Tuesday 18 October 2011

The Wall: A Map Of Adoption Ethics According to Me (Part One)

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 lossesBut 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 endThere 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 nowsyndrome, 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!


  1. I love that you mapped it all out. I've tried and failed to do this before- I couldn't get over my adoption induced psychosis to ever finish the job. LOL!

    I particularly like that you mentioned The Moral High Ground and The Valley of Despair. Those two areas are fascinating to me. And you are so right- just those two areas alone make The Wall so important.

    Gosh, it's hard stuff. I love the map though. For real.

  2. I think you should feel free to change your mind about anything written here as long as you change it because of new info or new understanding rather than worries about what others might say.

    What you've written seems well thought out (and honest).

    I've been lucky (I guess) in that my husband has not been interested in adoption at this time. It's given me quite a bit of time to do research and learn. The decisions I would make now (in many instances) would be quite different than those I would have made in March when I started my research. And, I continue to learn (and my thoughts evolve) as I gain more information.

    Should my husband ever be on board with adoption (and, I can't really blame a 30 y/o man for having concerns about adopting 11 y/o children), we will hopefully be in a place where we can make sure that the process is ethical for everyone involved (especially for the first family!).

  3. This would be the time when I go close my blog down and just redirect all my traffic to you. SHAZAM!! Well said.

  4. I can't wait for part two. You nailed it. And by nailed it, I of course mean made me cringe when considering where I fall into those categories of APs.

  5. Rock on sistah. Love the engineer style definition. Guilty as charged. And... ok yes- there is always something to make me laugh and tonight I needed the laugh. as APCSimplicity posted again...arrrg. here's what I'm laughing about..

    I'm imagining the comments of "I've been diagnosed with AIP recently" adoption induced psychosis. so true and awful and oh my goodness!

  6. Stellar. Really nailed it - and I'm with Jamey, all future blog traffic HERE.

  7. The Hills are alive with the sound of Amen. A perfect clarification of everything I should have said in my "conspiring with Satan" posts. (at least, that is what they are being called in some spheres.)

    Wonderful. You are brilliant.

  8. Wow. Almost perfect. I'm just going to toss in that sometimes even internationally adopted children are put up for the same type of reasons as kids from the US foster system... let's call them the river of abuse, the river of parental dysfunctionality and the river of neglect. If the adopting countries had better support services for families... and we're right back to what you're talking about. So. Well done.

  9. This is my first time on your blog, but I have to say... excellent, excellent post.

  10. I love how your posts always make me laugh AND think deeply. Your writing is so approachable. Thanks for being such a beautiful voice in a sea of ugly. -beka

  11. Well. This pretty much outlines everything I've ever wanted to say on the subject. Like Jamey said, I will now just divert my url here. :)


  12. Perfection. Cannot wait for Part 2!

  13. Hi Claudia, how are you? my hat is off to you once again. Just brilliant, almost stating the obvious, but of course, as you mention so much gets lost in the murky emotions and motivations, so your break-down of how this all should work is much needed. I would love to see adoption agencies link to this article....wouldn't that be courageous of them?! Waiting for Part 2.

  14. I am a psychotic PAP, and was 3 yrs ago as well, and am all for the wall of protection. I think the wall needs to be tended to much better than it is. Will you do a post on Wall Construction and Upkeep? :) This was brilliant my friend.

  15. So this is just amazing. We are nearing the end of our 18 month long process & I am absolutely suffering from Adoption Induced Psychosis (no morning more than this morning, in fact!). I love this post because a)It has visual aids! & b)It says what needs to be said while being so respectful of everyone. As an agency family, can't wait for Part II!

  16. I wish, as a PAP, that I found on your map a small 'sea of tranquility,' even a pond or a puddle of tranquility. thank you for writing this, so well thought out and strikingly sharp and to the point. the whole blog thing really can help vault people anywhere on the adoption continuum into a new headspace. I love all your writing, but this is truly most likely my favorite piece of all time. Bring on part deux, no dilly-dallying now.

