This was going to be one post but it got too long. Yes, even for me. Today, part one.
There's always lots of talk about ethics in international adoption, and that's great because there always should be. But what does that word mean: ethics? I'm pretty sure that people use it to mean many different things. So, this is my attempt to answer the question: What am I talking about when I talk about an ethical adoption?
To me, an ethical adoption starts with one simple thing: A wall.
A great big, unclimbable, immovable, unbreachable wall. This wall needs to divide two groups of people: The people who benefit from adoption and the people who make decisions about who will be adopted. Those two groups of people have to stay on different sides of the wall.
That's what an ethical adoption is, to me. An ethical adoption is not about how many social outreach programmes an agency has. An ethical adoption is not about how wonderful and kind the agency staff are. An ethical adoption is not about how great the kids are, or how well they fit their new families. An ethical adoption is not (necessarily) about waiting the longest for a referral. An ethical adoption is certainly not the very best possible thing that could happen to child. An ethical adoption is about the people who benefit from adoption staying on their own side of the wall.
So, who are these people? I think there are two main players on one side of the wall. I'd say that prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) and adoption agencies are the key beneficiaries of international adoption. PAPs have an obvious emotional investment in the process, adoption agencies have a financial interest.
I know, I know, nobody is allowed to 'profit' from adoption, but there are a lot of people who make a living from it without, strictly, turning a 'profit'. This is totally legal, and I'd say that mostly it's totally fine. Homestudies need to be done, and someone has to do them. Dossiers need to be collated, and someone has to collate them. Later, children need to be cared for, and someone has to do that caring. Even the nannies in the baby homes are, in some small way, benefiting from adoption as agency employees. There's nothing immoral about making a modest living from doing honest work involved in the adoption process, as long as those people who benefit stay on their own side of the wall.
On the other side of the wall sit the people who are making the decision: is this child an adoptable child?
I've put two sets of people there: parents and social services, but in international adoption, usually, the decision should rest with the child's parents. (Here, I'm using 'parents' and 'mothers' interchangeably to avoid getting overly specific about the myriad family dynamics that can contribute to adoption decisions. I'm sure you'll figure it out).
On top of the wall sits another group of people - those who are responsible for overseeing adoptions. These people (judges, local social workers and so on) should be able to see both sides of the wall and make objective decisions when necessary. They should also stop people straying onto the wrong side of the wall. They are like the wall police.
Okay. Now adding a little more detail:
I've called the area in which the relinquishing parents find themselves the 'swamp of adversity'. (Did I spend too much time reading Pilgrim's Progress as a kid? Um, possibly). The swamp of adversity is fed by three rivers: the river of poverty, the river of illness and the river of social expectations. Of course there are other factors, but I chose those three because I think they are behind a lot of decisions to abandon children, or formally relinquish them to international adoption. Any of these three can lead a woman to decide she is unable to parent. A single, HIV+ woman with no income faces all three.
One of the main reasons that I think there needs to be a wall between the beneficiaries and the decision-makers in adoption is that people living in the swamp of adversity are incredibly vulnerable. They are socially vulnerable, emotionally vulnerable and financially vulnerable. And not only are they vulnerable, they are parenting vulnerable children and I am sure that they know it. None of the three rivers lead to my door and yet parenting often seems to me to be nearly impossible. I often feel like my children deserve more than me. If I couldn't feed them, or care for their health, or my parenting attracted social stigma, I am certain I would feel that even more strongly. So people with an interest in seeing me decide not to parent would have a moral obligation not to exploit that, by staying a long way away. Preferably behind a wall.
Of course, vulnerable is not the same as stupid. And yet being vulnerable and facing adversity can lead a person to make poor decisions. Here's where I want to tread carefully. Because: adoption is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I am sure that there are cases where a mother is not coerced in any way and yet regrets her decision intensely for the rest of her life. I am equally sure there are cases where a mother is not coerced and yet her child regrets that decision intensely for the rest of her life. I am not trying to make light of that. Ideally, in a better-than-merely-ethical situation, all mothers (and fathers) considering placement would receive free, neutral counselling about the implications of the decision they are about to make. And in the best of all possible worlds, these people would get more than counselling, they would get help and support and financial assistance and encouragement to parent. That is what we want. That is what we should be striving for. That would make these families' life better, and obviously helping children to remain in their families of origin is better than international adoption with all its losses. But I think the baseline, the very minimum for an ethical adoption, should be that it does not make anything worse. I think that a lot of confusion comes into discussions about adoption ethics because we conflate two things - an ethical adoption, and the very best possible outcome for a child. These two things are not the same. More on this later. [in part 2].
