Sunday, October 3, 2010

What's wrong with rescuing orphans?

Not a single thing.  We all want orphans rescued from war, poverty, illness, famine, corrupt & totalitarian governments, gender inequality -- all the things that lead to their "orphanhood." I also think it is a wonderful thing for true orphans to find families. But I think it's a problem when "rescuing orphans" is equated with adoption.

The first problem -- gratitude.  Have you ever heard the old saw that a man ought to date a homely woman, since homely women are likely to be grateful for the attention?  It's an ugly suggestion, isn't it?  And we can all look at such a relationship and see it as inauthentic, exploitative, unhealthy.  Any relationship where one person feels superior and the other is expected to be grateful is completely corrosive.  Talking about adoption as the rescue of needy, pitiful orphans by white knights on white chargers sets up that same unequal power dynamic.  Feeling inferior is profoundly damaging to self-esteem, identity, human dignity. I think it's not just damaging to adopted persons, but to adoptive persons, too.  Feeling superior does terrible things to your character, too.

And the suggestion is that, like that homely woman, the "rescued" adoptee should be grateful for everything that everyone else gets to take for granted.  At the Declassified Adoptee, Amanda talks about the way the "at least you weren't aborted" meme enforces gratitude in adoptees:

When you have to be 100 times more grateful than everyone else on the planet because of the assumption that your mother considered aborting you, for being able to breathe the same air everyone else breathes.....what reason would you ever have to be allowed to complain about anything...ever? You have no right to pain. You have no rights to rights. You have no right to be treated as all other human beings when the very foundation of your existence is this terrible idea that you are less deserving of humanity than every other person on the planet.
That same expectation of gratitude comes from being rescued from your abandonment, your institutionalization, your poverty, your homelessness, your loneliness. . . .

But why should I care if some other adoptive family has a savior complex, sees adoption as rescue, and tweets that their adoption trip is a "mission to free an orphan?"  It won't affect my family, will it?  Yes, actually, it will.  This theme of adoption as rescue is pervasive, as Mei-Ling cogently points out:

Yes, yes, I know many of you are about to protest your child shouldn’t need to feel grateful or indebted. I’m telling you this regardless of whether or not adoptive parents feel as though they have saved a child. I’m telling you: This is how adoption is presented.

Why? It doesn’t matter how many times you tell me you didn’t do it to be valued as a saviour. It doesn’t matter if you adopted because you simply wanted a child to love and not be seen as a rescue effort.

I can’t recall how many parents will comment, “No, my child should never have to feel grateful that he has a loving family. I always tell neighbour xx that we’re the lucky ones to have him.”

I get what you’re saying. That still won’t erase the image of the indebted child rotting in an orphanage, and the adoptive parents who are selfless. That is the message that the media, that the public swallows.

And it’s not going away any time soon.
Not only is it not going away any time soon, I'm afraid the idea of "rescuing orphans" by adopting them is strengthening.  As this article explains, it's now "a movement."

Which leads me to a second problem with "rescuing orphans" -- ends justify the means.  Movements can be world-changingly positive.  They can also be dangerous.  Sometimes when we focus on the great need of orphans to be rescued from deplorable conditions, we start to believe that ANYTHING we do to cure this great wrong is justified.  We don't stop to ask if the children are truly orphans or if they have extended family who can care for them, or if they truly need to be adopted.  Consider Exhibit 1 -- the group of missionaries who went to Haiti after the earthquake, scooping up children, orphan and non-orphan alike, in an ill-considered attempt to rescue them.  Ethical adoption practices are extremely important and should never be overlooked in our eagerness to rescue orphans.  We have to be acutely aware that almost every time adoption builds a family, it has first torn a family apart. 

A third problem with adoption as rescue -- it won't work.  Let's face it -- the "orphan crisis" we hear about, the 132 million or 147 million or the 163 million orphans around the world (those are UNICEF numbers, but they don't really represent true orphans), will not be solved by adoption.  Even if we successfully placed all 163 million orphans in new adoptive homes, the conditions that produce orphans -- war, poverty, illness, gender inequality -- would keep on churning out orphans.  The ONLY way to resolve the orphan crisis is to work to end the conditions that cause kids to need out-of-family care.  The orphan crisis will end when we take care of vulnerable FAMILIES.