  17. Thank you for writing this! Now I don't have to figure out how to do it myself. So well stated and clearly presented. Like everyone else, I can't wait for part 2, and will honestly own the post-adoption hypocrisy label.

    There is one piece of the map that I think might be missing though, and this is the piece I really can't wrap my head around yet, but think is very much a factor in Ethiopia today (and probably many other countries as well). What about the influence of the more affluent adopting countries on the values of parents in sending countries in terms of what all children need to thrive. What I mean is, I think there are relinquishing birth parents in Ethiopia right now that could probably care for their children. They are poor and they struggle, and they don't have food all the time, and their children may not have access to school all the time, and maybe only one parent is alive or around, but the greater family unit and or the local village is still a fairly well functioning support system and the kids living there could easily live to adulthood surrounded by their local family and culture. Yes, they would likely also be poor and have poor children themselves, but they can care for each other and they have a future in their home country. Then, along comes international adoption and all of a sudden these parents see an opportunity to provide a great education, guaranteed access to food and a whole host of opportunities to their precious children. They love their children dearly and want the "best" for them, so they take a gamble and purposefully relinquish their kids (or maybe just one of their kids) hoping that that child will make it in the world in a way that they couldn't if they stayed with their family and maybe, even, better the lives of people in their home country or their own village some day. Yes, this type of influence can certainly be sold to birthparents by unethical agencies that can't stay on their side of the wall, but it can also seep in as international adoption or first-world influence in general becomes more prevalent in a country. Where does this fit on the map (Besides maybe something those on the top of the wall should be looking out for. But then again, is it their right to ultimately decide)?

    (Sorry to take over your comment section with such a lengthy question.)

  18. You say adoption is for a child without a family. Then you say it's their choice to relinquish. Which is it?

    Btw, there's no such thing as an ethical adoption (severe abuse/neglect aside).

  19. Seriously the best synopsis of adoption ethics I have ever read. Cannot wait for part II.

  20. Maybe I missed it, but are the kids on the wall anywhere?

  21. Thanks for this...very interesting and thought provoking. One thing I do disagree with, however, is that social services don't benefit from adoption. Social services in the child protective service system definitely benefit--the more kids in the system, the bigger the system, the more jobs, etc. I once heard a critic of the protective service system in the US call US child abuse reporting legislation "the social worker full employment act".

    1. Absolutely true. I don't really know how this works outside the US, but inside the US social services (CPS) absolutely benefits financially in taking kids away from parents. However they don't really benefit from completed adoptions. They benefit by keeping the kids in limbo as long as possible.

    2. To the two posters above, though I don't work in the fields of adoption or child protective services, I do work as a social worker and therapist. Social work as a profession began to help poor and vulnerable populations of people, and it is still around because of so many issues in our society as a whole. Re: adoption, this clearly is larger than one group of people benefitting (the CPS system is being called out by both of the posters above). Perhaps adoption wouldn't even have to exist if we were better as a society of making sure people have access to the resources they need. Barriers to resources come from a complex web of institutionalized racism, socio-economic inequities, and lack of educational opportunities.

      I am not defending the CPS system itself as certainly there are many flaws. CPS jobs are probably some of the most challenging in the field in with exceedingly high case loads, as well as high stakes. But most social workers I know, including myself, entered into the profession with an authentic desire to make a difference. Most of us need to work two jobs in order to make ends meet--even with a masters degree. We are often in jobs with unrealistic demands and expectations, and lack of support in our social system as a whole, to try to help people who need it most.

      Most social workers go into the profession to help people, not hurt them, and certainly not to keep them mired in a system, for our own benefit. Believe me, social workers struggle to help people through and in spite of these various systems because those systems are what we have to work with. The issue is a systemic and societal one; not just a social services problem.

