Friday, January 13, 2012

Why Adopt? Seriously, Why?

This post has the potential to offend some people. I’m not sure that any of them will ever read this, so it might not matter all that much. But I do recognize that what follows may be viewed by some as incredibly, offensively ignorant. For all it’s worth, let me say that I have absolutely no intention to offend anyone. I acknowledge (without condoning) my ignorance on this issue. In fact, it is precisely the hope of eradicating my ignorance that prompts me to write this post. This is a topic which I admittedly claim not to understand. Help me, if you can.

So what is the topic? Importantly, it is not adoption tout court. Instead, it is a certain class of adoptions—namely, those adoptions that take place in families consisting of two happily married adults who already have multiple biological children and are biologically capable of reproducing again.

I recently learned (fourth-hand, mind you) about a set of parents that fit into this category. They already have four children, the oldest turning seven within the next couple of months and the youngest being just one year old. The parents are now in the process of adopting two babies from Ethiopia, a seven-month-old and a four-month-old. (The two babies are not related to each other.) It may or may not strike you as relevant that the adoptive parents are Caucasian and, from what I understand, have no special connection to Ethiopia.

When I heard about this, my brain immediately screamed, “Why in the world are they doing that?” And, to reveal the part of my post—or of my mentality, I suppose—that is most likely to offend certain people, I admit that I cannot think of a good reason for people like this to adopt. That is, I have a hard time thinking that adopting under these circumstances is really justifiable. Put even more bluntly, I cannot help but view the parents’ decision to adopt as a negative thing, as somehow reflecting poorly upon them. Like, if they really want to have more kids, they should—rationally, if not morally, should—just reproduce. There, I said it. I don’t understand adopting when you can have your own kids. Something about it just doesn’t seem right to me.

But wait? Isn’t adoption a good thing? Why, yes, it certainly can be. But is that the point here? Is adoption justified on the basis that it is performing some kind of charitable service? Providing a needy child with a loving family and a safe home—pretending for the moment that all cases of adoption have these benefits—is undoubtedly a good thing … if that’s as much about the issue as you consider. But let’s be honest, adoption is not the most efficient way of saving the world. Word has it that adopting these two babies will cost the adoptive parents approximately $40,000. (The babies were buy one, get one at half price. That’s putting it crudely, but I’m not joking.) One might quibble with how the term “saving a life” should be understood, but various sources will tell you that donating $40,000 to charity has the potential to save anywhere from 3,600 to 80,000 lives. (See here, here, here, and here.) In short, the Good Samaritan Defense for adopting doesn’t strike me as all that plausible. Improving the world might, in certain circumstances, justify putting a child up for adoption, and it might justify adopting certain children when and if one is going to adopt anyway. But I don’t think it qualifies as a good reason for adopting in-and-of-itself.

Here’s where I get even more controversial: I can’t help but think that some people adopt because it seems cool. It’s hip to adopt, just like it’s hip to be vegan or drive a Prius. I think some people view adopting a child as somehow forward-thinking and progressive. But to adopt for this reason is, in my view, morally repugnant. It strikes me as a poor attempt at “embracing diversity.” This is especially true when such people adopt outside of their own countries and cultures. Now, if a person is going to adopt, there may be very practical reasons for adopting outside of one’s own culture—it might be cheaper and involve less wait, for instance. But is that always the motivation behind adopting an overseas child? I swear I’ve heard some people say that they’ve always wanted to adopt a baby from this-or-that foreign region. I get the impression that, in these people’s minds, there’s just something cool about adopting an alien child, the same way someone might aspire to visit all seven continents or write a novel. I have absolutely no basis for thinking the parents I mentioned above fall into this category, and yet I have no basis for thinking they don’t. I sincerely hope they don’t. Adopting a child from another country because it’s cool to do so puts adoption a bit too on par with collecting shot glasses. What’s next? Have ten children and raise them all in different religions? Wouldn’t that be cool and forward-thinking?

