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Adoption Ethics Extend Far Beyond Secrets and Obligations

February 1, 2018

Recent letters written by parents who relinquished children for adoption have appeared in widely read newspaper columns by "Ask Amy" (from a father who impregnated his girlfriend at age 16) and ethicist Kwame Anthony Appiah (from a woman who relinquished "many decades ago"). The common thread woven into both letters was secrecy, shame, and the implied, or at least assumed, quid pro quo "bargain" struck between birth/first parents and the people who adopt their children:     

 

If I give you my baby, you will never tell them who I am, and I will never have to tell anyone about this "sordid part of my history" or experience the dreaded "knock on my door" (from the father) and how "I did something wrong, and then I did something right" (from the mother).   

 

Amy and Kwame offered two very different responses.  One appears to come from a place of love;  appropriate for all months, but especially the month of February.  The other has all the warmth of the terms and conditions that come with a new mobile phone. 

 

Amy recommended that the father tell his family the truth and reframe his thinking away from his "terrible mistake" and replace it with light, truth, acceptance and forgiveness.  

 

Kwame framed the transaction in terms of begetting, being released from, and fulfilling obligations, including whether or not to raise the child and respecting the birth/first mother's privacy. 

 

Pastoral counselor Ron Nydam, Ph.D., a man whose life work has been devoted  to understanding and creating a place of love and empowerment for those of us "touched" (or clobbered) by relinquishment and adoption, has voiced this perspective many times in the past, and I find it much more ethical than that of the ethicist:  "If you contribute your egg or sperm to create a baby, whether intentionally or unintentionally, you have an obligation to leave your name, address and phone number for that child to be able to reach you when they need to as an adult." Today, I suspect Ron would add Twitter, Facebook and Instagram addresses to the quote. 

 

When a birth/first mom friend read Kwame's response, she drafted the following letter which

 

eloquently expands the conversation about adoption ethics far beyond the boundaries of mutual obligations. She has graciously agreed to allow its publication here on the ASRC blog.  

 

Dear Mr. Appiah,

 

I love your column in the NYT Sunday magazine and look forward to it eagerly. Usually, your opinions and advice resonate with me. But not tonight, as I read about the woman who had surrendered her child for adoption.

 

You appear to be completely tone deaf to the anguish of her daughter. Here is a person who has spent her entire life living with a family to whom she is not related. She wasn't just "curious," as you claim. I imagine that instead, she was driven, even desperate, to find the mother who surrendered her. And it's not just "occasionally" that adoptees want to know who they came from, it is often constantly.

 

The woman who wrote you stated that she did "something wrong" -- and I imagine she is referring to becoming pregnant out of wedlock. In 1966, the first time I became pregnant out of wedlock, I stole money from my mother and had a mafia-provided abortion in a motel room, terrified out of my mind. The second time, a year later, I ended up in a "home for unwed mothers," where I lost my only child to adoption.

 

This woman wasn't "unprepared" to raise her child, as you assume. She was instead guilty of committing a crime akin to murder in that she was caught being sexual without the bonds of matrimony. She had to give up her baby and keep it a secret from her parents, who, if they'd found out, might have disowned her and would surely have been outraged and hurt that their daughter was not a "good, decent girl."

 

So, when her daughter turned up and wanted to meet her (and her half-sibl