Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Opening Adoption

Adoption is the only social practice I can think of that is more controversial than it seems. Adoption advocates often come across a bit like anti-drunk driving or anti-cancer people: worthy, but not making any interesting points. Adoption has an obvious utilitarian benefit: people who want to parent are matched with kids who desperately need parenting. Social science shows that these kids do well, and that the parents are more conscientious than average.

But adoption raises powerful, hostile emotions, and some genuinely hard issues. In Canada, the First Nationalist reaction to the "sixties scoop" -- in which large numbers of aboriginal kids were adopted by people like Jean and Aline Chrétien -- has resulted in a domestic adoption system that is paralyzed. Many developing countries, including African countries with millions of orphans, feel conflicted about international adoption: it is only legal in South Africa, Ethiopia and Sierra Leone. India will only let those who are racially sub-continental adopt internationally. China strongly supports international adoption, but its coercive one-child policy casts a real ethical pall over the proceedings. The New York Times has a review of an oral history of pre-Roe v. Wade birth mothers, which is strongly pro-abortion and anti-adoption.

Outside the social welfare bureaucracy (which has proven unable to find adoptive homes) and outside the international adoption system, there has emerged a more-or-less "open adoption" voluntary system. Essentially, would-be adoptive parents try to sell themselves to birth mothers. All kinds of degrees of continuing contact become possible, and are usually desired. From what I can tell, the system works quite well for everyone, although as with any family, there are conflicts. Unplanned pregnancy no longer necessarily means a choice between abortion and a lifetime of no contact and regret.

My big fear is that the courts or the legislatures will respond to a particular dispute by creating great uncertainty about the legal enforceability of these arrangements. Another problem is that strongly pro-choice sex education teachers have an unacknowledged anti-adoption bias. This bias isn't totally irrational, given past practices, but it is out of step with contemporary adoption.

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