by Brenda Destro
Close-up: We see a couple holding for the first time the child they are adopting. It is a touching scene as the childless couple and a baby who needs a family find a joyful solution to their unfortunate circumstances. The camera lingers on the look of awe and love in the faces of these people who moments before were strangers and are now a family. Captioned on that scene is the sentiment that we are all feeling at this moment: "Adoption, what a beautiful choice!"
Adoption is a beautiful choice. But the miracle and joy of adoption, captured so poignantly by Madison Avenue, is very different from the message of legislators and family planners. They have been telling us that adoption is not practical. Armed with statistics and cost-benefit charts; they have convinced many American taxpayers that the only quick and cost-effective solutions to teenage pregnancy are sex education, contraception, and abortion. Despite hope in many circles that these strategies would reduce teenage pregnancy rates, the campaign failed. Single-parenting increased, while only about 2% of unwed mothers chose adoption.
In fact, in the public square it is hard to find many good messages about adoption. Most advocates of women's rights present a mixed message. They do not advocate against adoption, but they do not support it either. They seem uncomfortable with adoption's focus on "the best interests of the child" and with the prospect of taking the pregnancy to term because they see childbearing as a hardship. Such feminists may advocate for "choice," but not for those choices which require some sacrifice. Adoption—like most responsible choices—requires sacrifice.
The worst messages about adoption come from Hollywood, talk shows, and news media who so often look for the sensational aspect of a story. They showcase isolated examples of adoption fraud and abuse, or fuel the false notion that adopted children lead unhappy, difficult, and unproductive lives. They point to adoption as the cause of a birth mother's pain when, in fact, many of her problems predate the adoption decision. Unresolved issues with relationships, fear of responsibility, and emotional turmoil can lead to poor choices. When caring, professional help is not available to women facing an untimely pregnancy, the results can be a hasty abortion or an ill-conceived adoption plan. What the public rarely hears is that there are many more hasty (and regretted) abortions than adoption plans, that women who have had abortions often face unresolved issues of grief and guilt, and that most adoptions are handled professionally and lovingly.
What are the moral choices for a single woman with a child? When is adoption a better choice than single parenting? For a thirteen-year-old? A thirty-year-old? The Church and its service providers are in a position to offer guidance to these women about adoption. Yet, research shows that pro-life centers have no better rates of adoption among their clients than Planned Parenthood. Some say this is because counselors do not feel prepared to adequately discuss adoption with their clients. Others assume that pregnant girls have no interest in adoption. Without a positive message about adoption from parishes and counselors, it is not surprising that many young women, including Catholics, choose adoption infrequently. Adoption is not the answer for everyone, but it is the best answer for many.
It is time to get out the good message about adoption—one that celebrates adoption. Like so many events that are celebrated, such as marriage and graduation, it is a time to acknowledge not only the hard and painful lessons learned from the journey, but also the joy of the accomplishment. The ad described earlier is wonderfully sentimental, but so much more needs to be said about adoption. The miracle of adoption is about the pain, resolution, and growth that comes when a young girl and her family face the issues of an untimely pregnancy, and when adoptive families accept their infertility and face their fears about adoption.
As the adult relationships, fears and misunderstandings are healed, the best interests of the child become the centerpiece of the adoption promise. And that is what makes adoption both a sound choice and a miracle. Unfortunately, this is a story that is not being told. It needs telling. It needs celebrating. A good starting place for the telling and the celebrating is in the Catholic community.
The Adoption Story
Adoption in the contemporary context reflects very little of its history in our culture and in Catholic teaching about marriage and family. Today, adoption is a legal transfer of parental rights and duties. It is governed by state laws that protect the child, first and foremost, and then the biological mother and adoptive parents. There is a clearly defined process that involves social workers, lawyers, and judges. Costs to the adoptive family can run into thousands of dollars. It is so thoroughly bureaucratized, one might assume that adoption is a product of the 20th century.
The history of adoption, however, begins much earlier. Ancient civilizations practiced it and codified adoption in their laws. One of the first written accounts dates back 4000 years to the Code of Hammurabi. The Egyptians, Greeks and Romans also recognized and legalized adoption. To ensure the continuation of his power, Julius Caesar adopted his nephew Octavian, who was later known as Caesar Augustus.
