Originally published in Reformed Journal – October 31, 2022
by Katie Roelofs & Emily Helder
Context: The following is the result of conversations between Katie Roelofs, an adoptee and pastor, and Emily Helder, an adoption researcher, and clinical psychologist. Their shared interest in adoption was the initial connection point, but the overturn of Roe v. Wade accompanied by their concerns about the future of adoption led to deeper discussions in search of preventative action. Their hope is that by allowing you to enter into the conversation, you will learn, think, pray, and prepare.
Stop thinking linearly. Imagine the curvature of cursive letters instead, gently swooping up to a point, before descending back down sharply, looping back and around, arriving at a final point.
I sat on a stiff, beige couch face to face with not only a therapist but also with my own adoption journey, much of which went largely ignored until my adult years. As I grew more frustrated with the “lack of progress” in fixing some of these issues that I wanted to be resolved quickly, she instructed me to stop seeing straight lines, and instead live into the curvy, swooping, sweeping mess of what it actually means to be adopted.
In the last decade I have learned from my own experience, and from the experience of other adoptees around me, that adoption has too often been viewed linearly – a nice neat package of family and child, homeless then home-blessed, lost then found. Particularly in religious circles, adoption has been the answer to several complicated intersections of the church and cause. In the wake of the Korean war with humanitarian needs on the rise, the church and evangelical organizations responded by pursuing international adoptions that matched children with families, removing them from their life and culture, and transporting them to a new and “better” life in North America. The 2010 Haiti earthquake serves as a more recent example of the evangelical approach to the use of adoption in the wake of humanitarian disaster. Post-civil rights movement, in an effort to show inclusivity and racial reconciliation, children were adopted into homes and full communities where they never saw a single person with the same skin color. Now, in the aftermath of the decision to revoke Roe v. Wade, Christians yet again stand precipitously close to the intersection of righteousness and realism, and are ready to wave the adoption flag as the God-given solution to a God-forsaken problem.
This will not be a linear solution. As one who has lived an adoption story personally, has walked alongside adoptive and foster parents, and is now deeply involved with children who came out of the system, I foresee nothing linear. I don’t see a neat-looking cursive, like the beautiful lettering of my mother’s pen. I see a future that looks like my 6-year-old’s furious scribbles when she grips her Crayola like a weapon and goes to war.
I, too, see no linear solution. My Facebook and Instagram feeds have been full of responses to the recent Supreme Court decision on abortion and as an adoption researcher, clinical psychologist, and Christian I find many of the responses concerning, both among pro-life and pro-choice advocates.
The pro-life position has long-presented adoption as a seamless alternative to abortion, a win-win proposition that oversimplifies the inherent complexity and duality of adoption. Even the Supreme Court oral arguments and the decision itself fell into this logic by referencing Safe Haven laws and the large number of prospective adoptive parents relative to available infants. However, even under best-case circumstances, research and clinical experience have shown me that adoption is still complicated, for the adoptee, their first/biological family, and their adoptive family.
Christian, pro-life, circles often miss seeing this complexity because they have been so eager to apply the scriptural adoption metaphor for salvation to the practice of adopting children. In short, we are saved by God because of our sinfulness, God adopts us as children, and we endeavor to put off our old, sinful, selves and live into our new identity as co-heirs with Christ. Uncritical application of this metaphor to the adoption of children puts the adoptive parent in the role of Savior, with the expectation that adoptees will solely experience gratitude for their adoption. This does not leave room for the processing of grief that many adoptees experience across the lifespan with losses of first family, culture, and in some cases, language and country. Misapplication of this metaphor can perpetuate a narrative of rescue in which the ends justify the means, allowing unethical child welfare practices to proliferate. It can also heap shame on adoptees if we don’t explicitly communicate that their adoption was not due to their sin, as in our adoption into God’s family. In the metaphor, it is God’s love through the sacrifice of Jesus that saves us, but entering into the adoption of children with a “love is all you need” or “love will fix all wounds” approach creates inaccurate expectations that can actually increase the risk for adoption breakdown/dissolution. Last, in encouraging us to live into our new identity as God’s adopted children, adopted persons may hear a message that normal curiosity about and exploration of their first/biological family and culture is not acceptable.
In short, adoption is not the uncomplicated solution to crisis pregnancy that some pro-life, especially Christian pro-life, circles often present it to be and misapplication of the adoption salvation metaphor within the church has not always served adoptees and their first/biological families well.
I have seen a similar misunderstanding about the connections between abortion and adoption among some pro-choice responses on social media as well. These have come in the form of cynical memes or statements by pro-choice folks calling on those cheering the Dobbs decision to put their money where their mouth is and sign up to serve as foster parents or adoptive parents to “unwanted children”. This harmful messaging of unwantedness stigmatizes children and their first/birth parents and based on research with first/birth families is often inaccurate. Using this language of unwantedness loses sight of systemic reasons, such as poverty and its impact on housing, education, mental health and employment, which first/birth family commonly cite as motivations for relinquishment. Further, these messages that continue to implicitly offer up foster care and adoption as the solution to fewer abortions ignore the possibility of prevention and family preservation policies that would provide the resources that allow children to stay with their biological family, preventing removal or relinquishment in the first place. Rallying around these measures of supporting families so they can stay together seems like temporary common ground for pro-life and pro-choice advocates that gets missed when we skip right to foster care and adoption as solutions.
I am what most consider the “best case scenario” for an adoptee. I was born in Seoul, South Korea to an unwed mother and absentee father. I went from the arms of healthcare workers straight into the arms of an escort who cared for me for 4 months before putting me on an airplane with other Korean babies bound for our new adoptive homes in the United States. I grew up in Denver, Colorado with wonderful parents and a supportive family. I was raised in the church – a small Dutch Reformed denomination that I now work for in their office of worship. I had every opportunity given to me: Christian education through college, music, sports, friendships, travel. My life has lacked for nothing and I very much have benefited from the privilege of my upbringing.