I was really touched when a reader wrote on her blog that she'd never thought about it that way before reading what I said, that PREVENTING orphans was the only way to solve the orphan crises.  She said that it changed how she prayed for orphans!  She now prays that children NOT be orphaned before she prays that those who are truly orphaned find new homes.  I just love that.

A final problem I have with the rescue theme is that it is often presented as a uniquely Christian obligation to adopt orphans. As a Christian, I take as true James 1:27:  "Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress."  As a Catholic, I believe that salvation comes from faith AND good works, and that that is why James talks about DOING as religion in this passage.  But the doing is to care for orphans and widows, not to adopt or marry them. Any other reading, I believe, is theologically unsound.  It's asking the Bible to mean something it just doesn't say.

And once adoption becomes a uniquely Christian obligation, we start excluding suitable adoptive parents based on some Christian beliefs, having the perversely opposite effect of making it harder to place orphans.  Gay and lesbian parents, unmarried couples, single women, Muslim parents, atheist parents, parents considered insufficiently Christian or the wrong kind of Christian, just won't do, it seems, when we see adoption as a Christian mandate.

There are lots of churches and organizations and individuals, Christian and otherwise, who are doing great work in caring for orphans.  I applaud their work, I donate to such organizations.  But caring for orphans and adopting children are two different things.  I don't confuse my charity work with the adoption of my girls.  I wish the rest of the world would keep the distinction in mind, too.

19 comments:

Mei Ling said...

The problem is that adoption puts children in a position where they need to be rescued.

That's what Lika pointed out - that if adoptees need to be considered as rescue victims in order to make adoption *about* the adoptees and not about prospective/adoptive parents, then maybe adoption should be about rescuing.

But in order for *that* to continue, there has to be a power imbalance.

It's messy and harsh all around.

birthmothertalks said...

Thanks for the insightful post. One thing that upsets me is how people assume that every adoptive person birthmother has thought of abortion of them. Just because someone choose adoption doesn't mean that they considered abortion. Nor, should anyone be told to feel grateful because they could have been aborted.

Anonymous said...

90% of children labeled "orphans" aren't truly orphans as they have at least one living parent.

This means that children are relinquished due to POVERTY. Stop poverty and stop the "orphan" crisis.

A child should never be classified an orphan in this world unless both parents are DEAD.

Family preservation instead of adoption separation should be the goal, but sadly billions of dollars from the pockets of Americans fund adoption separation.

Von said...

Totally agree and also with Anonymous.When children are labelled as orphans when they're not, it is in response to the demand for adoptees by the adoption industry.A nasty, ugly destructive business.
One of the difficulties with charity is that it can disempower the subject and keep them from change in their situation.

Anonymous said...

Hey Anonymous. Your definition of "orphan" is incorrect.

Orphan is a legal definition, defined under laws and statutes within each nation. It includes more then children whose parents are both dead.

A child is found abandoned in a trash can or on the street and after genuine search no parents can be found. Under your absolute definition, such a child is not a orphan. Get real.

As for "rescuing". No family that adopts a child has "rescued" the child from anything. Saying it does not make it so, it just makes the religous feel a little better about their own righteousness.
The entire theme of "rescuing" is simply a meta word for "salvation" and hence ties directly to religous doctine of one or more man made religions. It's sick, it's disgusting, it's arrogant in the extreme.

Adoption gives a child the opportunity to live within a family unit and enjoy all the benefits that come with it. It does not redefine who they are, only what they experience. It is a far better alternative to letting the child grow up in an institutional framework, void of family connections and all that they provide and represent. And let's please not define a family unit as a man and a woman bonded in holy matrimony. A family unit by all practical social and many legal defintions is much much more that that sort of ancient control mechanism.

