Ashley MacInnis is an adult adoptee who lives in Halifax and grew up in a church-going family. As a child, it never struck her as odd when people made comments like, “God had a plan for you!” or “You were God’s gift to your parents. ” Now, however, she feels differently.
“I think statements linking God and adoption are actually quite insulting,” MacInnis writes in an email. “It minimizes the emotional upheaval everyone goes through. It’s not like an immaculate conception and everything is just so; there can be months of waiting, paperwork, raw emotion, legalities. Society’s take on adoption is so simple when it’s actually so complex.”
Ontario resident and adoptee Alexandria Thom agrees. “I don’t think God has much to do with anything in adoption,” she writes in a text message. “It’s weird to me to think that because my mom couldn’t have biological babies, God had me nice and ready for her.”
I’m a mother via trans-racial, international adoption, but I’ve come to understand that what I thought I knew about adoption when I started the process is inaccurate and many of the beliefs I held and phrases I used as a liberal Christian can be offensive and even harmful. As November’s Adoption Awareness Month draws to a close, I want to reflect on societal misconceptions about adoption, particularly within Christianity, where God and adoption are often considered linked pillars of the faith.
Adoption Awareness Month originated in the U.S. as a way to boost public knowledge and interest in the growing number of children in foster care who needed permanent homes. However, over the last few years, adult adoptees have rightfully tried to reframe that awareness. For too long, adoption has been presented by the media and reflected in society primarily from the adoptive parents’ point of view or, on behalf of adoptees too young to speak for themselves, in videos or news segments showing adoption day celebrations, happy photo shoots and images of newly-adopted children holding up signs of joy and gratitude.
While many adoptees feel happy and appreciate about their adoption and adoptive families, many others are also bitter about the experience and the immeasurable losses that came with it. Adoptees are now opening up about the negative aspects in public forums, but their efforts to have their true feelings acknowledged are not always well-received.
In many Christian communities, James 1:27, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” is held up as a directive from God to adopt, without considering alternate meanings of how to “help.”
Moses is also often paraded as the adoption poster boy, but details of his story are often conveniently ignored. Moses’ mother set him adrift in a basket on the river to save his life, but the Pharaoh’s daughter who found him invited his birth mother to be his wet nurse and nanny, allowing her to maintain close contact and some participation in her child’s life. While Moses’ mother was obviously not the parenting decision-maker, even current “open adoptions” don’t facilitate such a close familial relationship.
Author and journalist Kathryn Joyce has spent considerable time researching adoption and the supposed God-anointed connection evangelical Christians have with it. Her fascinating book, “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption” explores her extensive look at the subject.
“In my discussions with adult adoptees, who were primarily the first generation of Korean adoptees brought to America, there is general consensus that Christian, mission-led adoptions are taking too literally the concept of saviourism — that adoptive parents are ‘rescuing’ children from a life of destitution,” says Joyce.
She said that at best, there is a sense of entitlement by many Christians seeking to both do good and receive Godly favour for doing so. At worst, God is presented as the master planner who, along with often-sanctimonious adoptive families, judges birth mothers and birth families as “unfit” and instead of helping them with finances, medical issues, addictions or other issues, arranges for children to be moved into homes with better, more-deserving Christian parents.
2 Corinthians 6:18 says, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” This verse and numerous others talk about God adopting faithful servants into His loving spiritual family, so many have interpreted them to mean that adopting children is good Christian behaviour and that Christians may receive rewards for doing so.
However, being adopted into God’s family doesn’t require the loss of your own biological ties, family and medical history, culture, birth language or a parent who matches your racial appearance within your home.
Adoption is also often touted as an answer to prayers, but for whom? Prospective parents may be praying to start or expand their family, birth parents may be praying the child they surrender finds a family, or non-infant children not residing with a permanent family may be instructed to pray for adoption into a “forever” home. But there is still loss and heartbreak involved for a large number of adoptees and their families of origin in the fulfillment of those prayers. A 2001 study in Pediatrics found adopted children were four percent more likely than non-adoptees to attempt suicide.
“Humans, not God, have made the world unbalanced when it comes to power and economy. Adoption is not the solution God supposedly provides for that unbalance.”
Paula Fitzgibbons, a mother via trans-racial adoption, writes in a blog post that “humans, not God, have made the world unbalanced when it comes to power and economy. Adoption is not the solution God supposedly provides for that unbalance.”
She thinks that it’s damaging to tell a child that God called you to adopt her. “If your child comes from poverty or oppression, the message that God called you, an outsider, to adopt her, says that God didn’t care enough about her family or country to solve its problems so that families could stay alive and stay together,” she writes. “Instead, God played favourites and called you to swoop in and get her out of there, leaving her family and people to suffer while God figures out who to call for the next adoption.”
While some adult adoptees who have met their birth families do believe God intervened to keep them away from toxic circumstances and relationships, one still has to wonder how God could have also intervened on behalf of the birth families to guide Christians to be more understanding and willing to help them.
Misinterpretations of scripture have helped lead to an overwhelming evangelical Christian stance that adoption is a viable substitution for abortion, and adoption is the only help available to birth mothers or families, when all Christians could advocate for change to social systems that could provide better medical, emotional and social support for birth moms who want to raise their children but need assistance.
Instead, pregnant women can be pressured to view adopting out their baby to infertile couples as a “Christian” act of both mercy and goodwill, and sometimes even repentance for their “sin” of unmarried pregnancy.
Linda Cvetanovic, an Ontario woman adopted domestically as a baby, resents the involvement of God in women’s rights. “God may have played a role in my birth mother’s choice to give me up for adoption, but to me, that is very different than God having a plan for me,” she wrote in a conversation over Facebook.
As with many issues in today’s society, money is also factor. In his 2009 critical document about international adoption, “The Lie We Love”, E.J. Graff writes, “In 2006, UNICEF reported an estimated 132 million orphans in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. But the organization’s definition of ‘orphan’ includes children who have lost just one parent, either to desertion or death. Just 10 percent of the total — 13 million children — have lost both parents, and most of these live with extended family.”
UNICEF has estimated that 95 percent of the “orphans” are older than five, Graff wrote.
“In other words, UNICEF’s ‘millions of orphans’ are not healthy babies doomed to institutional misery unless Westerners adopt and save them. Rather, they are mostly older children living with extended families who need financial support.”
Graff repeatedly confirms the world of international adoption in particular has been a booming business. Surely this can’t be what God intended.
Christians across the political and theological spectrum need to realize that children are often put up for adoption because of existing racial bias. Black and Indigenous children have an astronomically higher chance of being taken into care in Canada (and later declared available for adoption) than white children do, despite similar or even better living conditions.
“We have a poverty crisis; not an orphan crisis,” said Joyce. “The Western world needs to change their misunderstandings of poverty.”
If Christians want to evoke the power of God in helping widows (including single women, especially those in need or crisis) and orphans, they should prioritize working together to do everything possible to keep children with their mothers or birth families who want to raise these kids. Will adoption one day become completely unnecessary? Of course not. But keeping God and adoption separate ensures we develop clear parameters for the practice to make sure it’s ethical, legal and clearly needed.