Adoption: Redemption or Exploitation?


This article is the second in a series that dives deeper into the issues surrounding the rights of vulnerable children. 

I have spent most of my academic career working at institutions that do not share my Christian worldview.  Although my scholarship has always been strongly informed by my faith, I have endeavored to produce scholarship that also influences those who do not share or even understand my faith.  I have had to develop strategies that allow me to communicate across religious boundaries. 

Now that I work at a Reformed Christian institution, I increasingly appreciate these strategies.  Though I am now in an environment where I can explicitly and publicly connect my faith and scholarship, I am constantly aware of how unique it is to be in such a position.  In most ways, it is much more difficult to have a conversation about topics that are informed by my faith with those who do not share that foundation than it is to have conversations about those topics with those who do share my faith.  In fact, most Christians operate in environments that do not share their Christian worldview. So how do we have conversations about faith-informed topics across the religious spectrum?

Rights conversations are exactly these types of conversation.  Rights conversations are often contentious precisely because they occur across political, cultural, economic, and religious boundaries.   We need a common foundation in order to engage in rights conversations.  But that common foundation does not exist, nor will it exist any time in the future.

As a Christian political scientist studying how adoption can protect the rights of vulnerable children, I have been living between two conversations about the practice.  When I talk to Christians about adoption, or interact with the Christian community of orphan advocates, I most often engage in a conversation about how adoption is transformative and redemptive.  Adoption is a reflection of our understanding of how we have been adopted into God’s family, and as such, it communicates the Gospel.  Many Christians see adoption into a family is one of the best ways of protecting vulnerable children because it provides a context for protecting children’s other rights. 

When I talk to other groups who do not share my Christian perspective, I am struck by how these groups do not see adoption as transformative or redemptive.  Often other groups in the advocate or academic community see adoption as exploitation.  To these groups, adoption is marred by corruption and likely to be connected with trafficking.  Even under the best of circumstances, intercountry adoption removes a child from their country of birth and their culture of birth to be raised in a foreign country.  Many academics connect adoption with a colonial view of the world, claiming that the Western, developed countries adopt children from developing countries in order to “fix” those countries’ problems.  When these communities hear Christians talk about the redemptive power of adoption, they often misunderstand adoption to be evangelism.  When Christians say that adoption communicates the Gospel, those outside the Christian perspective often hear that Christians adopt children in order to raise more Christians instead of understanding how Christians see a family as foundational in protecting children’s rights.

The difficulty of living between these two conversations is the fact that both miss important nuance.  This oversight can render them unable to communicate with each other.  Both perspectives share a concern for the protection of vulnerable children, which should be common ground upon which they can collaborate to create innovative solutions for protecting vulnerable children.  But more often, each perspective dismisses the other as misunderstanding the problem, and thus falling short of offering effective solutions.

For example, the Christian community has been so captivated by the power of adoption to change the lives of individuals, families, and communities, that they can miss the pain that is intrinsic in adoption.  Adoption is not necessary unless there has been profound pain—the pain of death, the pain of separation, or the pain of abandonment.  We have a theology of adoption that can tragically be divorced from a theology of pain.  Many families have suffered when their adoptive journeys are full of pain, because they feel that their story is not the redemptive poster child for Christian adoption.  In the Christian community we can forget that adoptive stories, though redemptive, are also part of a fallen world.  In the end, adoption stories are stories like the rest of us have—stories that are as full of pain and missteps as they are defined by redemption and transformation. 

For some of the groups that criticize adoption as a method of protecting vulnerable children and dislike Christian adoption in particular, they have been eager to protect the full spectrum of children’s rights including the rights to culture and religion.  But often these groups miss the reality of a child growing up in an institution, even an institution within the culture of their birth.  Children in an institution lack parental advocacy and a context within which they can grow and thrive in their culture and their faith.  In the end, privileging institutions in a child’s country of birth over international adoption does not necessarily protect the cultural and religious rights of vulnerable children.  Instead, institutionalization can subject them to a life where they lack the relational context needed to fully realize their cultural or religious identities. 

So what are we to do?  How do we engage in conversations about how to protect the rights of vulnerable children across these religious boundaries so that the children we are trying to protect do not suffer as they wait for us to work together to develop solutions?  First, we must recognize the assumptions behind these contentious conversations and examine whether those assumptions are accurate.  For example, if we assume that Christian adoption is evangelism, we miss a very important part of the picture.  Any adoptive parent, regardless of whether their convictions are faith-based or secular, will socialize their adoptive child to that viewpoint.  In other words, there are no neutral parents, and there are no neutral institutions.  On the other hand, if we assume that groups that do not favor adoption are blatantly anti-family, we miss the fact that both sides of the debate share a desire to protect vulnerable children. 

Second, the fact that both sides of the debate share a desire to protect vulnerable children means that we can work collaboratively toward a spectrum of solutions to the problems that render children vulnerable.  Any time we assume that our solution is the best solution, we have put on blinders that reduce our creativity and innovation. Working collaboratively means that we must identify common ground and build on that common ground to develop multiple solutions to a multifaceted problem.  There are many organizations tackling the care of vulnerable children from this perspective, and those organizations are influencing in areas where others struggle to engage.

If having the best solution becomes the enemy of having a better solution, we have failed the vulnerable children that we are trying to protect.  Compassion calls us to seek to understand the perspectives of those with whom we are engaging, instead of dismissing their ideas as incoherent.  We must engage instead of withdrawing, because if we withdraw and refuse to interact or collaborate with those who do not share our political, cultural, or religious perspectives, we easily lose the window for change. 

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.