And speaking of regret - I do think that sometimes, ethical adoptions involve some very bad decisions. One thing I find odd about having been immersed in thinking about adoption for several years is that I am now pretty aware (at least theoretically) of the realities of adoption for children. I know that relinquishing a child for adoption is a lifelong decision with lifelong ramifications for both parent and child. I am also aware that these decisions are being taken, daily, by disenfranchised women who have never had the opportunity to learn to read at all, let alone the opportunity to read birthmother blogs or longitudinal studies on transracial identity formation. From my position of privilege, I certainly hear some adoption stories where I think 'oh no, I wish that mother had decided to parent'. But here's the thing: It's not my decision. I'm not on that side of the wall. What makes an ethical adoption, in my opinion, is that mothers make their own decisions about placing their own children with no coercion and no manipulation from people who are getting something out of that decision.
Those decisions may not always be good decisions. But in each case, for each mother, it must be her decision, and hers alone. The prospective adoptive parents must not emotionally blackmail a mother into relinquishing her child with promises of 'a better life'. Adoption agencies (or their representatives) must not offer money or other incentives to encourage relinquishments. I'm not just talking about outright harvesting (although that is obviously wrong). I'm also including 'strings-attached' maternal care, outreach / sponsorship programmes that are only available to families with relinquished children, religious pressure and and all other slightly more subtle ways of making people think that relinquishing their children would be the right thing to do. Because - I'm going to say it again - An ethical adoption is about the people who benefit from adoption not getting involved in deciding who will be adopted.
Ethical doesn't mean good. Ethical doesn't mean wise. Ethical doesn't mean that adoption is win-win. It doesn't mean that everybody is always happy with what happened. But I'd say the minimum is that an ethical adoption picks up the pieces of a tragedy that has already happened to a child - the loss of his or her parents. An ethical adoption is never an active part of making that loss happen. An ethical adoption takes a bad situation (kid with no family) and makes it - hopefully - better (new family). Ethical adoption is not the reason the bad situation happens in the first place.
Moving on. All I want to say about social services is that they had better be living in the hills of neutrality.
And so now, some more detail on the other side of the fence. Prospective adoptive parents.
PAPs tend to inhabit two very different types of terrain. Lots of people come to adoption because all their other attempts to make a family have failed, and I've labelled this zone the Valley of Despair. Here's why people who live in that place need to be totally uninvolved in the process of relinquishment: People who are desperate for a baby are not in a good position to make wise decisions. I'm not saying this to judge people who are desperate for a baby. I've been there. Who knows, one day I may be back in that place again. I know that people who have never felt that way can get very judge-y about it, but in my opinion it is absolutely normal for a woman facing fertility problems to feel a desperate, overwhelming desire to be a mother. Some women don't feel this way (and I bet they work out five times a week and like quinoa, too) but most of us who have been in that situation know that knot in the stomach of painful, hopeless desire for something we can't have. I think that biology programmes us to be desperate for a baby and feeling that way is normal, it's natural, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I think that pretending that desire isn't there or wishing it away by saying it shouldn't be there is counter-productive. Emotions are neutral. You feel what you feel. There's nothing wrong with emotions on their own. It's what you do with emotions that lends them power.
So: there is nothing wrong with being desperate for a baby. But it can make a person very selfish. It can make us forget that the potential birthmother we are looking at is a real person, not an incubator for our child. It can make a person want a baby at any cost. And conversely, PAPs in this position are also extremely vulnerable. They are vulnerable to making extremely poor choices, of displaying extremely poor judgement, of deciding that the means justify the end. They are vulnerable to believing things that no sensible person would believe, because they so desperately want them to be true. These things include if you sign up with OUR agency you can ethically have a baby home by Christmas and we are the victims of a smear campaign; we can explain all of the ethical issues that former clients have raised. Not all PAPs believe these things, but this crazy desperate belief and trust is a risk. A huge risk, actually. Power corrupts, and so does grief and desperation. Putting power into the hands of desperate people seems, to me, to be an extremely bad idea.
The other place PAPs can often be found is the moral high ground. These PAPs aren't adopting because they want a child, they are adopting because they want to help a child find a family. People can say sarcastic things about saviour complexes at this point, but wanting to help a child find a family is a great reason to start thinking about adoption. (Unless the only child you are willing to help is a healthy infant. But that's another post).
The problem that can come from inhabiting the moral high ground is that it can lead to tunnel vision. People who decided on adopting from Ethiopia years ago are often unwilling to see that the situation there is no longer what it was. Some of the needs that formerly existed no longer exist. I think that sometimes, people are adopting in order to fulfil a desire they have had for more than, say, ten years, so it's a desire sparked by a situation that is now ten years out of date. But having started on a path, they stop looking around, stop considering the context. All they can see is the light at the end of the tunnel: their future child. Again, this is absolutely understandable. Making adoption decisions is agonising. It's unlikely that people are going to put themselves through that same agony once a week for ten years. The human brain just doesn't work that way. But I do think that it's an extremely rare person who is detached enough to pull back before completing the process and say 'actually, I don't think our family is needed any more'. Even if the situation has changed drastically, it's much more normal to stay fixed on the original plan. The main risk with adoption tunnel vision, I think, is that it can lead people to think that their adoption will definitely be ethical because they are in it with good intentions. "I adopted in order to help, therefore my adoption is a good thing". This is more palatable than baby hunger, perhaps, but no more rational and ultimately not very much less risky.
