In this installment, we focus on domestic adoption and the rebranding of adoption via specific language. We invite you to join the conversation in the comments following each post.
Karen Pickell: Lynn, I also had the sense that this movement belies a broader push for political power that would reach into other areas of society as well. And, of course, there are huge profits to be made. Near the end of chapter three, Joyce mentions a 2010 investigation of Bethany Christian Services—the largest adoption agency in the U.S.—that found “$8.4 million out of Bethany’s $9.1 million total budget went to management costs or fundraising” rather than to services benefiting children, which explains why they and other agencies so frequently try to push young, expectant women toward relinquishing their babies to adoption. This chapter hit close to home with me; my own mother received no support to keep me from either her family or Catholic Charities due to her being a young teenager at the time. That was back in 1968, but even today once one of these agencies get their claws into a young woman, the goal is to convince her to relinquish rather than to help her find a way to raise her child. This quote from Reanne, a birth mother profiled in chapter three, sums it up: “I could have taken care of my child easily. I wasn’t on drugs or an alcoholic. I was just young.”
Rebecca Hawkes: I'm glad you mentioned Reanne. She's been much on my mind. I found her story to be particularly poignant, no doubt in large part because I too am the daughter of a mother who was simply "young." The coercion that Reanne experienced during her pregnancy was familiar but heartbreaking. (“’Everything is so negative and subtle, and it starts to work on you,’ said Reanne. ‘I felt like I was walking around with a baby that wasn’t mine. I was a birthmother before the child was born.’”) Also, as I read about her actions through the years in her attempts to reconnect with her son and re-open an adoption that had closed, I was aware that she was that nightmare "birthmom" that so many adoptive and prospective adoptive parents fear, the one who won't go away and even shows up on the doorstep, so it was good to get that story from her perspective. It's noteworthy that although Reanne acknowledges the harmful impact of a religiously affiliated organization that orchestrated her relinquishment, she herself maintained and even deepened her own faith. It's a significant moment for her when an evangelical preacher tells her, "That child was taken from you . . . They said you weren’t good enough. This is what religion has done over and over." For us, as readers, it's an important reminder that not all evangelical Christians are blind to the harmful impact of current adoption practices. I think it's important for readers of this round table to understand that we're not engaging in Christian-bashing or evangelical-bashing. We need to be able to look critically at certain harmful practices, especially when they have become widespread and are being cloaked in religious garb, but that's not the same as indicting an entire religion or group of people. One of the things I've found especially encouraging since this book's publication is the number of Christian bloggers and writers who are coming forward to essentially say, "This is a difficult and controversial book but we shouldn't just dismiss it without reading it and discussing it. There are things in here that we need to be discussing."
Carlynne Hershberger: As a mother who lost a child to adoption, I can say that I had the same experience as Reanne but through Catholic Social Services in 1980. One part I highlighted in the book: "’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.’"
I agree, we're not here to bash any particular religion or people of faith. It's the system that is wrong.
It is good to see the Christian writers acknowledging that something has to change and being open to discussion but it's distressing to see the people who claim to be Christians out and out lying about their role in the industry. In one part of the book Joyce talks about Jim Wright and Birthmothers—aka Birthmother Ministries on Facebook. I spoke with Jim personally. We had a long phone conversation where I asked him repeatedly about the role of his ministry and adoption, and he claimed that they were not at all focused on adoption. Yet, he is quoted in the book as saying "The reason we use 'birthmothers' as our name is because it connotes adoption." And he says, "That's how Birthmothers came to be: because we go to adopt, and we can't get anybody to do a homestudy." In my conversation with him, he stressed that they don't push adoption and could only speak about his own experience as an adoptive father.
Rebecca: Also, we've mentioned it already, but the numbers manipulation comes up again in this section of the book, as when a Christian crisis pregnancy ministry argues that all children born to single mothers in the United States are orphans because the biblical definition of an orphan is a fatherless child. "If 43 percent of the six million babies born that year were born to unwed mothers, the ministry reasoned, 'that means 2.6 million new orphans last year!'" Excuse me? I find the redefinition of "orphan," in both domestic and international contexts, to be frighteningly Orwellian. "Birthmothers." "Orphans." The language choices are deliberate and manipulative. "Orphan" tugs at the heart strings and obscures the fact that we are primarily talking about children who already have parents . . . just not the "right" parents in the eyes of the orphan-crisis movement.
Mila: Wow. This is a great discussion. As a Korean adoptee, although I do not adhere to the Korean brands of Buddhism or Confucianism, it has been so enlightening to learn about the history of these religions/philosophies and how they have affected the family (and ultimately, adoption) culture in Korea. I state this to say that I agree that it can be very valuable to expose adopted children to the religions/philosophies of their origins.
One of the things that has stood out most to me thus far in The Child Catchers is the "rebranding" of "birth mother" that Joyce discusses on pages 114-117: "Based on this research, Young suggested a new CPC communications strategy that would 'chip away at those associations and establish new ones,' presenting adoption as an expression of birthmothers' selfless love as well as a means of redemption—a way for mothers to 'defeat selfishness, an evil within themselves.'" I found this disturbing and disgusting. A so-called Christian organization hired a marketing company that describes itself as studying consumers' "subconscious emotional motivators" so that companies can "leverage their brands as never before." Talk about manipulation. This is sickening. I think this decision to "rebrand" birth mothers was pivotal (in a very bad way) for the adoption movement. And it's ubiquitous now in the adoption community. Completely takes advantage of the emotions of women dealing with unplanned pregnancies or otherwise. Reading about this made me want to fight some people!