by Ann Mongoven, Ph.D. MPH
Another Mother’s Day is here. Another candle is lit to honor the unknown birthparents of my Chinese-American daughter, adopted as an infant and now a young woman. She aches wondering about her birthparents. I ache being unable to convey the wonder of her to them.
In a chilling scene in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale, the fertile handmaids—whose children have been stolen—become objects of international trade. After an environmental disaster results in widespread sterility, women’s fertility becomes a commodity bartered within a global dystopia. We who read and watch recoil.
Then we clamor off to the soccer games and music recitals of our children, who came to us from the bodies of others in other corners of the globe.
Undoubtedly, some international adoptive parents will take offense that I dare link Atwood’s fable to our own parenting. They rightly may emphasize our loving intent and the comfort of the life we provide. But troublingly, the rhetoric of international adoption has veered toward a demand-side focus on families in affluent countries desiring children, a rhetoric that emphasizes cutting down adoption times and making larger pools of children “available” to “find homes.” This rhetoric does not highlight children’s or birth-families’ interests. Simultaneously, a public celebration of international adoption is fanned by elements of Christian evangelism that view adoption in messianic and missionary terms, as disturbingly documented in Kathryn Joyce’s book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption.
The 1993 Hague Adoption Convention was designed to prevent abuses in international adoption, including child trafficking or unjust practices against birthparents. However, not all countries are signatories. Moreover, the Convention monitors the existence of, not the quality of, domestic bureaucracies for adoption oversight within signatory nations
The messianic narrative extols how international adoptive parents save “unwanted” children. But rarely does evidence suggest they were unwanted. Most were relinquished under agonizingly coercive circumstancesinvolving either poverty, war, draconian population control policies, epidemic, severe stigmatization of unwed mothers, or governmental policies that favored the export of dependency over support for the vulnerable. And some children were outright stolen, as the lucrative nature of international adoption attracted traffickers. It is now well established, but little discussed, that trafficking has infiltrated “legitimate” internationaladoption forums. In communities of adoptive parents, the silence is deafening.
Our children were called orphans. But most were not. We knew that when we adopted them. Yet the temptation to suppress that knowledge is extreme. The hard truth conflicts with a social myth that portrays our adoptive parenting as heroic, a myth that insulates us from the tragic side of how we became parents. It is so difficult to admit we can raise these wonderful children because we are freer, richer, luckier, and in most cases whiter than the birthparents– not because we are morally superior.
What do we owe the birthparents of our children? At the least, we owe them the honesty to resist colonialist portrayals that contrast our child-centeredness with a presumed lower valuation of children in their family or culture.
We may more thickly owe the birthparents the chance to learn that their lost children survived; that they are thriving; that they are loved. We may even owe them the chance for some relationship to those they conceived, gestated, bore, loved, and lost. It should be possible to offer this to many birthparents in the age of mail-order genetic tests and of electronic communications that increasingly extend into disadvantaged populations.
Creating a centralized genetic databank for international adoption, with thick ethical protections, could drive a wedge between trafficking and adoption. Parents of abducted children could provide genetic samples, paid for by institutions of criminal justice. International adoption agencies could run a child’s genetic data against the trafficking database to insure a child was not stolen. Genetic testing has been used successfully to combat trafficking within several countries. A centralized international database could extend that success.
Beyond responding to trafficking, genetic databases could provide an avenue for all global birthparents to try to learn what happened to their lost children. To try to find us. Or on our side, to try to facilitate that possibility. Indeed, commercial genetic databases such as 23&Me and Ancestry.com already have well-developed clienteles, increasingly international, among adoptees and birthparents. Yet the unregulated and competitive nature of their commercial market raises questions. Poor birthparents may not be able to pay for multiple samples with multiple companies. Birth or adoptive parents may have legitimate reasons to restrict the degree of biological relations that may be revealed. Commercial companies should collaborate philanthropically to share voluntarily-provided genetic information, and to develop common policies, that will combat child trafficking and support parties to international adoption.
Genetics aside, even simple country-specific websites could create the chance of reconnection for birthparents who so desire. In many countries that are wellsprings of international adoption, changing socio-political conditions make it increasingly possible for birthparents to acknowledge their child-loss openly. Birthparents and adoptive parents voluntarily could place notices with relevant facts that would be translated and logged. Although many adoptive-parent groups are organized by country of adoption, I am not aware of any that has designed such a system.
Grieving birthparents who relinquished children under coercive conditions have a moral right to know what happened to them–or not to know, if they decline to participate in avenues for reconnection. When there is no reason to believe birthparents willingly chose “closed” adoption, adoptive parents may have a moral obligation to enable connection for desirous birthparents, even if they find that inconvenient or emotionally taxing. (“I wanted to adopt internationally so I wouldn’t have to deal with the birth family.”) While the views of adoptees are highly significant, their preferences should not automatically be considered decisive. The right of adult adoptees to look for birthparents should not trump confidentiality constraints requested by birthparents. A minor child who objects to potential connection with desirous birthparents should not be granted unquestioned veto power. It is reasonable to ask children to do some things for the sake of others, especially for family. More adopted children fear, usually wrongly, that they were unvalued by their birthparents than fear discovering they were loved and grieved.
The fact is, we unalterably have a connection with the birthparents of our children. The question is what kind of connection it will be. Making the connection one of humane mutuality rather than of exploitation will require that we give up salvation narratives and face the tragic aspects of international adoption. We can do so while continuing to affirm that we are glad we adopted; that our children are the loves of our lives; that parenting them is our greatest privilege; and that we are fully their parents.
Hard ethical tradeoffs pervade this terrain. Negotiating them, however difficult, is preferable to treating our children’s birthparents as something less than human—as handmaids.
What do international adoptive parents owe their children’s birthparents? Certainly we must at least ask the question.