  22. Thanks so much for interesting comments! Some of the questions people have asked are going to be addressed in part 2, when I get my head into gear to write that. Good points about social services from Paula and anon. I'll amend the para to take some of that into account, if you don't mind. However, to interact a bit with anon's point - I'm trying to make this as general as possible so am skating over a lot of detail. I'm trying to balance a useful amount of complexity with a) not being so long that it's unreadable and b) I only get to blog during naptime! Anyone wants to write in more detail about any of these areas, please do... this is just a bird's eye view! (And please let me have the link when you've done it).

    "An AP", if your opinion is that ethical adoption only exists in the case of severe abuse or neglect, then I'm afraid we're definitely going to disagree on what a map of ethical adoption looks like. I do think that there are circumstances where people decide they are out of option, they are unable to parent,and then relinquish their children (leaving those children without a family). I think that this should probably happen a lot less than it does, and those who benefit from that decision should not be part of that process, but I don't think it means that a future adoption for that child is necessarily wrong. More about this in part 2.

    And as for whether children are on the map - no they aren't. That's kind of the point. All of these decisions are taken by other people, and the children that are actually affected by adoption never get a say. That's why working for an ethical process is so important.

  23. I think you missed my point. People should not have to place their child for adoption because they are "out of options." Reform needs to come in the form if social support for mothers, and the facts bear out that the vast majoritions mothers would parent their children if they had the option. Yes, there are some, a minuscule amount, who would choose adoption anyway.

    I hope you reconsider your premise that kids aren't on the wall. If you are going to get anywhere close to discussing ethical adoption, the kids have to be the center. I

    It seems you are seeking ethical adoption practices based on some faulty logic; for example, "adoption is ok for people without options."

    1. And what should happen in the mean time while reform doesn't exist?

      Your statement "btw, there's no such thing as an ethical adoption severe abuse/neglect aside." is flawed. What about abandonment? What about mothers who simply do not want to parent?

  24. Excuse typos! iPhone!

  25. AP you kinda touched on this. While it is true that more families should have the option to continue parenting their children, I do not think adoption is just for people out of options.

    It is also for women/parents who choose not to terminate pregnancies (like in the US) but who do not want to or feel able to parent. That is the basis of many domestic adoption placements in the US. I know some girls feel forced by society or family to make adoption plans for the children, and I am not talking about them.

    I am talking about women who make a choice because they feel it is better for both their children and for themselves in various percentages. They have a right to choose adoption. Whether they want their children to have two parents, or access to education, or they just don't feel capable for any reason, or do not feel capable of parenting: that is their choice. Yes they should receive support. Counseling, offers of assistance. Maybe they shouldn't feel that way. Maybe we should have a society that makes it so they don't have to be in that situation where they feel that way.

    Maybe here in the US they shouldn't be able to look through a book of prospective parents, call them up, chat and choose "This family. I want my child raised by these people." Do you think this is also unethical?

    Granted, when you jump across the pond I don't know how many of these hypothetical "choosing" women exist in Ethiopian adoption, as my guess the "out of options" stakes are much higher than in the US or other thriving society.

    Assuming a family knows what is at stake, loves their child, and chooses relinquishment because they think it will be better for everyone (whether or not they are right). It doesn't sit well with me that there is no ethical adoption possible in your mind.

    Unfortunate? Heck yes. Terrible loss? Yes. But saying all adoptions that aren't based on removal from family because of abuse because no family should have to feel out of options? I dunno.

    Whether or not you are right in your hopes for the world (which I think everyone here would agree, that is how it should be. People should feel capable of parenting and want to), I cannot agree that adoptions are unethical just because "it shouldn't be this way."

    But maybe I am also missing the point?

  26. I think it is hard to talk in depth about the rights of birth parents to chose adoption without including the rights of the children too.
    Are they allowed to lie to their children and everyone else so that they can choose an adoption path for them?
    Very interesting discussion in the comments too. Thanks for starting a great conversation Claudia!

