14, 2013 |

Examining Adoption Ethics: Part One

BY Jen Hatmaker

When I was in college, a guy drank a bottle of hot sauce for $100. He was sick for four days. That sauce came out everywhere; both ends, pores, night sweats. He had to buy expensive medicine to help repair the lining of his stomach, you guys. No matter. Because 1.) the bragging rights, and 2.) the $100.

For the love.

I’m wading into difficult adoption territory today, a space wrought with defensiveness and Big Feelings and confusion. Let’s cover this conversation with grace and truth and move gently through it together, beginning with Part One today.

Disclaimer up front: There are so many children who are truly orphaned, with the numbers skewed toward older kids and sick kids. This is a real crisis. There are also adoption agencies with impeccable ethics both here and abroad. Plenty of adoptive families went in eyes wide open, prioritizing transparency and thoroughness. This is not an all-bad or all-good scenario, but a little yeast leavens the entire batch, and no decent parent I know wants to be complicit in corrupt adoptions. This conversation deserves its place among believers.

We can begin here: Sometimes when you wave a $100 in front of someone, he or she will do anything to get it, even something knowingly harmful. Let’s stipulate that rich Americans flooding impoverished countries with millions of dollars to adopt its children will absolutely garner attention. Money has always been a magnet for corruption. While there are obviously lots of true orphans, without question, that much cash flow will generate some “created orphans” to satisfy demand, especially for babies.

Now three years after our first steps, I’m connected to people living in all sorts of impoverished countries, and the word on the street is not good. There is the Christian adoption narrative we use over here, including inflated statistics, words like rescue and saving, and plenty of emotional ammunition (me = guilty), then there is the in-country story, which is something altogether different.

I so want this to not be true, but I keep hearing it over and over in Ethiopia, Haiti, Uganda, Congo, everywhere. The missionaries and locals are saying something very disturbing: so often vulnerable birth moms are coerced and misled, families are manipulated and deceived, children are flat out bought. International adoption is Big Business. I’ve read emails describing orphanage directors who paid $20 for birth certificates and $75 to take a baby right out of his mother’s hands. Paperwork is falsified and birth families are told their children are going to school, to triage while they stabilize, to receive health care then return home.

There are very real orphans all over the earth, but most of us don’t pursue the kids there are; we pursue the kids we want, and these countries know the score. Older kids stay on waiting children lists, while the baby line is hundreds deep. It doesn’t take long for opportunists to figure this out.

I’ve heard of too many devastated birth parents, shocked and confused their children were adopted to another family. Basic investigations have uncovered entire communities picked through for their children, like door-to-door salesmen. I’m not hearing enough about prioritizing birth families and empowering them to raise their own children, not even from well-meaning adoptive parents. Isn’t that what we want? Shouldn’t intact families be our highest goal? Shouldn’t we want for birth families exactly what we want for our own, if it is possible?

But birth families are not prioritized; adopters are. The system is geared to make us happy, to keep us coming. There is this silent belief that kids are better off with us, period. We say, “God chose this child for me. She is mine. She was always meant to be mine.” No. Our children were meant for their birth families, the way every child ever born is. God did not intend these children for my wealthy home and accidentally put them in Ethiopian wombs. Does God not weep for birth moms who were tricked? Who were coerced? Who were so vulnerable? Were their children gifts for us and not them? This perspective insidiously tricks us into overvaluing our “rights” and devaluing first families or reunification efforts.

With much of the adoption pipeline supplied by corruption and confusion, we cannot possibly claim God’s sovereignty. We need to call it what it is: an injustice God would never endorse. It is time to stop participating in the type of adoption that encourages able-bodied parents to give up their children or get pregnant to supply a baby for a paycheck. We cannot be complicit in what amounts to trafficking.

When we began the process, Brandon and I assumed we were adopting kids with no parents. We were shocked to discover most kids in our pipeline had one or both living parents, including our two. Without sharing too much of their stories, I’ll tell you that both kids could be raised by able-bodied birth parents or extended family. That doesn’t change the fact that they were both relinquished, Ben in an orphanage nearly three years when we met him at age 8, but we are haunted by the possibility that some simple development and intervention could’ve prevented them from ever entering the system.

“It’s too complicated.” “They cannot handle their own kids.” “They are too poor.” “Life is too unstable there.” These are the arguments we bandy around about birth parents. Frankly, this is an easy pill to swallow and goes down in seconds without much consideration. Just like that, I’ve severed the biological tie and discredited the argument for reunification.

Yet people working in impoverished countries tell me something totally different. My friends, Troy and Tara Livesay, work in maternal care in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. By every statistic and standard, it is a hot mess. Yet at Heartline, their organization that offers prenatal care, safe birthing facilities, and parenting and child development classes for vulnerable moms, their numbers disclose something astonishing: Out of roughly 300 births – and I’m talking very poor women, some raped, some teenagers, some single moms, extremely disadvantaged – only ONE birth mom has ever relinquished her baby. As Tara told me, “If our small, simple operation has virtually a 100% success rate, we are not trying hard enough for birth families.”

What would happen if we reallocated a percentage of the millions we spend on adoption toward community development? What if we prioritized first families and supported initiatives that train, empower, and equip them to parent? This would absolutely be Orphan Prevention, not to mention grief prevention, loss prevention, abandonment prevention, trauma prevention, broken family prevention. What if we asked important questions about supply and demand here, and broadened our definition of orphan care to include prevention and First Family empowerment?

Adoptive parents are so precious to me; this community is dear. I only feel safe raising these disturbing concerns because I know our hearts. You would not sit one of us down and discover evil motives or a calculated rejection of birth moms. The opposite is true, in fact. These are some of the best people I’ve ever known. This is no attack; rather it’s grabbing hands with my community and humbly acknowledging that where there is a lot of smoke, there is some fire, and none of us endorse international pyromania.

When the critics are primarily adult adoptees, misled first families, locals and missionaries, in-country nonprofits, and developing countries in general, we should listen.

I simply believe it is time to take our good hearts and add our good minds. Adoption is the worst place to enter armed with nothing but good intentions. Rather than get swept up in emotional jargon and moving videos, we must move forward soberly, carefully, thoroughly, setting any agenda aside and working like hell to protect children, birth families, communities, and the kingdom.

Dear Ones, again, adoption is complicated and nuanced, and corruption does not apply to every situation obviously. There are clearly scenarios dripping with abuse, neglect, total abandonment, and bad parents, which exist in every country. Orphans are real and some kids really need families, and I personally know scads of your above-board stories. So many of our kids had no option for reunification or extended family or in-country adoption.

Discussing unethical adoptions, I am not saying always; I am saying sometimes, and if there is a sometimes in the mix, then we must go on high alert. We have to. We cannot simply hope we have no part in the sometimes

…we must insist on the never.

In Part Two, I’ll get down to the nitty gritty: What do we do? What questions do we ask? What are the red flags? How do we evaluate our agencies, since we must place so much trust in their integrity? How do we refuse complicity in unethical practices?

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