The primary interest of these early societies in a legal definition of adoption was the continuation of power or the protection of society, rather than the best interests of the child. Consistent with their belief that children were property, Greeks and Romans treated children as secondary parties to the adoption contract. Although the children usually benefited from the arrangement, social concerns and power were the principal interests.
The Bible provides the first view of adoption as a covenant, rather than a contract. Ancient Hebrews believed that contracts governed the exchange of property. The formation of personal relationships, however, was by a covenant, a sacred promise that is not only the foundation of kinship and family, but also the basis of God's relationship with his children. They believed that a family bound by covenant was stronger than one bound only by biology. The Old Testament demonstrates the Hebrew belief in the covenant of adoption. It stands in loving contrast to the utilitarian, contractual paradigm found in cultures that did not believe in God.
The story of Moses is a classic account of the adoption covenant from the Old Testament. When Jochebed fears that her son Moses will be killed by Pharaoh's command, she places him in a reed basket on the Nile River. He is found by Pharaoh's daughter who understands the baby's fate. She rescues him, and "he became her son." God's plan for Moses was secured by the faith and sacrifice of these two women, Jochebed and Pharaoh's daughter. Their adoption covenant was a promise which ensured that Moses would be spared and nurtured.
The themes of faith, covenant, and sacrifice in adoption found in the Old Testament are precursors to our Christian understanding of family and adoption. The first model of a Christian family is one that is bound more by covenant than biology. With faith and sacrifice, Mary and Joseph overcame their fears and made a covenant with God and each other to raise Jesus. This is an important reminder to all Christians that we are, first and foremost, children of God. God entrusts parents with the duty to care for his children, just as Mary and Joseph cared for His Son.
Catholic families today make the same covenant that God asked of Mary and Joseph. In the sacrament of marriage, the couple makes solemn promises to give themselves to each other and accept each other, and of love, conjugal respect, and fidelity until death. Family grows from that covenant. The promise of a man and woman to work for the good of both, and the good of each, then becomes a promise to work for the good of the children.
The Church's teachings on marriage and family also apply in adoption. When a child is abandoned, orphaned or born to parents who decide that they are unable to make and fulfill a promise to God about the care of the child, adoption can be the best alternative. The responsibility then of the adoptive parents is to work for the good of the child, not simply in the physical or economic dimensions, but also in the spiritual one. The creation of a Christian family is not a function of biology. It is grounded in the belief that God creates each of us in His image and likeness, to be fully human and to share in God's life.
The teaching of the Church on family and children has not always been evident in society, even in Christian societies. Many civilizations treated children as property to be bought and sold or as mechanisms to continue the family name. The Romans allowed parents to abandon, sell, and even condemn to death their children, both biological and adopted.
As Christianity spread in Europe, cruel practices toward children began to decline, except in the case of illegitimate children. Even though legal provisions for adoption and laws of legitimation were available, the social practices regarding illegitimate children were appalling. They were sold as slaves. They were kidnapped and disfigured to be used as beggars. They were sent to almshouses where deplorable conditions ensured an early death. One of the worst practices was that of "baby farmers" who bought babies from desperate unwed mothers, took out insurance policies on the infants, and then let them die to collect the payments.
Some were treated with kindness. Charles Dickens raised awareness of the plight of London's children by describing their horrid treatment in Oliver Twist and other books. Of course, not every illegitimate child was victimized. Foundling hospitals were established to care for abandoned sick children. Many people, without the benefit of legal arrangements and security, simply took these children into their homes and cared for them.
Gradually, laws were enacted to protect illegitimate children and provide for adoption practices that ensured their safe upbringing. Most of these legal efforts took place in the United States. Adoption, as it is known today, was the result. No longer a haphazard effort, adoption is now a legal transaction. Home studies to find suitable families for children are required. There are sealed records to preserve privacy, reduce the stigma of illegitimacy and prevent the chance of monetary claims by birth parents. New birth certificates that include the names of the adoptive parents are issued to signify to the world that the child is a full member of the adoptive family. The most important change, however, has been a greater emphasis on the child. Children are no longer perceived as property. Their protection is no longer of secondary interest. The best interest of the child now takes precedence over those of birth parents, adoptive parents or over any social or monetary concern.