  27. ScoopIng - I think it comes back to choices and options. If a young mother considering adoption for her child knew all the possible negative ramfications of adoption for the child, would she still place? Why couldn't there be a situation whereby she remained mom but had assistance raising her child? Is she making an informed chioce if she's not aware if the trauma of her child being separated from her?

    I guess I think there are very few cases where a child would be better off adopted. Children belong with their mothers/families.

  28. Thank you for pointing out that "an ethical adoption" is not the same thing as "the best possible outcome for the child". That is a distinction that is all-to-often overlooked.

  29. Excellent, as always. You covered so much and left so much for me to think about (as did the discussion in the comments) that I'm glad that there's a bit of a break before the second part. Take your time! I am busy thinking very hard over here!

    I do have some things to add to the discussion, particularly in light of recent discoveries about our own daughter's story, but I think that everything's being pretty well covered here. I will just follow along from my seat at the back of the class until Part 2.

  30. AP: The distinction I'm trying to make is exactly what veggiemom said.

    If you don't think that any adoption (except in the case of abuse or neglect) is ever ethical, then of course you aren't going to agree that this is a distinction. But personally, I think it's a really important one. And I think that it's important one to tease out what ethical then actually means. I think it's possible to say two things simultaneously: a) adoption is not always a good thing, and b) it should be done ethically, and I guess that's one of the things I'm trying to say here. There's more to come in part 2 on what should be happening 'upstream' in order to minimise the need for adoption in the first place.

  31. Adoption reform to me means the default is no adoptions at all. Of course there will be extenuating circumstances at times. But why spend all this energy working out what "ethical adoption" looks like and instead, address the issues that lead to adoption in the first place?

    1. Because some people simply do not want to parent. That's why there were approximately 100,000 abortions performed worldwide this year.

      Others cannot follow a basic plan of service (get a job, stay off drugs) in order to parent. This is why we have approximately half a million adoptable children in the US foster system today, and thousands more who have been removed from their parents for neglect.

      To believe that DNA = good parenting is callow and as narrow minded as believing adoption is always preferable.

      And not all of us adoptees are traumatized and damaged by adoption. Many of us are doing just fine, thanks. Please don't included in your blanket statements.

  32. I feel like I could read this every day for a week and still find new things I love about it. Terrific job, Claudia. Part 2, excitement builds for you! ;)

    love to you

  33. We all know what it takes to end the need for adoption.

    But no one as yet has been able to "solve world hunger". Especially when dealing with different countries.

    Do I hope the day comes when we "solve world hunger" of course.

    But until then there are children who need a family. And of course the first choice is making it so they do not need a family, but get to keep the one they have. But "we" are not there yet.

  34. I am looking forward to reading this again and again when both kids are asleep. Kudos to you for taking on such a complex topic. I will admit that at points while reading it I was offended by the generalizations (which means I need to take a harder look at myself). But APs comments were a great wake-up to me as well - of course you had to generalize and if we don't give each other some benefit of the doubt we will never communicate at all.
    I, of course, love the point that adoption is not (or shouldn't ever be) part of the loss/relinquishment process.
    I really need to think hard about the agencies' roles in this whole thing. At least in Ethiopia one way agencies have claimed to be ensuring ethics is by having staff who cross the wall to double check on the facts of the relinquishment. Theoretically this is all after the fact but certainly opens the doors for interesting interactions.
    I also think that one legitimate reason SOME PAPs become more vocal about ethics post adoption is because of the things they observe in country that no amount of research revealed before hand.
    AP, I would love to introduce you to some friends of mine, a birth-mother and her adult daughter reunited when said daughter reached adulthood. Maybe they could convince you that adoption as an institution is not necessarily
    a bad thing.

  35. Anon, we aren't there yet because people want to adopt kids. If people spent as much time trying to make adoption unnecessary as they do analyzing the current system, we'd be closer.

    Semi, I know lots of adoptees and first mothers. Some of my best friends fall into that category (wink). Playful sarcasm intended :)

  36. I think AP makes some interesting points.

    I believe that often we assume that families have more choices in adoption than they actually have, especially in a system where there are very limited social services and where societal/religious norms can literally make life for women and children impossible.