I do not buy in to the "power imbalance theory Mei Ling. It's a convenient construct to prosecute adoption, but it is not relevant to the topic being discussed.

Would it be preferable if there were no reason or need to ever adopt a child? Absolutely! Absolutely!

But please, come off the ivory tower of idealism that is so common here at this blog. If you really want to talk about solving the world's injustices, you must begin within your own home, and stand against everything that is wrong in the world, not just your personal pet peeves. Don't use the plight of children who find themselves abandoned in life and stuck with the choice of living inside gray walls fighting with other children for food. You want to get rightous about it, you must attack it a many many levels. Maybe begin by not buying products from companies that exploit foreign labor. Oh wait, that would mean throwing out just about everything you own since it's pretty much all made in China, India, or some small third world country.

You are hypocrites to sit in your comfortable home surrounded by all your foreign made posessions, extracted at bargain prices for you at the expense of families feeding their children, and ponder and pontificate how to overcome children being adopted from third world countries.

Anonymous said...

Poverty. You want to point the finger at poverty, but poverty is a symptom, not the cause.

Stop 3rd world economic exploitation by a handful of wealthy nations. What exactly do you think propagates the continuation of poverty?????

Orphans and adoption is a very minute side show to the larger problem of you as American citizens continuing to enable corporations and your elected politicians to use less fortunate nations as feeding tubes for the personal gluttony of it's citizens. Seriously, walk around your house, look at your possessions and then look yourself in the eye in the mirror. You are part of the problem, so you have little room to be idealistic about the problems.

Myst said...

Not to mention the word "orphan" is bandied around and has a different meaning today thna the original meaning.

I guess for me, if ever there was an okay time to adopt, would be in the case of a true orphan... a person who has no name, no known birthdate, no family AT ALL, a nobody by all standards. Adoption would, in these cases, provode them with their basic human rights.

As anon said, most "orphans" of today are not orphans in the true sense thus making adoption unnecessary. Other alternatives are ALWAYS available and on hand but people have to WANT these alternatives so as to make them work and happen.

Myst said...

PS Orphans are not children who are "foundlings", abandoned children etc. To apply the word orphan to them is incorrect second anon so first anon IS correct.

Abandoned children are abandoned children who most likely have parents out there. Truly orphaned children are those who have NO family at all and none can be found.

Just because different laws and states like to play around with the English language to suit them doesn't make the real definition of the word change.

Mei Ling said...

Orphans have to be legally redefined in order to be considered adoptable, even if the only thing they come with are the clothes on their back and the name given by the orphanage.

I find it particularly intriguing how, every time the ethics of adoption is brought up, anonymous(es) are under the impression that family preservation advocates that children should stay with abusive/neglectful families, or rot away in orphanages.

It is true that family can be defined as more than just a man and a woman. But the basic foundation of a family is biology. It is not the end-all and be-all, far from it.

But if it weren't for biology, the human race would have died out thousands of centuries ago.

"I do not buy in to the "power imbalance theory Mei Ling. It's a convenient construct to prosecute adoption, but it is not relevant to the topic being discussed."

How is it irrelevant?

If you look at my adoption case, people will point out the semantics of it: My parents adopted me because they wanted a child to raise.

But the reality is, I was adopted because I was available for adoption. I was available for adoption because my parents were helpless. My parents were helpless because there was no assistance and no one who was willing to help them - UNLESS they agreed to adoption. That is a conditional basis.

That is what I mean by power imbalance. The adoptive parents can afford to adopt because they have money. The relinquishing parents are screwed because they don't have the same social/economic privilege.

Think China and its non-democratic environment. Think Korea and its social stigma against mothers who don't have supportive husbands. Think Taiwan and its cultural rejection of children who are born with medical issues.

That is part of the many issues which end up "providing" children in orphanages, which is why adoptive parents get to adopt.

I'm not saying it's my adoptive parents' fault that my biological parents didn't have money. But there is a lack of equality on one side of the equation - the side that relinquishes the child versus the side that gets to keep the child.