I can't end this section without mentioning the fact that a lot of Christians are keen to adopt for religious reasons. I'm a Christian myself, so I love seeing children growing up in homes where they will learn about Jesus. No matter what your worldview, I'm sure you feel the same - we all like seeing children growing up with parents who will teach children values that we, ourselves, respect. For me, and lots of other Christians, we rejoice to see kids learning to pray. If you are an atheist who values secular humanism, you will be glad when a fellow secular humanist brings their child up to quote Dawkins from an early age. My point here is that there is nothing wrong - for all of us- with wanting to see children adopted into homes where we agree with the values that will be learnt. However - I do think that we Christians have a bad track record with assuming that the ends - a Christian home - justifies the means, any means, of an adoption. This is the worst kind of tunnel vision. Because God is not honoured when we pressure or coerce mothers into relinquishing children that God has given to them, not to us. James 1:27 is often quoted to imply that God is always in support of adoption but I think we also need to have a sober look at Job 24:9 and Mark 12:40 before ever, ever thinking that we should look for a way to get around the wall.
Of course, there are some PAPs (a very, very small number) who don't live on either the moral high ground or the valley of despair. But even where this is the case, if I'm honest, I'm yet to meet a PAP who does not suffer (to some degree) from adoption induced psychosis. Waiting to adopt makes a person crazy, especially towards the end. There is nothing normal or natural about waiting to be meet a total stranger who will one day call you mama. The feelings that this state induces are understandable, but they are not rational and they are not conducive to good decision making.
I think what I am saying is this: PAPs, on average, are vulnerable, tunnel visioned and / or psychotic. I'm joking. Except no, actually, I'm not. For these reasons, they - we - are not the right people to be making decisions about whether a child should be adoptable. Having been one myself, I would barely trust a PAP to make a good decision about choosing a breakfast cereal.
This is why I think that PAPs should not be involved in any of decision making about which children really, truly need new homes. They profit from adoption - not financially, but emotionally, so they are generally unable to be truly neutral about what should happen to a child. Perhaps a good way to illustrate how judgement can be compromised while waiting to adopt is to ask: have you noticed how common it is for people to suddenly become much more vigilant about ethics after returning home with their oh-so-perfect-obviously-meant-for-our-family child? I think this is partly benign - after becoming a parent, I think it's pretty normal to have more of an understanding of what it would mean to lose a child. However, I think part of it is simply that, once we are no longer invested in the system, we are able to look at it more objectively. This is what I call 'Oh, I wouldn't adopt from there now' syndrome, or, more bluntly, post-adoption-hypocrisy. Symptoms include discussions about how different things used to be in country X, when actually, nope, things were pretty much always like they are now. I'm going to put my hand up to this one and say that there was a lot of stuff I did not want to think about before we brought our children home, stuff that seems obvious to me now. People who adopted about the same time as me sometimes mention that now there are concerns about ethics in Ethiopia but hmmmmm, I'm pretty sure there were some concerns about ethics when we were adopting, too. My own experience of observing my own changing perception is enough to tell me - I was too invested in the process, as a PAP, to be able to make any objective judgements. I am so grateful - unspeakably so - that I was never put in a position where I had the opportunity to choose an ethical shortcut for a quicker adoption. (We adopted in the UK - so we made pretty much no choices at all in our adoption. But that's also a different post). I would like to say I never would have done it, never taken that unethical choice, but honestly, with such clouded judgement it's hard to be sure. One of the biggest reasons that the adoption system needs a wall is that PAPs need to be shielded from the consequences of their own poor judgement. And I'm speaking for myself first.
What is the point of writing all that? Maybe all of that only applies to those who adopt independently. Surely, one good thing about an agency system is that PAPs do not generally get involved, cannot stomp into a country and demand babies, healthy girl babies, now now NOW! This is true, to an extent. It means that the way PAPs are able to do most damage, in an agency system, is by choosing an agency poorly. The agency a PAP chooses will act on their behalf. (That's what the word 'agent' means, after all). This means that PAPs need to be aware of their own limitations and get educated. And going to an agency and demanding babies, healthy girl babies, now now NOW! risks having exactly the same effect as getting on a plane in order to do it.
TO BE CONTINUED
TOMORROW SOON: Where do agencies fit in? What about non-adoption outcomes? Is hiding behind a wall enough to guarantee an ethical adoption? With MORE RIDICULOUS PLACE NAMES and LOTS MORE RANTING. (I just hope I don't change my mind about anything in this first section while I write section two).
Part Two is now up HERE.
Edited to say: I've added some disclaimers in a new post. If anything in this post makes you feel cranky, please read the disclaimers before getting annoyed at me. Thanks!
Edited to say: I've added some disclaimers in a new post. If anything in this post makes you feel cranky, please read the disclaimers before getting annoyed at me. Thanks!