    Did that girl chose to become pregnant? Could she have prevented it? Does she have access to birth control? Is she allowed to use it even if she has access to it? Did she want to become a mother?

    If a woman wants to parent her child but is provided only with physical support (ie- food, shelter, day care), can she successfully raise a child in a socially depraved state? Can any of us parent without social/emotional support? Can we raise healthy kids when we/they are shunned?

    If a child is orphaned due to disease (such as HIV) and extended family refuses to care for the child, what other options does the child have than adoption (not necessarily IA, but adoption in general)?

    These are things I am still struggling with... and part of why I do not believe that adoption is only ethical in the case of abuse/neglect.

    I would like to see societies change, but that takes years (seriously, look at racism in the US to think about how long it would take to really make changes in the societal norms/mores.) In the mean time, how do we best serve children?

  37. "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"

    Yeah, right. It is an EXTREMELY rare case when there is no coercion or manipulation in adoption. As long as people are willing to adopt (whether because they are infertile or have a savior complex) there is manipulation and coercion- societal, from paps, from social wreckers and from corrupt foreign governments who do not care for their most vulnerable members of society, governments who promote and/or order human trafficking. As long as people pay for children, this will continue.

    While it's nice to see an ap hope/wish for "ethical adoption", there really is no such thing. To this American adoptee, adoption should only occur when there is neglect/abuse. But no one wants THOSE kids. It's much "cooler" to get one from abroad, or even better, the brass ring- the child who still reeks of amniotic fluid.

    And for the love of all things holy, REMOVE GOD FROM THE EQUATION. It was not in "God's plan" for me to be taken from my natural family. Adoption is a man made creation, a legal procedure born from desperation. People need to stop justifying their excuse for adoption by pulling God into it. It's ridiculous, quite insulting- especially to "most" adoptees, and really destroys a child's idea of God.

    And I agree with "ap". Where are the kids on/around/near this wall?? Oh, yeah...they're invisible. Because that's what adoption does- it makes the child invisible. No child wants to be separated from their first families, their cultures, their homelands, their heritage and language. Adoption, "ethical" or not, is about the paps who want a kid, and about the brokers who profit.

    I know all about being invisible- my feelings, wants or needs never counted. Ask me about my original birth certificate. It's invisible to me, even at the age of 45, even after being in reunion with my FIRST parents since I was 21 years old. I, like thousands of other adult adoptees in the USA, are victims of state sanctioned discrimination. I cannot leave the USA because I cannot obtain a passport due to new post 9/11 homeland security rules. (an amended bc must be filed within specific dates, and many are/were not)

    Part 2 should include this discrimination US adoptees face. There is no need to seal our personal information, our legal records of birth. My ap's did not give birth to me, there is no need to falsify a so-called "legal" document.

    Ethical adoption should also include open adoption. Meaning all adoptions should be open- and not just some artsy picture sent once a year. That does NOT benefit an adoptee, it benefits an ap's conscience. Open adoption means the child has REGULAR contact with their first family. Of course, in cases of neglect or abuse, this may not be possible with the first parents- but not everyone in the child's first family neglected them.

    There are other ways to serve children both here and abroad without taking them from their families or cultures. There really is nothing altruistic about adoption.

    1. in response to your comment "adoption should only occur when there is neglect/abuse. But no one wants THOSE kids. It's much 'cooler' to get one from abroad"

      Domestic adoptions (in America): 116,432
      International adoptions: 19,569
      Almost 100,000 more children were adopted in America by Americans

    2. Linda I am also an adoptee in my 49s, and I bet we have opposite opinions on almost everything.

      To state that ALL adoptees feel the same as you is as ridiculous as saying all black people think a lot. Please cut it out.