Still, I have struggled. Throughout my life, deep questions of identity and belonging have surfaced at odd times, causing me to wonder, to doubt, to retreat, to go searching. No matter how much love I’ve received, it does not seem to cover the cavernous depths of abandonment and shame. I long for a culture that “fits” but continually find myself to be a misfit. Sharp twinges of memory and longing have ached at unexpected times surfacing emotions and questions long-buried by accomplishments and achievements.
I know I am not alone. I have befriended fellow adoptees, walked alongside dear friends who parent adoptees and foster children. I’ve joined facebook groups and online adoptee support groups and felt solace in the fact that the common intersection of all of our stories is an identity lost, and an identity gained. The biggest questions that surface are how we are supposed to make peace between them in body and in spirit. For many, this journey has been far more difficult than my own. For every “best case scenario” there are countless stories of adoptees and foster children who have lived through layer after layer of trauma. As adoption once again prepares to take center stage in Christian circles, how prepared are we for what comes next?
In thinking about next steps in the wake of the Dobbs decision, it’s valuable to understand trends in adoption and abortion rather than relying on what we intuitively believe to be true.
Within the United States adoptions occur through three main channels: private infant adoption, public adoptions/adoptions from foster care, and international adoption. Private infant adoptions are not tracked as formally as other forms of adoption, though estimates show that relinquishment of an infant for adoption is quite rare, occurring in .5% of all live births, perhaps amounting to 10,000-20,000 per year recently. Private infant adoptions have been steadily decreasing over time with greater access to birth control and reduced stigma for single parenting. Large child welfare agencies have initiated programs to support at risk parents in parenting their children rather than choosing relinquishment. Similarly, international adoptions have also been decreasing rapidly, with less than 2,000 occurring in 2020, currently at less than 10% of the peak in 2004. Evangelical organizations that were once strong advocates for international adoption have shifted messaging and funding to support the development of child welfare infrastructure that would allow children to receive family-based care in their home countries. In comparison to decreases in other forms of adoption, public adoptions from foster care have been slowly increasing over the last decade to roughly 65,000/year. Generally, children adopted through foster care are older (usually over 5 years old) and often part of sibling groups. Though even within adoption from foster care, there has been an increasingly stronger emphasis on placing children with extended family wherever possible to preserve family and cultural ties.
Understanding abortion trends leads to the conclusion that fewer abortions in the wake of more restrictive abortion policy does not necessarily equate to substantially more adoptions occurring. In fact, national conversations about abortion often misunderstand the decision-making factors and processes that most women weigh when facing an unplanned/crisis pregnancy. In a research study that prospectively interviewed women seeking an abortion, those that received the abortion reported being aware of, but not considering, adoption. Of those who were denied abortion due to gestational limits, only 14% were considering adoption one week later and only 9% actually pursued adoption. The majority of women who are denied an abortion choose to parent their child. Similarly, in a study of first/birth mothers who relinquished their children for adoption after an unplanned pregnancy, ~30% considered no other options besides adoption. Of those that considered alternatives to adoption, almost 90% considered parenting the child and only 30% considered termination. In essence, most women are choosing between abortion and parenting their child OR placing their child for adoption and parenting their child. Based on this research the most likely outcome from being denied access to abortion is that these women will choose to parent their child.
God works in complex and broken systems. Do we believe that God has the power and the desire to work in these complicated situations to protect life, to preserve life, and to see his dearly beloved children flourish? We absolutely do and pray in earnest that it be so.
You might be wondering what the point of this article is other than to give both facts and feelings, statistics and situations. Practically, what should we be doing and how do we do it? In our conversations with each other, we have discussed several important takeaways that we hope you and others will prayerfully consider.
- Being pro-life extends beyond pro-birth. In what ways are you actively engaged in promoting healthy parents and healthy families? What organizations are you willing to support both fiscally and with your efforts to encourage family preservation where all members thrive? For example, are you considering participating in a Safe Families program that allows vulnerable parents and children opportunities to remain together while facing challenges and regaining stability? If you support global efforts to care for vulnerable children, are you focusing your support on organizations that prioritize family-based care as opposed to institutional settings/orphanages for these children?
- In the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade, if resources for vulnerable families to parent their children are not simultaneously made more robust, it is possible that the number of foster care cases will increase. Many of these children will be complex and carry significant trauma – trauma in general from foster care, but also from potentially damaging lived experiences in infancy and early childhood. If the expectation is in place that every pregnancy be carried to term, we need to begin to realign our expectation that every child, no matter how much trauma they carry, not only deserves but will have ample resources in place to protect them for the whole of their lives. Understanding more about your state’s foster care program and the impacts of childhood trauma may be a good place to begin.
- Are you willing to complicate the narratives that have compared adoption of children with the adoption salvation metaphor in scripture in a way that makes explicit the important differences, preventing unnecessary guilt and shame for adoptees and first/birth families?
- How are your churches, schools, and other religious institutions preparing themselves to deal with adoptees and foster children? When deeply traumatized children walk through your doors and push your boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxy, are you going to receive them with compassion, grace, and understanding? Will you remain committed to them, accepting them, teach them and show them God’s love? How is your own heart preparing even now to receive those whose needs you might not understand and whose collective trauma might cause you to want to turn away? What comes next and how might God be calling you, challenging you, and preparing you for this important work?
May God open your eyes to see what is broken and long for reconciliation
May God open your hearts to engage with what is painful and work for restoration
May God open your hands to work in the midst of hardships and actively pursue redemption
May God open your spirits to love all God’s children, receiving them with compassion and grace.