The Problem With the Christian Adoption Movement

If we really mean for adoption to be something that helps more than it hurts, we need to consider how both the system and our beliefs about adoption are in need of change.
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The hand of an African child resting in the palm of her father's hand. Shot against a black background.
The hand of an African child resting in the palm of her father's hand. Shot against a black background.

Several weeks ago, in honor of "Birthmothers' Day," the pre-Mother's Day celebration of women who relinquish children for adoption, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Fox News analyst Nina Easton. In it, Easton, an adoptive mother, called for a shift in language that would recast adoption not as abandonment, but as a heroic gift of life that a biological mother can make not only to her child, but also to would-be adoptive parents. In her opening paragraph, Easton lamented that adoption "carries such a social stigma that domestic placement of infants has plummeted -- even as the number of parents desperate for a baby grows." Changing the language around adoption, she suggested, to call "birthmothers" selfless and loving, could help encourage more women to relinquish.

A week later, on May 17, families in the adoption community convened in Washington, D.C., for a march, "Step Forward for Orphans," advancing a different, but related message. These marchers, organized by a group called Both Ends Burning, were protesting what they see as unjust regulations and delays in the international adoption process that keep many potential adoptive parents waiting for years before they can adopt. Both Ends Burning, which had originally named the protest the "Empty Strollers March" -- a title centered more on the frustration of prospective adoptive parents -- advocates for the unlikely goal of increasing the number of children entering the U.S. for adoption fivefold, something that would be a dramatic turnaround from inter-country adoption rates that have steadily declined by around 60 percent in recent years.

On their face, neither of these events seem to involve religion. But scratch the surface of either and you'll find the influence of one of the most significant developments in the modern evangelical community: the Christian adoption movement.

Starting in the mid-2000s, a number of U.S. evangelical leaders began to expand their social engagement beyond traditional "social values" issues like abortion and gay rights. Motivated by the idea of the orphan crisis -- the argument that there are hundreds of millions of orphans in the world, and that Christians are called by God to care for them -- evangelical leaders, including culture-makers like Rick Warren and groups like Focus on the Family, started to trumpet the message that adoption and "orphan care" were uniquely Christian callings.

Adoption became a sort of perfect storm of a cause for many Christians. It offered a way for anti-abortion advocates to demonstrate they cared about children outside the womb -- to be more "whole life," as one leader put it. It was a means for compassionate conservatives to reclaim a social gospel they felt they'd long ago ceded to more liberal denominations. And as leaders crafted a strong "adoption theology," they described the earthly institution of child adoption as a perfect reflection of Christians' own salvation experience: evangelicals adopting children, just as God had adopted them. Hundreds of "orphan-care" ministries sprung up in local churches, and conferences and small-scale meet-ups proliferated around the country. The result of all this was the creation of what people within the movement called a contagious "adoption culture": large numbers of people within a congregation feeling called to adopt within a few years, often changing the complexion of their church as they did.

But there are problems with this movement of well-intentioned believers. As a side effect of the thousands of Christians newly stirred to adopt came an unexpected bottleneck: many more prospective adopters were getting in line just as adoption rates, both domestic and international, were dropping rapidly. Whether it was domestic adoptions of babies born to unwed mothers or orphans overseas, there seemed to be too few adoptable children to meet the skyrocketing demand of would-be adoptive parents.

How did this happen? In part, it's due to a fundamental misrepresentation of the "orphan crisis." The various statistics cited for the number of orphans in the world -- some say as many as 210 million -- don't actually refer to orphans as most people understand that term: a child who has lost both parents. Rather, the number refers mostly to children who have one living parent or who live with extended family, but are in vulnerable situations -- often poor families that could use additional support to keep their family together. While there are certainly still many children in need of adoption, both in the U.S. and overseas, most are not healthy infants, but children older than 5, or kids with special needs.

But overwhelmingly, U.S. adoption demand is still for healthy babies or younger children, and when adoption fees of $30,000 to $40,000 enter the mix, unscrupulous agencies or local middlemen in developing countries may sometimes find a child to match prospective parents' requests, rather than serving true orphans who actually need new homes. What that can look like is agency staff or contractors recruiting children from poor, but intact families, who may not understand the permanency of adoption, or who may expect that relinquishing a child will connect them with U.S. sponsors.

The result has been a steady stream of scandals from adoption "sending countries" like Guatemala, Ethiopia, Uganda and Vietnam, where there have been problems with falsified paperwork, improper exchanges of money or coerced relinquishments from biological families. In part because of these scandals, many countries have suspended or greatly slowed their adoption programs, and the number of children entering the U.S. for inter-country adoption has fallen sharply with each closure.

Domestically, there has been a squeeze as well. While in the days before abortion was legalized or single parenthood accepted, many women with unexpected pregnancies relinquished for adoption, today that number has dropped to around 1 percent in some demographics. But the demand for adoptable infants didn't fall with it, and conservative religious groups like the Family Research Council and crisis pregnancy centers have sought to turn those numbers around by encouraging more women to relinquish. One suggestion the FRC came up with after commissioning a study sounds familiar: changing the language around adoption to present adoption as heroic, selfless, loving and mature -- and conversely, portraying young or unmarried mothers who choose to parent their children as immature and selfish. It's hard to look at this, or the message of one Christian crisis pregnancy ministry -- that all children born to unwed mothers should be considered de facto "orphans" available for adoption (they say they're following the biblical definition of an orphan as a fatherless child) -- without thinking that something is wrong here.

While most agree that the guiding principle of adoption is that it exists to help a child in need find a family -- and not the other way around -- the efforts to bolster adoption numbers seem most concerned with the desires of would-be parents. That's a dynamic that could grow as adoption demand continues to increase, inspired not just by couples contending with infertility, but now also a sense of religious calling.

While it's certainly laudable that evangelicals want to help address the needs of poor children around the world, the movement needs to understand that the real crisis is often not one of orphanhood, but one of poverty, poor development and a lack of child welfare infrastructure that leaves many families turning to orphanages in a time of need and making permanent decisions for what could be temporary problems. Those realities are apparent to many people who work on the ground in developing countries, but it's a message that has been hard to hear for many adoptive parents -- particularly the very mobilized members of the Christian adoption movement. But if we really mean for adoption to be something that helps more than it hurts, we need to consider how both the system and our beliefs about adoption are in need of change.

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