  38. This is excellent. I really enjoyed reading your thought provoking "article."
    I didn't read through every single comment, but here's my thought:
    what about those domestic adoptions where the bio mom picks "me" and then sits with me (while pregnant) to discuss my life and what I have to offer her child. Isn't that across the wall you suggest? That happens in many adoptions these days in the states that are not out of foster care. Is that crossing the wall? And if so, are there gray areas?
    Blessings on you.
    Very thoughtful post.

  39. Ooh, I loved Linda's comment: I completely agree, unless serious abuse all adoptions should be open! No records should be closed, all children should know who their family. YES! I appreciated your disclaimers because lots of your readers are from the US, so you cannot speak to the adoption and foster adoption situations here. Keep going, C.

  40. Wow. The hills of neutrality. TOTALLY.
    Thanks for this post.

  41. As someone in the early stages of researching adoption, I adore this post. I'm passionate about educational development for women. I think from the vantage point of international adoption, you are spot on. I hear what people are saying when they suggest we get to a place where adoption is no longer necessary--we should all dream so big. But until then, ethical adoption is and should be a small part of a spectrum of solutions we offer in response to the factors that lead to adoption, including mother-care and whole-community-care.

    I realize you were not addressing domestic adoption in the US, but this addresses so many of my own concerns about ethical adoption, I thought I'd ask a couple of questions here that shift the conversation a bit. Since many of your readers are in the US, I'm curious--does anyone knows of posts that do this sort of sweeping overview of ethics for domestic adoption? We are looking at both domestic and international, but are passionate about being involved in the life of a birth mother, which seems easiest here in the States or in a country where we speak the language (we're working on that too).

    Before I've even started this process, here's my sense: The scrapbooks and letters addressed to first mothers are problematic. (I have a very visceral reaction to them.) At the same time, there are some situations in which a mother feels too young or is otherwise uninclined to parent a child and she felt that way before she came across any letters or an agency who coerced her to give up her baby. Say she combines that with not having the family support to raise a child (that should be the first and best option). Many first mothers in the US then make a choice based on our more privileged society: whether to parent the child or terminate the pregnancy. Given that choice, isn't possible that an ethical approach would be to adopt the baby in a close, open adoption? I've seen several situations in which adoptive families become like an aunt and uncle to the birth mother and serve the familial role that might have been taken on had her own family members been willing or able to take in the baby. It seems to me that the options should be 1) the first mother parents the baby with community support
    2) if she doesn't want to or is unable to parent, someone within her own family should be given the opportunity to parent the child, again with community support
    3) if those first two don't work out, an adoptive family can step in to parent the child, serving in the role of a surrogate #2 family member, still keeping the child connected to his or her community and family.

    This is the longest comment ever, but we are beginning the process of choosing an agency in the next week or two and want to make sure we've thought about all of these issues before we get swept up in the official side of adoption. How we answer some of these questions will determine who we work with and how we adopt. Your wisdom and help are certainly appreciated!

  42. (Insert clapping here)

    Well written!

  43. I like your post, and totally understand where you are coming with a lot of it, but I think the moral high ground part of the map was just a bit too specfic...not the norm. God calls all Christians to care for orphans, it is something we should do not because we want children, but because we want them to grow up with a family. If a PAP is truly doing it for that reason, I don't think they would care which country they adopt from. I also agree with several of the other posters. I understand your trying to point out the people making the decisions, but I truly think children should be on the side of "benefits" wall. I totally agree a lot of coercion goes on, and adoptions should be done for the right reason. I also agree when at all possible, they should stay with their birth families. But at the end of the day, there are still TONS of birth parents that have either died, are abusive, or simply don't want to parent. Those cases adoption is absolutely neccessary, and here in Canada, adoptive parents don't play much of a role in chosing who they adopt. Adoption Agencies do, we simply say yes or no to a proposal. I understand your talking about "x" and not "y" but I don't think you can talk about one without the other. That being said, still a very thought provoking post.