With my rant more or less complete, it is worth reiterating that I don’t think adoption is a bad thing. I’m just baffled by those who would adopt under the circumstances described above. I’m inclined to think that if one is in a situation where having another biological child is a viable option, adoption is an odd way to go. Maybe the parents are thinking something like this: we want to have another child, so we might as well adopt a child in need rather than bring another child into an overpopulated world. I’m highly skeptical that this applies to the couple in question (for reasons not worth broaching here), but it may explain why some parents in a similar situation would choose to adopt. I’m leery of this being the general line of thought in the kinds of cases with which I’m concerned, but perhaps it is. At least it is a coherent position to take. There is more I could say on the matter, more questions that I might have even if this is the best answer that can be provided, but I’ll resist for now. I don’t think my questions would make me sound any more open-minded or any less judgmental. I guess it’s just hard for me to think of choosing to adopt when having my own offspring is achievable and would not change the family dynamic any more than—and indeed would probably change it less than—adopting would. It might be nice to avoid the challenges of pregnancy, but adopting in order to avoid being (or having a partner that is) pregnant is a bit off-putting to me. (Of course, I am not considering cases where pregnancy would pose a special threat to the woman’s health.) So, are there good reasons for adopting even when one can, without threatening the extant family unit in some way, have a child of one’s own?

If you’ve read all of the above and you think I’m a horrible person, please reprove me. I would appreciate it.


  1. I don't necessarily disagree, but I'd add some mitigating factors.

    - Fertility issues are sensitive; it's hard to know who is "biologically capable." Maybe the earlier kids cost more in IVF than the adoptees will cost.
    - Some women enjoy pregnancy less than others. Adoption is less distasteful than surrogacy.
    - Perhaps people have a mental target of the size family that they'd like to have, then realize that they don't realistically have enough years to meet it, so they accelerate the process by outsourcing it.
    - Adopting a kid from a "cool" country seems shallow but I wouldn't go so far as to call it morally repugnant. Assuming the child's life is improved by the adoption, I don't see the downside in the parents feeling like they're cool.
    - Assume that someone has the simultaneous goals of minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness, and set aside the option of using the money to buy mosquito nets. By adopting from a 3rd world country you presumably take a -1 (a life of suffering) and replace it with a +1, for a net gain of 2. Having your own kid still leaves the 3rd world kid suffering, for a net gain of 0.
    - If the white couple adopts a white baby from the US then some people, some of the time, will question their plumbing. "Can she not have any more? Can he not get it up?" To some extent the 3rd world adoption preempts those questions by reframing, making people more likely to praise your altruism than question your manliness/womanliness.

  2. Brent, I appreciate your input. I completely agree with what you've said about fertility issues, and it's important that my comments be taken to apply only to a certain class of adoptive parents. I have no idea what the fertility status is of the adoptive parents I discussed as an example, but I was working on the assumption that all is well in the fertility department. I could be wrong, but their case was meant to be illustrative. If my comments don't actually apply to those parents, that's fine. Even so, it's true that "biologically capable" is a problematically vague phrase. Admittedly, I was thinking of parents who can, with relative certainty and without "special" complications, reproduce just by having sex with each other.

    You say adoption is "less distasteful" than surrogacy. I guess if it's merely to avoid pregnancy because one doesn't enjoy being pregnant, I am tempted to agree. But that wouldn't justify adoption, per se, just as a person short on cash wouldn't be justified in embezzling money from their place of work just because embezzlement is less distasteful than, say, mugging old women. I know your point wasn't to justify adoption by comparing it to surrogacy, but it's worth making explicit what the comparison does NOT tell us.

    I see your point about minimizing suffering and maximizing happiness, but if we're appealing to that kind of a notion, why set aside the option of buying mosquito nets? Sure, we can set it aside, but why?

