Saturday, January 1, 2011

thoughts about ethics

I have been thinking a lot lately about ethics in international adoption. This is going to be my attempt to write down some coherent thoughts.

I’ll start at the bad end of the ethics continuum. The worst kind of adoption is one where a child was kidnapped, or where the birth parents were out-and-out lied to. I would like to say that everyone is against this kind of adoption, but unfortunately I can’t. I was listening to a piece about Focus on Children (the agency that lied to Samoan birth families and American adoptive families), and one adoptive parent was supporting them because in the United States the children were, “more advantaged by 1000 percent than from where they come from.” Somehow I imagine this man would change his mind about advantaged=ethical if Warren Buffett decided to kidnap his son. Anyway, obviously I am not OK with child trafficking.

At the other end of the continuum is a child who has lost both parents. Everyone in the child’s extended family has also died. Multiple attempts to place the child for adoption within the country of birth have failed. There is no future in the country except at an orphanage. In this case, international adoption would be the better choice.

But then... What if the birth parents are the ones who think it’s better for their child to have an “advantaged” life in the United States? What if the birth parents have not died, but can’t afford to raise the child? On the one hand, I think it would be unethical for an adoptive parent to go through with the adoption. There’s no informed consent. A destitute family in Ethiopia doesn’t know anything about life in the United States (or they’ve seen some American movies, in which case what they think they know is totally wrong). I know about life in the U.S., I know about moving to the U.S., and I know enough about poverty in Africa to know that they’re not making an informed choice, so I can’t participate in that adoption. But then on the other hand, that child could die if s/he is not adopted. Or if not die, live in extreme poverty. Maybe it doesn’t matter to the birth parents that they don’t know about life in the U.S., maybe they want any kind of life besides the one they can offer. How can I make that decision for them?

If I go with the first answer, I don’t participate in an adoption where the birth parents relinquish the child for a “better” life, and I only adopt if the family has died. But now consider – Judge Rahila Abbas, who handles all of Ethiopia’s adoption cases, was quoted as saying, “Some families prefer to lie about their history. I think the reason is they are destitute. I think that is the reason why they lie about one of the parents has died or is absent.” So in any given situation, I don’t know if it is an adoption in which I can participate. If the parents want to send their children to a “better” life, I do not adopt. If the parents have died, I do. But if people are lying, what do I do? Do I not adopt, assuming the parents are living? If so, I may leave a real orphan without a home. Or do I adopt, so I don’t leave an orphan? If so, I may be taking a child whose parents are alive. Which is worse?

Some people have posted on the adoption boards that instead of adopting we should give money to aid organizations that address poverty. But we can do both. Adopting for me is not about saving children. It’s about wanting to raise a child and deciding that rather than making a child I can give a home to an existing child who needs one. That has nothing to do with money I donate; I will continue donating money after I adopt. Besides, even if all the families who are currently waiting to adopt decide to donate their money instead, there would still be poverty.

Wide Horizons does several things to make the adoption as ethical as possible. They send their own social worker to confirm the information provided by the Ethiopian government, they educate the birth family about the American definition of adoption and about their right to change their mind right up to the court date, they require a sizable donation for in-country aid, and they arrange for us to meet the birth family. Still, if the family is lying so that the child will be placed, Wide Horizons would not catch that. Again, I don’t know if it’s ethical to adopt when it’s possible the family is lying. Am I the one to decide that they can’t do that because I know more about life in the U.S. or are they the ones to decide because it’s their child?



  1. I have lots of thoughts on this one. I would be happy to discuss more detailed stuff in an e-mail ( or message on FB).
    It is tough and extremely complicated and I am impressed as hell that you are thinking. About it this early in the game.

  2. My daughter has one living birthparent, and my first thought when I met him was that he was so very young...did he really understand what he was doing? But that also feels disrespectful - as you say, who am I to decide that I know better than he does what the right decision is? It's so complicated, and I think everyone has to decide for themselves what they are comfortable with. Far better that you are thinking about it now than pretending the issue doesn't exist, though.

  3. We chose WHFC b/c not only do they do all the things you just mentioned they offer families alternatives to adoption first. One WHFC AP told me WHFC on two occasions offered aid/sponsorships etc. to the brith family of her children before they eventually relinquished. I was really glad to hear that. And I agree that there is little PAPs and agencies can do if birth families are not forthright with their unfortunate reality for sure.