Christian cross

Credit: Anthony C/lta362 on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–Adoption is often described as a “win-win” solution–for a child in need of a home and for adoptive parents longing for a son or a daughter to raise.

However, in the fuller equation adoption is too often a zero-sum game, in which the happiness of one family comes at the expense of another, particularly that of birthmothers and birth families, both in the United States and overseas, whose choice to relinquish for adoption is sometimes no choice at all.

Despite the varied but largely altruistic motivations of evangelical adoption advocates, as a movement it is directing hundreds of millions of dollars into a system that already responds acutely to Western demand–demand that can’t be filled, at least not ethically or under current law. What that can mean for tens of thousands of loving but impoverished parents in the developing world is that they become the supply side of a multi-billion-dollar global industry driven not just by infertility but now also by pulpit commands.

The Christian adoption movement’s rapid rise and the complicated scandals it has been party to provide lessons that are not limited to the faith-based sphere. This book focuses on evangelical Christians as the dominant group in adoption today, promoting an agenda that shapes larger trends. However, many of the same complexities are present in all adoptions, domestic and international, religious and secular. Although the Christian movement has led to particular problems and may be more blinded by the certainty that what they are doing is right and even divinely ordained, the movement’s failures reflect the broader problems in the adoption industry as well as the intricate moral balance of how Americans and Westerners should engage in child welfare missions on the global stage.

Invisible Birthmother

“If you want to look at what’s wrong with international adoption, state adoption and Christian adoption,” one agency director told me, “it all has to do with how they treat birthmothers. The common denominator in all of these is that the birthmother is invisible.”

When you get that, one adoptive parent wrote, it changes everything. Or, as another told me, “It’s like ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ You open the door and either you have to accept it’s a house of cards or you stay in denial. There’s absolutely no middle ground.”

When I titled this book “The Child Catchers,” I thought of the tension between two possible interpretations of that phrase: a savior catching a child falling in midair and bringing him or her to safety or the darker image of someone’s offspring being snatched away from her family and home. It’s the same tension that underlies the dueling narratives about the institution of modern adoption, often viewed as an unqualified good or an unqualified evil, purely rescue or purely theft.

The truth, as usual, probably lies somewhere in between, a different answer from case to case. But the rise of the Christian adoption movement threatens to tip that balance, bringing millions of new advocates on board to fight on behalf of an industry too often marked by ambiguous goals and dirty money, turning poor countries’ children into objects of salvation, then into objects of trade.

That’s not always the story, but in the movement’s short history, the sense of mission has frequently obscured the harm the industry can do, excusing missteps as the cost of doing God’s work. It doesn’t have to be that way, but figuring out how to do better means understanding what has gone wrong.

From the Book: “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption.” Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

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