The view of the parents that relinquish the child says: "Oh, it's such a tragedy your parents could not provide for you. At least they loved you enough to give you up."

The side that sees the adoptive parents get the child says: "Your parents loved you enough not to abort you. Your adoptive parents chose you and you are special/lucky because they could provide for you."

In other words, it is a political imbalance which leaves the relinquishing parents helpless and which feeds into the "Well, the adoptive parents could afford to step in and raise the child - so what's wrong with adoption?"

"You are hypocrites to sit in your comfortable home surrounded by all your foreign made posessions, extracted at bargain prices for you at the expense of families feeding their children, and ponder and pontificate how to overcome children being adopted from third world countries."

But here's the thing: I do not believe anyone TRULY, honestly wants to prevent adoption.

We could all sit here and argue the advantages and disadvantages of eliminating adoption, or at least working towards an elimination, but frankly, adoption is probably never going to be eliminated for several thousand years, and I don't think anyone really wants an "ideal" world because of the part of the equation which says "Families get built by adoption."

Children wouldn't have to be abandoned if we worked towards an ideal world. But we don't BELIEVE there will be an ideal world. We don't think it will ever happen, thus we can't work towards it because it's an impossible goal, therefore adoption will always exist.

Btw... what about the siblings left behind?

(Yes, I know that's simplifying the issue, very much so.)

Von said...

"It does not redefine who they are, only what they experience" So having a new name, identity, possibly country, language and religion along with the new family doesn't define who an adoptee is or who they become? It sure did in my case!!
By the way foundlings are foundlings not orphans, as already mentioned.

osolomama said...

"We have to be acutely aware that almost every time adoption builds a family, it has first torn a family apart."

I would say that this occurs in some cases. In other cases, the tearing apart happens first and adoption steps in as people's No. 1 bandaid. I don't actually buy the anti-adoption line that adopter demand is the root of the problem. Separation, surrender, confiscation, and termination of parental rights would still occur in some places without adopter demand. We know that there was no *demand* for the hundreds of thousands (probably millions) of informal adoptions of foundlings by Chinese families in the '90s but that they simply responded to a crisis (then the gov't found a way to make money off the crisis with the int'l program). Similarly, 750,000 Russian children are not institutionalized because of adopter demand but because that's the way the system works there: child warehousing vs. family support. Institutionalization in Russia has become its own goal and predictably, there is a fair but of $$ tied up in it too--something like $3 billion, just to keep the system going. This is not to suggest that adopter demand doesn't help to grease the system at times, because it often does. But if we are going to be honest about changing adoption, I think we have to confront some of the historical realities around family separation.

But I agree with you completely that the rescue narrative is almost built-in, and harmful to adoptees. As Mei Ling said, it's not something you can avoid even if you protest it.

osolomama said...

"It does not redefine who they are, only what they experience"

Guessing if we are going to give genetics the role it deserves in shaping personality, in one sense, adoption cannot redefine a person. This is precisely the issue. But let's face it, the experiences it imposes are also incredibly defining, e.g., language (the biggie) and culture. However, I think the family and community into which children are adopted will probably have a huge effect on whether they see themselves as being "redefined" in a negative way or hybridized in a more neutral way. (I don't think the experience can ever be labeled positive but perhaps there are some out there who think it can.)

Reena said...

As an AP, I abhor the "saviour" rhetoric applied to adoption. It makes me feel ill and I am concerned that we seem to be seeing more and more of it.

Regardless of our stance (mine/my families) I also recognize, as Mei Ling has pointed out, that our children are going to get the "you were saved" message over and over again from society. As AP we need to have open dialogue with our kids about this societal perception.

I agree with O solo mamma-- in some cases, some countries-- adoption steps in after the family has been torn apart--"Separation, surrender, confiscation, and termination of parental rights would still occur in some places without adopter demand."

I think in some areas, you could take IA out of the picture and "Separation, surrender, confiscation, and termination of parental rights would still occur." Look at China.

