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Adoption Has Become a Conservative Sacred Cow

Tom Bell

Leslie Fain - published on 04/05/14 - updated on 06/08/17

It's not always a "beautiful choice."

Single mothers who relinquish their babies are commended as selfless and heroic: their biological children described as loved and wanted. Sometimes there is no mother in the scenario, but only an orphaned child in a foreign country who is taken to America for a new start.  Sometimes the situation involves a toddler whose parents are incarcerated or drug-dependent, and the State looks to find her “forever family.”

What all these scenarios have in common is this: They represent modern American adoption, and much like American Exceptionalism or capitalism, it has become one of those topics that many conservatives, particularly religious conservatives, do not dare criticize. In fact, many conservatives, especially Christian pro-lifers—and I am one—may not even realize that the subject of modern adoption warrants reflection.

Why criticize something as necessary and beneficial as adoption? Although churches, orphanages, and families throughout history have taken care of orphans and children whose parents have fallen on hard times, taking a child in as one’s own and erasing his biological and cultural ties is a relatively new and distinctly American phenomenon.

Criticism of many practices associated with adoption has occurred within the adoption community for many years, but for the most part, it has fallen on deaf ears. Whether the issue is romanticizing adoption, exorbitant fees, stripping adoptees of their identities and denying them access to their kin, minimizing the emotional brokenness of adoptees, injustice toward birth parents, or pushing adoption as a first choice rather than last resort, many adoptees, adoptive parents, birth parents, and former foster children are making the case that the time for adoption reform is long overdue.

Despite the positive feelings adoption evokes, few realize that modern adoption in the U.S. actually has its roots in xenophobia and anti-Catholicism, and an ill thought-out reaction to it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, according to C. Catherine Henderson Swett, a Catholic attorney and adoptee rights advocate.

“Catholic organizations got into child protection because Protestants and anti-papist, anti-immigrant forces were literally rounding up impoverished Catholic children and shipping them out west as labor,” said Swett, who has researched the history of adoption. Well-heeled Catholic families in New York became concerned about poor Catholic children being sent out on “orphan” trains, and formed associations that placed these Catholic children with other Catholic families who were not poor.

Adoption as practiced in the U.S. today began with the entrepreneur Georgia Tann of the Tennessee Children’s home. Prior to her work popularizing adoption, the eugenics movement had made Americans skittish about taking in the children of strangers, especially strangers who bred recklessly or were not self-sufficient and able to provide for their own, according to Swett. “Tann sold children at high prices and erased their history,” she said. This made the adoptive children more appealing to families. “Eventually the legislatures of all 50 States passed laws enabling adopters to obtain a state record of ‘Live Birth’ with their names on it (instead of their biological parents). The legislatures were led to believe they were shielding children from the damning label ‘illegitimate,’” said Swett.

With almost half of all children born in this country each year being born out of wedlock, many adoption advocates wonder why this legal fiction is still necessary, if it ever was.

Adoption, American Style: Stripping Adoptees’ Identities

One can see the legacy of this history erasure on social media and sites like FamilyTreeDNA. On Facebook, statuses pop up showing men and women, looking for their birth mothers and fathers, holding placards listing sparse details about their births. At other times, one can see photos making the rounds of birth mothers or fathers holding up posters listing information about babies they gave up years ago, and are trying to find. Sometimes it’s siblings you see, looking for a long lost brother or sister who had been put up for adoption.

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