Is There a Problem with the Evangelical Adoption Movement? An Interview with Kathryn Joyce

After Mother Jones published an excerpt from journalist Kathryn Joyce‘s new book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption last month, the Christian media went into defense mode. The excerpt offered a rarely-seen view into overseas adoptions, where children can sometimes be taken away from their (very much alive) birth parents, who are led to believe the separation is only temporary.

The Christian Post summarized the excerpt this way:

To some, conservative Christians are incentivizing child-trafficking, engaging in a form of cultural imperialism by yanking children from their native cultures and evangelizing them into Christianity, soothing pro-life consciences wounded by lack of concern for babies after they’re born, and trying to engage in charity without adjusting underlying world views about social justice and the need for systemic change.

Harsh words. Christianity Today was no less brutal:

[Joyce's book] adds fuel to anti-adoption hysteria through its extremely one-sided perspective and guilt by association. The author, who describes herself as a secular feminist, fills her book with one adoption tragedy after another.

Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service added that Joyce “relies on weak sources to paint a partial and distorted picture” of Christian adoption.

So what’s the real story? Are these criticisms valid?

I sent many of the questions I had to Kathryn Joyce and she was kind enough to respond (via email):

Shouldn’t we be praising evangelical Christians for adopting children? It seems good to see them put their money where their mouth is, so to speak, after being so vocal against abortions for so long.

That is certainly one of the reasons why the adoption movement has taken off among evangelicals — a desire to be more “whole life,” as some have called it, or to answer the common criticism that conservative Christians only care about children before they’re born. Being willing to adopt more children certainly does seem like a matter of anti-abortion folks “walking the walk.”

However, as I found in my reporting, a lot of women on the other side of that equation — the biological mothers of adopted infants — experience abortion-related adoption advocacy as very coercive. The truth is, when it comes to the adoption of healthy babies in the U.S., there are many more prospective adoptive parents than there are infants available for adoption. What that can lead to is a supply-and-demand adoption system, where adoption agencies or independent facilitators are eager to find more children to adopt, and may come to view women with unexpected pregnancies as the source of more “supply.”

Domestic adoption in the U.S. in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s had a very troubling history of women being sent away to maternity homes to deliver and relinquish children in secret, when they were often given no choice to parent their child, but forced to sign over their rights right after labor, sometimes while still medicated. Those are considered the “bad old days,” but some of the biological mothers I spoke to described more subtle coercion they encountered at modern maternity homes or crisis pregnancy centers in recent years. Adoption was presented to them as the most mature, selfless, loving and biblical choice they could make, while parenting their child was cast as immature and selfish. But that promotion of adoption doesn’t accurately reflect the emotional fallout many women face — sometimes experiencing grief that researchers have found can be worse than a loved one dying — or the potential that adoptive families may decide to cut off contact despite an “open adoption” agreement. Women coming from conservative religious backgrounds may be particularly susceptible to that message, which can play on their faith and their sense of guilt or shame in profound ways.

Why are so many evangelical parents adopting overseas when there’s no shortage of kids to adopt in the U.S.? Is it purely a form of missionary work?

As I wrote above, the dynamics of adoption in the U.S. are actually more complicated than many people understand. There are many children available to adopt in the U.S., but they are mostly in the foster care system, and are much more likely to be significantly older or have more needs than many adoptive parents are looking for. Many adoptive parents — evangelical and otherwise — began looking overseas to adopt because there was a dearth of healthy infants to adopt here in the U.S.

But increasingly, Christian prospective adoptive parents are driven by another reason as well — as a response to the “orphan crisis,” which is the idea that there are hundreds of millions of orphans around the world in need of help, and presumably in need of adoption by U.S. parents. That idea, which is actually based on a badly misrepresented estimate of the number of children worldwide who have lost one or both parents — the figure overwhelmingly represents children in developing countries who still live with one parent or extended family — has nonetheless become a statistic that has driven a huge amount of well-meaning but naïve evangelical adoption activism.

Though it’s not the main impetus for this advocacy, there is a missionary angle to this. A number of leaders in this movement have written books about the “adoption theology” or “orphan theology” guiding Christian adoption, describing adoption as a reflection of evangelicals’ spiritual adoption by God. Some of these leaders have said that adoption is indistinguishable from missionary work, or is a form of doing “missions under your own roof.” One leader of a major group, Dan Cruver of Together for Adoption, even wrote that the “ultimate purpose” of Christians adopting children “is to place them in a Christian home that they might be positioned to receive the gospel.” I don’t think that’s what motivates most Christian adoptive parents on a day-to-day level, but it is there in how the movement’s own leaders describe their work. And that sort of theological message is helping convince more and more well-meaning American Christians that the best way they can help poor children in developing countries is by adopting them — sometimes out of existing families. The message’s relentless focus on adoption as a metaphor for salvation seems to be making some Christians less willing to look at other ways they could get involved — by helping poor families stay together, for example — that could also aid poor children but don’t have the same theological resonance.