  44. Lots of really interesting points and questions! I can't respond at length at the moment - but I will as soon as I can, I promise. Anonymous, I wanted to let you know that the best resource I've found for US domestic adoption think-i-ness is the blog 'Production, not Reproduction'. (It comes straight up if you google that; she's also on my blogroll). Heather hosts a regular 'Open Adoption Round Table' where there is always lots and lots to read and think about with input from APs, adoptees and first mothers. I can't think of any similar ethical overview post for domestic adoption, but someone else might know of one!

  45. "To this American adoptee, adoption should only occur when there is neglect/abuse. But no one wants THOSE kids. It's much "cooler" to get one from abroad"

    This gave me pause. The children that I advocate for are children with special needs, in a foreign country. Many of these children are living in conditions akin to those from decades past, in institutions by age 5, given two diaper changes a day, never seeing the sun, developing rickets, medicated to keep them quiet. These children die without families. We've lost more kids than I can tell you, due to malnutrition, disease, etc because the conditions are horrible. About half of all kids die within the first year in the institution.

    Or if they're "lucky" and they only have HIV or a "lesser" disability that does not include a cognitive impairment, they're raised in an orphanage and put out on the streets at 16.

    What choice do these children have? Adoption truly seems to be their only option. They've been abandoned for conditions that they cannot help.

  46. Thanks for taking the time to challenge all of us to think. Great post.

  47. Joining the chorus of wows and well dones. Can't wait for Part 2!

  48. Love, love, love your post. One thing that I think is missing though, is that most adoptive parents and agencies,are viewing adoption through the lense of western culture, add to that the fact that most adoptive parents are middle or upper class and fairly well educated. To really understand the placing country, you have to have people who really are bi cultural in terms of their knowledge of the country they are dealing with. For many adoptive parents, the adoption trip is their first trip out of their country. They cannot begin to imagine how things operate in other countries and how different cultures view things. Westerners often have no idea of how corruption works in many third world countries and how commen and accepted it is. I find few adoption agencies come to understand the culture they are working with and how hard it will be to find people who are able to understand western ethics. That being said, it does not take a rocket scientist to know that when a tiny country like Guatamala starts producing almost as many young babies for adoption as China does that something is not right.

    I strongly agree that the "desperate to be a parent syndrome", makes people blind,(I'm guilty) and they then go on to justify the blindness by the poverty etc in the country they adopt from. Forgetting that many people mange to grow up in their families in these countries despite grinding poverty. Its the adoptive westerners perspective, that its better to grow up and get an education (by being adopted), then to grow up poor in your own family with out an education. We justify a lot and we all of us, adoptive parents, need to look deeply at ourselfs, the agencies we work with and not keep our heads stuck in the sand.

  49. Wow! I found this post from missohkay's blog, and it totally blew my mind and changed my perspective on what would be expected of me as a PAP, should I ever decide to adopt. Thank you so much. You just made me feel like I don't have to take on all the responsibility for all the ethics of adoption, or for ensuring the best possible outcome for the child. Not that I don't care about those things, just that I knew that I couldn't take responsibility for them, and therefore I thought I couldn't handle being a PAP or AP. Wow! Thanks!

  50. Excellent post!! I hope all PAP will read this! :)

    Where I see one of the biggest international problems is the orphanages. Many have one foot on each side of the wall.

  51. Love this post. I am an adoptive mom (felt like you were describing me at points) who was not aware of some of these issues happening within our agency until several months after we were home with our kiddos. We would never use this agency again and as we have shared with friends who hope to adopt our experiences and cautions, it has been heartbreaking to see them choose shorter wait time over more reputable/ethical agencies. I can feel guilty. Our once sick, preemie twins (identical GIRLS) whose mother died in childbirth, are now smart, healthy, happy, hilarious and gorgeous. And I feel crazy blessed and thankful...but also guilty and sort of hypocritical, so thankful how things went for us but now asking others to consider other options...

    Sorry, sort of rambling here. Would welcome your thoughts.

  52. I'm late to this party but so impressed with the wisdom and grace of this post. Thank you for articulating it so well.


Over to you!