Adoption as Covenant
When professional adoption practice is merged with the concept of adoption as covenant, the result is a good model of Catholic adoption. The state provides a safety net of legal protections for the child and families involved in the adoption. But it is the Church that helps families make the most important promise, the covenant with God and each other that this child will be treated as a person made in the image and likeness of God. The best interests of the children will be ensured by parents with the care and moral guidance of the Church and the legal protections of the state.
In the early 1970's the American Catholic community was moving to implement a model of adoption that engendered covenants. But in 1973 abortion became legal in every state and the rate and appeal of adoption declined rapidly. Proponents of abortion claimed that women had been liberated from the burden of childbearing. They perceived adoption as a part of that burden and quickly abandoned it. Trying to stem the tide of acceptance of abortion, the Church did not undertake a major effort on adoption. By 1975, five years after Roe v. Wade, the rate of adoption had dropped by 50%.
The decline in adoption was a crisis of survival for most adoption agencies, including Catholic ones. Funds for adoption dwindled, staff size was reduced. Some agencies and maternity homes closed. Supporters of adoption were simply unable to "sell" their services in a culture dazzled by the convenience of abortion. Adoption languished in a legal and social environment that encouraged us to see the unborn child as a woman's property.
But as adoption rates hit rock bottom, a new interest in adopting was surfacing among baby boomers. Having delayed childbearing to pursue careers, many couples faced infertility. When they tried to start families, some were biologically unable. These couples were well-educated, financially secure, and anxious to start a family. Adoption became an attractive option, but they soon learned there were not enough babies available to meet this growing demand.
With adoption agencies struggling to stay open, affluent couples wanting babies, and a scarcity of babies available for adoption, the stage was set for a new era in the long history of adoption. Adoption agencies welcomed their new clientele, but the couples quickly grew weary of traditional adoption practices that they felt were needlessly time-consuming and archaic. Age limits on adoptive parents, home studies, and waiting periods were questioned. Why, asked these high-powered couples, could not adoption operate like the business world? Why not streamline procedures and reduce the waiting? This attitude, coupled with the view of the unborn child as property, shifts the focus from the child's needs to the adult's wants.
In some cases, adoption is becoming more like a business deal rather than a covenant. Policies and practices that evolved over hundreds of years to protect children, to help families and reduce fraud are now often disposed with. Confidentiality, waiting periods, best interest of the child, privacy, even the creation of a new family are ignored without regard to the consequences. And there are consequences. Courts are tearing children from adoptive homes and giving them back to their biological families because procedures were not followed. Biological mothers are harassing adoptive families for more involvement or more money. Some adoptive families deceive birth mothers about whether on-going contact is realistic, just to get a baby. There are even cases where a child remains in an abusive home because placement would mean she would be adopted by a family of another race.
As the traditional structures around adoption are dismantled, the important protections that they offered may be lost. What remains has sent everyone involved in adoption clamoring for their "rights." Parent's rights, the right to search records, the right to choose, civil rights, adoptee rights are just a few of the causes for which groups have formed. As each group draws attention to its claims, they lobby government and media to change both laws and public attitudes to protect their "rights."
What the various "rights" groups in adoption are failing to do, and what society has continually failed to do, is treat adoption as a covenant. Children are not the property of their parents. They cannot be bought, sold, bartered, or claimed simply on the basis of a biological tie. Nor should they be the subjects of social experimentation. Rights in adoption have corresponding responsibilities. To make adoption work, all involved must make a sacred promise to one another and to God that everyone will be protected, most especially the innocent child.
Sadly, what we seem to have is a modern day Tower of Babel. As every one involved seems to talk at and past one another about "rights," no one seems to understand what is at stake. As Catholics, we need to start the translation process. We must promote within the Church and in the rest of society the benefits of a model of adoption based on covenant. Society must continue to guarantee that covenant by ensuring that adoption meets a high standard of practice that cares for and protects the child as well as the biological and adoptive families. When adoption is reunited with its roots of faith, covenant, sacrifice, and love, and when society supports the covenant with legal protections, we will all then have a reason to celebrate adoption.
Brenda Destro holds a D.S.W. from Catholic University of America and is an adjunct professor at the John Paul II Institute. Her work in counseling, sexuality education, and adoption issues spans three decades.