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.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."
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.
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.