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Conscience Magazine

The Christian Adoption Movement: A Mirror of Salvation or Redemption by Force?

By Denise Shannon February 19, 2014

The Child Catchers CoverBy my lights, the most fundamental tenet of reproductive rights and justice maintains that the decision to have a child or not is up to no one but the pregnant woman. We most often apply this principle to the abortion decision, but it also applies to the determination to raise a child. Who can say what is the right set of reasons for wanting to raise children? It is not, I’ve always thought, ours to judge. As I read Kathryn Joyce’s new book The Child Catchers, however, I struggled to apply this respect for childrearing decisions to the people she writes about, who, for reasons of faith, adopt children, sometimes serially. Joyce’s focus is on the Christian adoption movement, and she shines a bright light on its practices and underlying philosophies.

The first clue that The Child Catchers will not be a book that glorifies adoption is, of course, the title. If you’ve ever seen the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang you’ll recall that the wicked “child catcher” plucks up children and imprisons them. No, Joyce is no unconditional fan of adoption, it seems, and readers of her new book on the subject will likely come to share her skepticism. Her account reveals a disturbing culture that reeks of imperialism, racism, coercion and willful ignorance of corruption.

Joyce takes us to evangelical churches across the United States, where adoption has become a mission unto itself, a grand cause that serves multiple purposes. Adoption is seen as a mirror of Christian salvation, a way to spread the gospel as well as an integral part of antiabortion politics. At the Saddleback Church, Pastor Rick Warren has led the congregation in a campaign to “end the orphan crisis” while simultaneously bringing orphans into the Christian fold. Among these evangelicals, adoption is both a service to people in need and a calling.

But there’s the rub. Just who are the people in need? What orphan crisis? These questions are central to the opening tale of Joyce’s book, an account of post-earthquake Haiti. Depicted by the US media and political leaders as victims of a backward nation rather than a natural disaster, Haitian children were seen as orphans to be rescued from Haiti itself even when they had family. The American misperception of Haiti’s needs perfectly exemplifies the rot at the core of the Christian adoption movement, in which a misguided savior complex assumes that tickets to America for a handful of children are the solution for an entire country living in poverty.

Next, Joyce examines the relatively recent history of international adoption in the United States, beginning with Harry and Bertha Holt, the deeply conservative Christian couple who single-handedly popularized the adoption of Korean orphans into Christian homes after bringing home eight Korean children to join their six biological children. The Holts’ ad hoc adoption services evolved into one of the largest and the longest standing international adoption agencies in the world. Though now joined by numerous Christian agencies promoting adoption, the Holts instituted a specific brand of Christian adoption, combined with the notion of saving children “both body and soul.”

Joyce is a harsh critic of international adoption, but domestic adoption hardly gets a pass. She offers an incisive history of the “Baby Scoop Era,” the years between 1945 and 1972, when abortion was outlawed and single motherhood was outside society’s norms. Unmarried pregnant women often found themselves in either unwed mothers’ homes, run like dormitories, or in “wage homes,” where they were unpaid servants to families that housed them through their pregnancies. It is a brutal story of isolation, bullying and deception, in which adoptive parents’ wishes and rights almost always trumped those of the birth mother.

Today, unmarried pregnant women in the United States have more options, but a bias persists among many conservative Christians that adoption is the right solution in every case of unintended pregnancy. So-called crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) have sprung up across the country, which, rather than offering women the full range of options, instead attempt to persuade pregnant women to carry their pregnancies to term and relinquish their children for adoption. More than 4,000 CPCs operate across the country, and many receive government funds. Affiliated maternity homes offer pregnant women the hard sell on adoption, and the price of the care they provide is the woman’s agreement to give up her child.

One more uncomfortable aspect of the Christian adoption movement concerns race. Joyce peels back the veil on how adherents use the “orphan crisis” as a way of trying to redeem conservative Christianity’s history of racism. Of course, bringing children of color into white families and practically erasing their ethnic origins does not make for honest or effective reparations for this admittedly painful legacy.

It is difficult to disagree with Joyce’s cogent and well-researched criticisms of the Christian adoption movement. As the mother of an adopted daughter from China, I was forced to ponder my own situation, though it was far from the first time. With her two white moms, I worry about my Asian-born daughter’s racial identity. I can only hope that the efforts my partner and I take in relation to our daughter’s ethnic background give her a healthy sense of who she is and her place in the world. And I hope that she is helped by our open honoring of her first parents.

My fierce love for my daughter is matched by an equally fierce respect for her first mother, a Chinese woman we likely will never meet, but who gave my daughter life and then gave her up. We do not know for sure the circumstances under which my daughter came to be in an orphanage. We cannot even hope there was no coercion, because China’s one-child policy is coercive, as are poverty, sexism and just about any other circumstance I can imagine that would have led to my daughter’s abandonment. Joyce is right to remind us that adoption is not a solution to social ills any more than it is a pathway to heaven for adoptive parents.

The Child Catchers
Kathryn Joyce
(PublicAffairs, 2013, 352 pp)
978-1586489427, $26.99

Denise Shannon

is the executive director of the Funders Network for Population, Reproductive Health and Rights and a board member of Catholics for Choice.