The "Both and" of National Adoption Month and Pie


National Adoption Month is upon us, and the usual rhetoric of the joyous miracle of "forever families" and the wounds and angst of "flip the script" from adult adoptees are flooding social media. As with much of the current social and political landscape, passionate -- even sometimes vehement -- voices take their stand and refuse to acknowledge that people who see things differently than themselves have an IQ over 60, or valid lived experiences that may differ from their own. Adoption, too, has sadly become a conversation of "either or" rather than "both and."

Is it true that the overwhelming majority of adoptive parents embrace the challenge because they want a family, have love to give, and are moved to provide a home for a child who needs one? Yes.

Is it also true that, through the years, the good intentions of adoption have been besmirched by corruption, abuse, shame, secrecy, and damaging unintended outcomes? Yes.

So, if both of these things are true, is adoption good or evil? Should it be promoted or discontinued? Is the adoption system a compassionate social service, or a greedy, thinly veiled international gray market child trafficking ring? The "either or" approach is easier than "both and" thinking, because it involves less complex reasoning, less energy, and it's easy to divide the world into us vs. them.

Remember us vs. them? That thing that we played as children starting with "cowboys and Indians" on land or "minnows and whales" in the pool, or bitchy adolescent cliques based on exclusion that constituted the foundation of competitive sports; business; bumper stickers that say "My varsity wrestler can kick your honor student's ass;" politics; racism and other "isms;" and wars? Let me be clear: there are occasional, rare reasons to go to war, and they are real, but most of life does not have to be that way.

It takes maturity and insight to live consistently in the tension and still communicate with grace and kindness toward the "other," while holding firm to your convictions. Some days I do that better than others.

On a related note, because National Adoption Month falls in November, and November means Thanksgiving, and Thanksgiving means pie, I love pie. Cherry pie. Apple pie. Blueberry pie. Pumpkin pie. Pecan pie. French Silk pie. Lemon meringue pie. Chess pie (southerners will know what this is.) When someone asks if I would rather have pumpkin or apple, I usually reply, "Both and, please!"

The following quote is attributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald:

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

If Fitzgerald is right, then I'm a pie genius.

Pie is also used as a political metaphor in phrases like, "Part of the pie is better than no pie at all." This adage points up the fact that in life, as in politics, the decision about whether or not to take a hard line, "all or nothing now" position on an issue is something we face on a regular basis. Sometimes, it can get you what you want. Sometimes, it can cost you everything, including an important relationship.

In the adoption reform movement, which is focused in large part on restoring access to original birth certificates and adoption records for adult adoptees, the notion that legislation that serves up only part of the pie might be acceptable on the way to gaining the whole pie, has become anathema in some circles. Couched in the idea, which has thus far failed in state and federal courts, that access to original birth certificates should be a fundamental right for adoptees, anyone who deviates from the party line is ostracized, ridiculed, and attacked with social media whisper and smear campaigns -- just like in middle school.

In the other camp, which I refer to as Pragmatists, are those advocates and bill sponsors who often started out with "all or nothing now" bills, but have reluctantly allowed various amendments, or revamped the bill in order to take a step forward. Needless to say, more of the "compromise" bills have been enacted in the past decade than the "all or nothing now" bills. Purists have howled and yelled, "Traitor!" Exhausted advocates in the trenches have replied, "If you think you can do better, come on over and show us how it's done."

The war of words, it seems to me, comes down to a difference in philosophy and approach to the issue. The "all or nothing now" camp asserts that if something is a civil right, it applies to everyone equally with no exceptions. Period. This is very appealing. But it assumes that access to original birth certificates falls into the legal definition of a fundamental civil right, such as those outlined in the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or Supreme Court rulings on issues like marriage, procreation, interstate travel, and voting.

The only problem with this view? Unlike other civil rights movements, the "all or nothing now" camp has no case law from the Supreme Court (or any other court, to our knowledge) affirming that access to original birth certificates is guaranteed under equal protection provisions of the Constitution, or defining it as such based on other legal arguments. To the contrary, the Oregon Court of Appeals, in an opinion upholding Measure 58, which granted access to original birth certificates for Oregon adoptees, has stated such access (along with a birth parent's potential desire for anonymity from offspring seeking to know their name) is a "legitimate interest" and NOT a fundamental right. This is troubling for the "all or nothing now (AONN)" camp, because it has the potential to collapse the very underpinnings of their political platform.

What if what started out as a compelling tagline has proven to be "pie in the sky?" What if, deep down, the leading legal minds of the AONN camp know that they can't win a court case, or are afraid to try because the outcome is too uncertain to risk what would certainly be the last nail in the coffin of OBC access as a fundamental right?

This raises two more troubling questions: If the AONN folks are so confident of their fundamental rights legal/political position, why do they fail to aggressively pursue the case while advocates at state legislatures struggle? Worse yet, what if they know they can't win, but continue to perpetuate false hope among the people who trust them, knowing (or at least having strong suspicions) that their position is rooted in a legal fiction? If the latter is true, then such behavior amounts to a cruel hoax.

An alternate philosophy held by "them" (or "us," depending on with whom one aligns), which creates great indignation and outrage in the AONN camp, has evolved and is based on the following:

1) Birth certificates, original and amended, are a creation by the state for purposes of the state.

2) Asserting "adoptee rights" inevitably creates a false adversarial assumption among legislators and raises the question, "What about birth parent rights?" We've seen the outcome on multiple occasions: the "compromise" legislation that everyone is trying to avoid.

3) Given that most states do -- at least in theory -- provide some avenue of access to original birth certificates through courts, the question becomes one of procedure and good policy, which overwhelmingly now favors some degree of openness between the parties, rather than "fundamental rights." Convincing a legislative committee that the well-educated, well-dressed middle-to-upper-middle class proponents sitting before them are somehow part of an oppressed class is a tough sell, at best.

4) That being the case, states have the option to change such policy both prospectively and retrospectively at will. Legislators like aligning with best practices, streamlining processes, balancing competing interests, and generating revenue for the state -- effective talking points, but hardly a compelling battle cry for aggrieved adoptees. But guess what? It is their votes, not our indignation, that changes laws.

5) There is no "one size fits all solution," at least until someone wins a Supreme Court case affirming OBC access as a fundamental right, or advocates raise enough money to fund ballot initiatives or pay a small army of lobbyists (read: "We care, but not enough to open our wallets.") Until then, reasonable minds can differ, some state legislatures have, and others may still serve up the whole pie on the first try. Others may unfairly dish up the pie of OBC access in pieces. But would you really demand that the next generation of adoptees go without pie until you can get your slice? There is nothing noble about having nothing equally.

Is it "either or," or "both and?" The answer depends on whether you line up with us or them. But the one thing that we can all agree on is this: our movement's approach to reform must be rooted in legal reality, and we cannot, and will not tolerate any more Pie in the Sky. The AONN camp must start winning and making case law, or abandon their civil rights assertions and apologize to thousands of adoptees whose trust they have betrayed.

Either way, it's time for some new talking points; a balanced, tension-filled, ambiguous perspective on adoption; and another piece of your favorite pie. This holiday season, I anticipate and recommend lots of fresh-baked humble pie. The initial taste is unpleasant, but in the long run, it's very good for all of us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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