I think it is important for AP to be supportive of organizations that help mothers/families/children stay together even though we recognize they might not always be able to for other reasons that we have little if any control. I think we need to at least try to helpt and effect some kind of change.

Also-- I find it EXTREMELY annoying when folks post strongly worded comments hidden under anonymous.

Are you scared? Is that why? Even if you don't have an account you can still sign using a user name or something.

I may sometimes post a comment to which people take offense. When this happens, I want to hear why they are offended and I especially want to hear why from the Adult Adoptees. They very likely have a GREAT DEAL in common with my daughters and their thoughts and experiences are important to me.

Jessica said...

In Guatemala, adoptions have been closed since December 2007. Since then, there has been no decrease in the birth rate, nor has there been a decrease in the rate of abandonments and relinquishments. There are, however, more children living in orphanages.

Anonymous said...

@ Jessica,

I agree,

The same has been true of Romania, closed to IA for many years now. My close friend was just there as part of a mission trip to rebuild homes for families in crisis and if anything the need is even greater and the remaining resources to care for the children dramatically diminished.

Like it or not when overseas families were traveling to Romania for adoptions they came armed with donations and resolve to assist those left behind through word of mouth, the founding of organizations whose aims were to assist people in need, not least among them, orphans or institutionalized children.

When the families left, so too did much of that awareness and assistance, despite many families and groups still attempting to offer aid. Many groups attempting to offer aid are sadly turned away now.

Similiarly the numbers of families adopting in Russia and Kazakhstan have dropped significantly as the process has become so tangled and prohibitive, yet the need remains for these children to find families, in country or abroad.

Bandy about "power dynamics" and and an adoptive parent driven (adoptive) market all you wish, but the facts simply don't support it....not all the time and not in all countries.


I also always marvel at how women and men in China/Taiwan/Vietnam and elsewhere are given a free moral and ethical pass for choosing abandonement or adoption for their offspring because of societal pressures of raising a child with disabilities.

Our son came home from China 3 years ago and was considered special needs - he was left on a doorstep - the note indicated he was flawed and would bring shame to his family. His one disability? An undescended testacle that required no (immediate, if ever) medical intervention. None.

He's a beautiful and healthy boy who was left then for cosmetic purposes? Random folks would never have known, nor would it have affected his quality of life....or theirs'. Ultimately they chose to abandon him for other reasons then.The reasons are their own.

And please spare me the "they might not have known better or didn't have access to accurate information about his condition" - the note indicated he was born in a hospital, under a physician's care. A third live birth.

They simply didn't wish to parent a child who wasn't seemingly perfect in all ways? How many of us are?? Frankly that's hard for me to accept and understand - for us he is nothing short of a miracle. I grieve for them what they lost in making that decision. A decision made long before we entered the scene btw.

Finally, I use Anon today to protect him, not myself..... for those wondering.

Anonymous said...

@ Jessica,

I agree,

The same has been true of Romania, closed to IA for many years now. My close friend was just there as part of a mission trip to rebuild homes for families in crisis and if anything the need is even greater and the remaining resources to care for the children dramatically diminished.

Like it or not when overseas families were traveling to Romania for adoptions they came armed with donations and resolve to assist those left behind through word of mouth, the founding of organizations whose aims were to assist people in need, not least among them, orphans or institutionalized children.

When the families left, so too did much of that awareness and assistance, despite many families and groups still attempting to offer aid. Many groups attempting to offer aid are sadly turned away now.

Similiarly the numbers of families adopting in Russia and Kazakhstan have dropped significantly as the process has become so tangled and prohibitive, yet the need remains for these children to find families, in country or abroad.

Bandy about "power dynamics" and and an adoptive parent driven (adoptive) market all you wish, but the facts simply don't support it....not all the time and not in all countries.


I also always marvel at how women and men in China/Taiwan/Vietnam and elsewhere are given a free moral and ethical pass for choosing abandonement or adoption for their offspring because of societal pressures of raising a child with disabilities.