One of the concerns you raise is that some of the children who are being adopted may actually have parents who don’t understand they’re giving their kids away for good. How prevalent is this problem?

That is one of the more troubling problems that arises from the inflated interest in adoption that this movement has helped create. In the U.S., we tend to think that our understanding of adoption is universal. But in many other countries, there is often a different understanding and tradition of what adoption means. Ethiopia is one of the more recent countries to witness an adoption “boom,” with the number of children being adopted overseas increasing dramatically from a few hundred to thousands in just a couple of years. There, the tradition of adoption looks more like temporary guardianship, as some Ethiopians have historically sent their children to live with wealthier relatives for a chance at better education and opportunities. So when international adoption took off in the last decade, many Ethiopian parents embraced it as a chance for their child and the whole family to benefit — not understanding the permanent transfer of parental rights that international adoption really means. I met families there who sent their children for adoption thinking they would return from the U.S. within just a few years, and who were deeply hurt when they realized that they had let their children become part of another family forever. This also can be potentially devastating for adoptive families and of course the adopted children, some of whom are old enough to have lived with their biological family for years. People working on child care in Ethiopia — as well as in countries that are becoming newer adoption boom countries, like Uganda — say that this basic cultural disconnect over what adoption means is incredibly widespread and one of the most significant ethical problems in inter-country adoption.

One of the elephants in the room is the fact that many of these evangelical parents are white and the children they’re adopting overseas are black. Is there a racial component at play here?

Yes, but it’s a somewhat unexpected one. Some evangelicals are approaching transracial adoption as a means of “racial reconciliation”: a way for historically white evangelical churches to diversify and become more like the “rainbow congregations” they wish they were. One movement leader, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, described adoption as equivalent to the Civil Rights Movement — a movement that Moore said his denomination had ignored during the 1960s, to its shame. In a way, he was arguing that adopting transracially was a chance for the church to get it right on racial issues after failing so badly in the past. But in many of these churches, the only “diversity” in the congregation is that brought in by the adopted children — not by adults of color who are inspired to join because the church has become a welcoming place for them. That brings up other questions about how these churches are really addressing race, and some of the historical complaints that black social workers have had about transracial adoption. The “color-blind” approach to race that is advocated in some evangelical communities that are adopting large numbers of African children, or other children of color, can do little to challenge systemic racism, and sometimes leaves adoptees feeling alone in a culture that doesn’t look like them or unprepared to face racism in our society.

I suspect a lot of Christians will be on the defensive regarding your book. They’ll say they’re adopting children because it’s the right thing to do and their faith compels them to do it. How do you respond to them?

In both domestic and international adoption, there are certainly children who are in need of new families. But there are also many families — sometimes meaning single women facing an unexpected pregnancy — who are just in need of more support to stay together and parent their children. Distinguishing between the two groups is often a painstaking process that, especially in developing nations or countries recovering from conflict or natural disaster, can take many months or years. Often the questions are wrapped up in complex discussions of aid and broader development needs. All of that can be less exciting than the prospect of adopting an orphan into your own home. But often, that’s where the real need is. Adoption is often a good and beautiful thing, but it can also be a tragic and unjust thing if it happens to the wrong children. I think any movement that is working on helping people needs to be willing to look at the ways that their help sometimes leads to harm, and try to find ways to do the least harm.

But conversely, I have been very encouraged to read some striking responses from evangelicals involved in this movement who have seen the same dynamics I write about play out in their own work. Some of these advocates — particularly those who work long-term in developing countries — have seen how orphanages built with U.S. donations can lead to more children relinquished to those orphanages, and then put in the “adoption pipeline” to go to a new family overseas. For them, after witnessing that cycle of aid and relinquishment by parents who see in orphanages a better opportunity, the problems in the current adoption system become apparent. Many of these people are urging their fellow Christians to think harder and longer about the best way to direct their admirable desire to help. And I think they’re doing some extremely important and innovate work: whether it’s establishing foster care or day care in developing nations where there is little child welfare infrastructure, or reuniting children who have wrongly or fraudulently been placed in the orphanage-adoption “pipeline,” or providing microloans to widowed mothers so they can start businesses to support their families.

Far from an anti-Christian book, Joyce’s revelations should inspire churches (who have the kinds of resources that make overseas adoptions possible) to work even harder to make sure they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons. (Alisa Harris at Patrol also does a nice job of debunking many of the critics’ claims.)

If you’d like to cut through all the back-and-forth, though, just read the book yourself and come to your own conclusions.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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