    You make another interesting point with the race issue. I think there are more interesting points to explore there, but for now, I'm intrigued by the situations in which your claim would hold more or less true. I think if the adoptive parents have no biological children of their own, it would make very little difference whether the adopted child was of their own race or not. I think the parents' fertility would be called into question with equal zeal either way. However, if the parents already have a biological child or two, I think an interracial adoption (so to speak) would be slightly less likely to raise those concerns. Do you agree?

  3. I agree that it seems trendy to collect kids from other countries/cultures. Of course I'm thinking of celebrities following Brad and Angelina. In reality? I knew a couple kids in high school that had a family of bio kids and adopted kids. I didn't really know them well enough to know anything, but I did get the impression from the bio kid that she felt pretty cool and diverse and open minded because of all her different colored brothers. As for the brother that was in my grade... I never really had the impression he felt like it was so cool.
    One motivation to go outside the country (and I know so much :) is that it is cheaper, faster, and easier. That's not a criticism. If you were unable to have children I can't imagine the emotion involved and you would want something you could better afford and not put you through so much more heartache. But when you can have your own children, which is your question, or when people actually say they've always wanted a kid from such and such a place... I guess it strikes me wrong because when you have a baby... I was just so glad that they were healthy and normal. You really don't care about gender etc. You really will love them no matter what! So it sounds a bit like bio engineering or something. Maybe if there is a country or culture you know about or are interested in, maybe that makes more sense, but really? I think you are raising them in YOUR culture no matter how diverse you try to be. It sounds dumb, but I'm kind of surprised what an influence there is from family, my own and my husband's, on my children. That's our culture and it has a strong influence. I don't really see how you could really and truly give them "their own" if it's not yours more than you can just teach them about the world in general.
    Sorry, my thoughts are barely intelligent, let alone when I try to express them with all my distractions. But I thought this was a fun post (fun?) to think about. Thanks for making us think!

    1. Thanks for the response, JoAnna. In my original post, I was tempted to say more about the whole "diversity" issue, but I didn't. Now, reading your comment, I think I'll go ahead and do a whole new post on it. Stay tuned...

  4. At first I must say I started to feel a little offended that you even raised the question, but then I read your post and I think you have a legitimate point - that some people adopt from other countries because it may seem cool. In today's life where so much is achievable and purchasable, it may be that a foreign child is just another nice-to-have.

    However, I think you would agree that there are probably many more people who are doing it because of population growth, the wish to help give a child a better life, but also because adoption is a wonderful experience (for the most part). Another consideration may be that people would rather save a child from languishing in a Somali childrens home than saving a child from a well-funded and safe children's home in the US or UK.

    I think people misunderstand the psyche of adoptive parents - the children are only 'foreign' to you for a very short while, and after that they become yours, and one experiences the same joy being parent to an adoptive child as one would a biological child. So if people get a kick out of adopting a foreign child, that kick does not last I think. This then raises the question as to why people would adopt 2,3,4 children? My guess is that most people do it because they genuinely care and are able to love a child not born of them. There must be those who enjoy the attention of having a child of another race, but from my research most people actually do not like the attention they get, and they do worry about the impact all that public attention will have on the adoptive child.

    For the record, we are probably able to have our own children (and we did try, without success) but my husband and I adopted recently out of choice. We were lucky to be matched to a child who looks like us, but I do not think it would have made a difference whether she was white, black or purple - we love her like our own. Also, most of the time we dont tell people she is adopted. If we adopted a child of another race the attention would make me uncomfortable.

    You would also read on various forums that people HATE being told they did something wonderful by adopting. For most parents, the joy and love you get from that child is worth a lot more than any supposed 'sacrifice' one may have made to adopt the child.

    Overall, however, I think your question is a legitimate one. I am just surprised you have not received death threats yet :0) as this is a very emotive topic.

    1. Thanks for the response, Anonymous. Reading this post again now, several months after writing it, I can see how the tone of it may sound "holier-than-thou." That's not how I feel, but I was trying to be honest and genuine in declaring my lack of understanding. I appreciate you putting in your two cents.