Our son came home from China 3 years ago and was considered special needs - he was left on a doorstep - the note indicated he was flawed and would bring shame to his family. His one disability? An undescended testacle that required no (immediate, if ever) medical intervention. None.

He's a beautiful and healthy boy who was left then for cosmetic purposes? Random folks would never have known, nor would it have affected his quality of life....or theirs'. Ultimately they chose to abandon him for other reasons then.The reasons are their own.

And please spare me the "they might not have known better or didn't have access to accurate information about his condition" - the note indicated he was born in a hospital, under a physician's care. A third live birth.

They simply didn't wish to parent a child who wasn't seemingly perfect in all ways? How many of us are?? Frankly that's hard for me to accept and understand - for us he is nothing short of a miracle. I grieve for them what they lost in making that decision. A decision made long before we entered the scene btw.

Finally, I use Anon today to protect him, not myself..... for those wondering.

Anonymous said...

@ Jessica,

I agree,

The same has been true of Romania, closed to IA for many years now. My close friend was just there as part of a mission trip to rebuild homes for families in crisis and if anything the need is even greater and the remaining resources to care for the children dramatically diminished.

Like it or not when overseas families were traveling to Romania for adoptions they came armed with donations and resolve to assist those left behind through word of mouth, the founding of organizations whose aims were to assist people in need, not least among them, orphans or institutionalized children.

When the families left, so too did much of that awareness and assistance, despite many families and groups still attempting to offer aid. Many groups attempting to offer aid are sadly turned away now.

Similiarly the numbers of families adopting in Russia and Kazakhstan have dropped significantly as the process has become so tangled and prohibitive, yet the need remains for these children to find families, in country or abroad.

Bandy about "power dynamics" and and an adoptive parent driven (adoptive) market all you wish, but the facts simply don't support it....not all the time and not in all countries.


I also always marvel at how women and men in China/Taiwan/Vietnam and elsewhere are given a free moral and ethical pass for choosing abandonement or adoption for their offspring because of societal pressures of raising a child with disabilities.

Our son came home from China 3 years ago and was considered special needs - he was left on a doorstep - the note indicated he was flawed and would bring shame to his family. His one disability? An undescended testacle that required no (immediate, if ever) medical intervention. None.

He's a beautiful and healthy boy who was left then for cosmetic purposes? Random folks would never have known, nor would it have affected his quality of life....or theirs'. Ultimately they chose to abandon him for other reasons then.The reasons are their own.

And please spare me the "they might not have known better or didn't have access to accurate information about his condition" - the note indicated he was born in a hospital, under a physician's care. A third live birth.

They simply didn't wish to parent a child who wasn't seemingly perfect in all ways? How many of us are?? Frankly that's hard for me to accept and understand - for us he is nothing short of a miracle. I grieve for them what they lost in making that decision. A decision made long before we entered the scene btw.

Finally, I use Anon today to protect him, not myself..... for those wondering.

Sandy said...

Malinda,

Thank you so much for recognsing the need to talk about the less than good parts of adoption in addition to the joys adoption has alway brought you. Talking educates those willing to hear. And gives a voice to those not heard before.

YOU should be the AP writing the books because then all the facets of adoption would be available.

DannieA said...

since I've discovered your blog, I've read it and enjoyed it.

My one comment (because I didn't do IA, so I just read and listen normally :) ) is that it is true when the 'savior' complex arises in adoption, then many people (within agencies) do limit which homes are appropriate for "these orphans".

two reasons I did not do IA was 1) I am involved with my community and support public services so fost/adopt was and will be my only choice and 2) because I'm a single woman many agencies that work with domestic and International adoptions will not work with me because I'm not a 2-parent home)

I'm a Christian but don't like the 'saving/rescuing orphans platform'. I'm not a perfect human so I can't go around saving others....and well I just believe children deserve second chances in life if they need them.

Thanks for the different topics. Adoption isn't all horrible and it isn't all rosey and full of 'awww' moments...it's nice to be balanced and think of all sides good and bad.