On Friday, I’ll be joining a good crew of folks this week in Austin to discuss “Human Care,” including issues relating to the ethics of international adoption. Among the wonderful people with whom I hope to spend time is J.R. Goudeau. Today, she’s guest posting here and sharing her view on adoption ethics. Read this, y’all. It’s so good.
The question of the ethics of international adoption has become very, very personal to me. A few days ago, in a Chinese orphanage in a very large city, our third child celebrated her half-birthday. She is now two and a half; we go get her in a few short weeks. Her videos and pictures, her fat cheeks, shy smile and her sweet clapping hands, have changed this debate for me. This is no longer theory. This is real, as real as the grief we are about to enter and navigate together as we start over as a family of five.
The week after Jen Hatmaker began her series of adoption ethics in June, no less than six people in my life asked me whether our adoption was ethical. Part of that is because I live in Austin, where Jen lives, and a lot of us really like her. Part of that is because her series of posts prompted many people to begin thinking about these issues in new ways. We had just been matched with our little girl a few weeks before, and I mentioned to a friend at the time that one of my greatest comforts was the deep sense of peace we felt about the ethics of our adoption.
I was happy to answer those friends’ questions (and the ones that have come up since) and I’m grateful to the people who are helping to change the scope of this debate—we should be asking if adoptions are ethical with the same ease that people ask why we picked one country or a particular special need. I can say with a lot of love that I realize that for some people, the issue of adoption ethics is one that they only realize late into the process as they really begin to understand the ramifications of changing the course of a child’s life forever. But for me that was not the case; this has been the guiding issue of our adoption process.
An ethical adoption was the only option for us.
There are several reasons for my commitment to ethical adoption, but the most important is my experience doing community development in Brazil, where I taught English at a children’s home, and in Austin, where I co-founded a non-profit working with Burmese refugee artisans. The work we’ve done for the last several years in Austin with Hill Country Hill Tribers, helping young mothers and old grandmothers care for their small children and grandchildren by selling their handmade products so they can remain at home, has especially impacted my desire to adopt.
The stance we have learned to take in relation to the Burmese refugees we work is the same stance that we are using in our adoption: I want to flexibly adjust my life around their needs. That means for the refugees, we have learned how to order yarn because they weave. We have researched jewelry designs to help make marketable necklaces and earrings and bracelets. We have taught basic English classes because that is what they wanted to learn. We have learned how to manage MAP and Medicare and the food stamp program because those are the needs our friends have. We have stretched ourselves and turned our lives inside out to pour ourselves into each day as it came. We have learned to listen rather than talk, come alongside rather than instruct, make friends rather than “help” people. And the measure of our success is the strength of the solidarity in our small community.
In the same way, we didn’t want to find a baby that fit our family so much as adjust our family around a child. That means being open to the special needs and developmental delays of a child who has been in an institution. That means holding our plans loosely for the next several years until we understand the full extent of the therapies and surgeries and complexities we will face. Life with our Burmese friends has sometimes been glorious and beautiful, but often it has been heartbreaking and backbreaking. I assume this adoption will be perfect and flawed, difficult and painful and breathtakingly wonderful. I’ll let you know how it’s going a few months in, but right now we are preparing ourselves and our biological children to walk into grief and hardship together.
I didn’t want to adopt a child who was in an orphanage simply because her mother or father could not afford to care for her, what are sometimes called “poverty orphans.” The simple truth is that I felt it would be better for me to go and begin an economic development project or, better yet, support already existing community development works than to participate in a system that makes it seem better for children to be raised in the West than cared for in their home cultures. The complex truth is those are very broad ideas and that each adoption situation is different–there are a variety of reasons why children are relinquished every day–but in general, most Christians I know are much more excited about adoption than they are community development and women’s empowerment and I want to see a major shift in our larger conversation that supports women’s rights and mother’s rights first.
That being said, there are places and programs where ethical adoptions can and should be used as one of many tools in the arsenal to help children. Finding those programs and agencies can be difficult, but doing the research is crucially important. I have asked every person in my life over the last ten years who has adopted why they chose the programs and agencies they did, domestic or international, private or foster. I have read articles and blog posts and scholarly journals. By the time we were ready to adopt, I had a map in my head of where I thought the ethical adoptions were taking place, but then I called and personally spoke with people in 45 different agencies before settling on ours (I’m a nerd who loves research, let’s be honest). The answers I got from day one at our agency privileged birth mothers first, whether foreign or domestic. They care for special needs kids whether or not they are adopted. They work with other agencies happily and openly to advocate for kids. They are choosy and slow and very, very candid about their process. I have asked repeatedly, both generally in terms of their approach and now specifically about our child, for them to show me why it was ethical and they have, over and over again. No question has been too probing or too thorough. This is very different from what other friends have told me about their agencies and I’m so grateful we picked ours.*
Adoption is complicated and specific and tricky. The most challenging thing is knowing when adoption is appropriate and when it is not. The only way to know is by educating ourselves about the complexities of a country or a region or a village or a family. We need to listen hard and well; despite the fact that we lived in Brazil, when we asked good questions, we realized that the Brazilian relatives and friends around our kids were in a better position to adopt and support them than we were. This isn’t always the case, but it was for the three kids I wanted to adopt. I would love if we lived in a world in which every child had a supportive, loving larger family, but we do not. And while Christians are debating the ethics of adoptions (which we MUST do), adoptions overall have slowed down in the last decade and my agency, among others, is advocating daily for special needs and older kids who are hard to place. I don’t think every family should bring home just any kid, but matching the kids who need homes with families equipped to take care of them is an ongoing struggle for our agency and others. While adoption is not the answer from many, many countries and we need to reevaluate entire programs and approaches, we have to be careful not to be so extreme in our response that we discount adoption altogether.
Adoption and community development are two sides of the same coin. With one hand my husband and I are committed to supporting women and men in a variety of places so that they are never faced with the gut-wrenching decision to give up a child and with the other hand we’re bringing home a little one who would spend a life in an orphanage if adoption didn’t exist. Both community development and adoption are extremely important tools; it’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
The problems that lead to children being placed for adoption are many and complex. The solutions to those problems are equally complex and can only be understood by the community on the ground in a specific region, not Westerners who come in with all the answers. But, by listening to the people who live in a region, it is possible to come up with a variety of creative and beautiful responses: It could be maternity care in Haiti or water wells in Burundi or reunification in Uganda or educational development in the Dominican Republic or a refugee artisans’ cooperative in Austin.
And sometimes, it is adoption. Our child will be coming home to our house sometime in November. Until then, we’re living breathlessly in prayer that she and the twenty other children who share her room who haven’t yet been matched and the hundreds of other children who live in her institution know, somehow, that they are loved and worthwhile and precious.
*I’m happy to talk about the specifics of our adoption agency and the choices we made about our country program in the comments, but I wanted to generally advocate for a stance toward ethical adoption that could apply toward any thorough agency or program, not just write a commercial for mine. But if you have questions, I’d love to share anything online or by email.