Adoption: Christianity’s Ugly Stepchild

dadwithbabyWhen you go to the Planned Parenthood website and explore their materials on pregnancy, you are presented with three choices:  abortion, adoption, or parenthood. This way of presenting information makes perfect sense, as these are the three choices that a newly-pregnant woman faces.  And yet adoption is not a word that comes up often in our national conversation.  We’ve gotten ourselves so polarized around two of a woman’s choices when she becomes pregnant that we don’t usually mention the third.  Sure, it’s understood that if we aren’t going to allow a woman to choose abortion and she really can’t or doesn’t want to be a mom, she could put the kid up for adoption.  But how does that work?  Who chooses it, and why?

We don’t usually bother to ask or answer these questions as part of the conversation about pregnancy because we don’t view it through the eyes of a pregnant woman with sexual agency (the right and power to make choices about her sexuality and reproduction) who has a choice to make.  We view it through the eyes of patriarchy, which shames her if she doesn’t want to be a mother and has defined abortion as murder.  Adoption falls through the cracks.  Or does it?

Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs), which are Christian organizations that misinform and scare pregnant women about the consequences of abortion and shame women about premarital sex, pressure pregnant women to give their children up to middle-class or wealthy Christian families.  In a 2009 article for The Nation, Kathryn Joyce details this coercion, citing the experiences of individual women and describing a trend:  “Such enthusiasm for Christians to adopt en masse begins to seem like a demand in need of greater supply, and this is how critics of current practices describe it: as an industry that coercively separates willing biological parents from their offspring, artificially producing ‘orphans’ for Christian parents to adopt, rather than helping birth parents care for wanted children.”

This trend is particularly interesting in light of the Quiverfull movement—a Christian movement, founded by Mary Pride and expanded by Nancy Leigh DeMoss, which encourages women to be submissive to men and have a “quiverfull” of children.   (The name comes from Psalm 127, 3-5: “Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them.”)  Quiverfull families see children as “God’s army,” the idea being that if fundamentalist Christian families have tons of kids, over time there will be so many of them that they can enact Christian patriarchal will (which they see as divine will) via policy.  Put this idea together with the coercion of adoption via Christian pregnancy centers, and you have yourself quite the picture around women, children, God, and patriarchy.

The recent “Baby Veronica” adoption case fits right into this picture.  This case has it all:  power, politics, white privilege and racism, and patriarchal Christianity.  The adoption was facilitated by a Christian adoption agency (Nightlight Christian Adoption Agency, which views cryopreserved embryos as “pre-born children”), and when the child’s birth father, Dusten Brown, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, tried to stop his child’s adoption in South Carolina, the Evangelical community erupted with “Save Baby Veronica” campaigns.  The case is both complicated and simple (complicated because it involves the pain of two parents and the criss-crossing of state and federal law, and simple because at its core is parental love and our nation’s racist treatment of Native Americans), and now it is over, as the child’s birth father has given her to the adoptive parents. The fact that he lost his child in this underscores just how we define family, and who defines it.

As Laura Briggs puts it in her excellent article summarizing the case, “Clement successfully brought the Baby Veronica case to the Supreme Court, making a series of interrelated arguments. First, his brief insists that Brown is not legally or meaningfully a father because he and Maldonado were not married. For me, as a lesbian mother who raised a child in Arizona where I could not adopt her because her other mother and I were not married, this argument terrifies me.”  We are allowing the Christian Right to define family politically—and that definition is straight out of patriarchal Christianity, in which those who are “unfit” to be parents (the young, the unwed, the poor, the non-white, the homosexual) do not have rights over their own children.  As Briggs puts it, “If this case is successful, it would make it much easier for poor people to lose children, including against their will, which mostly affects mothers.”

To honor a woman’s choice to carry but not raise a child, we must face a whole host of complicated issues, including federal law around adoption (which, as the “Baby Veronica” case proves, has historically been racist and classist), a father’s role and rights, and a birth mother’s right to change her mind.  At the center of these issues is the massive Christian adoption industry, which dishonors a woman’s sexuality and sexual agency and in many cases purposely misinforms, misleads, and frightens her.  These behaviors treat women not as sacred beings who have a role in defining motherhood for themselves, but as shameful baby-making machines.  This treatment of women bothers me as a woman, an American, a feminist, an ally to women of color and poor women, and a Christian—for to shame a woman into a choice about her pregnancy in the name of God is to disrespect the woman, the pregnancy, and God.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing—when a mother who cannot raise her child willingly chooses to allow others who can and will give the child a loving home, a child is born and welcomed into a loving family.  It’s a win-win, and as a Christian I believe God can play a role in bringing that win-win about.  But as a feminist, I want to be sure that birth mothers are both willing to bear their children to term and willing to give them to another family.  This situation would be simple enough to bring about if we viewed unplanned pregnancy through the eyes of a pregnant woman rather than the eyes of patriarchy.


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