Adoption and Destruction on the Religious Right

“The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption”
by Kathryn Joyce
PublicAffaird, 352 pp., $26.99 (hardcover)

In her recent book, “The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption,” Kathryn Joyce notes that the “default view of adoption” in American society is a “‘win-win’ scenario” for all parties involved: adoptive parents nobly sacrifice to take in and provide a loving home for children whose birth parents are unable or unwilling to do so themselves. This notion of adoption as an “uncomplicated good”—even the “ulti-mate form of charity” by adoptive parents—is the culmination of decades of savvy cam-paigns by U.S. adoption agencies emphasizing on “positive adoption language” and sto-ries.

As Joyce’s title suggests, these images obscure the complicated realities of an adoption industry profoundly shaped by religious and ideological motivations. It is driven by con-siderable costs and profits and characterized by practices and policies that often disen-franchise birth parents and turn their children into global “objects of trade.”

“Child Catchers” begins with the notorious case of Laura Silsby, a Southern Baptist “self-declared missionary” who attempted to illegally transport 33 children out of Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake. Silsby presented her efforts to her Idaho church as a di-vine calling to start a “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission” that would offer children “adop-tion into a loving Christian family” and “new life in Christ.” However, none of children Silsby “rescued” were orphans, and their families had been persuaded to hand them over under false promises of holidays, “educational program[s],” and “temporary relief” for the children.

This episode serves as a microcosm of the ethical oversights and outright corruption in global adoption that “Child Catchers” catalogs that the American evangelical institutions and theologies enable these problems. In recent years, leaders like Rick Warren and Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore have taught that Christian salvation is “adop-tion” into God’s family, which Christians model by adopting children into their own fam-ilies. Christians who adopt “orphans” save them twice over—by providing a home, and by raising them as Christians. Evangelical leaders have also increasingly promoted adop-tion both as a form of global social justice and as a concrete form of anti-abortion activ-ism, a rejoinder to pro-choice arguments that they do nothing to provide for children born from unwanted pregnancies.

Joyce persuasively argues that these teachings, coupled with the popularization in evan-gelical communities of erroneous statistics claiming that there is a global “orphan crisis” affecting 210 million children, have fueled the boom in international adoption to the U.S. Persuaded that they are saving children from lives of abandonment and deprivation, evangelicals have adopted in droves from Guatemala, Ethiopia, Uganda, Liberia and oth-er “developing” nations. In reality, the vast majority of children classified as “orphans” (a number closer to 153 million by UN estimates) are in fact “single orphans.” In other words, they still have one living parent.

“Child Catchers” is a masterful and disturbing analysis of how Western pretensions to “saving” or “rescuing” those in “developing” nations—in the case of adoption, super-charged by religious fervor—often create and sustain the very inequalities we claim to solve. The misconception that millions of children are available for adoption, coupled with evangelical conviction that they are called to “care” for orphans around the world. That itself creates the need for orphanages to meet the resulting “adoption demand.” The vast amounts of money involved in adoption makes the industry further vulnerable to un-ethical and corrupt practices. In addition, evangelicals either lead or have deep ties with the largest adoption agencies, and enjoy relationships with U.S. government officials that allow them to lobby successfully for lax regulation of agencies and adoption practices.

Joyce relates harrowing accounts of children adopted from birth families who didn’t un-derstand that their children were leaving permanently, of agencies lying to adoptive fami-lies about the backgrounds of supposedly available children. In Guatemala, Ethiopia, Russia and other countries, Western demand for children has created a boom-bust cycle in which rampant corruption leads governments to shutter or severely restrict interna-tional adoption.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution of “Child Catchers” is Joyce’s illumination of how reproductive coercion and other attacks on choice are inseparable from the theology, practices and influence of the religious right around adoption. The common thread con-necting the U.S. to countries like Guatemala and South Korea is the pressuring and co-ercing of birth parents to relinquish their children: birth parents are treated as incubators for middle class Western families deemed more “deserving” of being parents. Joyce shows that it is no coincidence that the same agents who support institutions that rob vul-nerable people of the choice to parent are also behind systemic anti-abortion efforts and “crisis pregnancy centers” in the U.S. that also treat pregnant people as incubators with-out agency.

There’s considerable overlap between this vulnerable population and homeless or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) youth: cis-gender lesbian and bisexual girls are many times more likely to be pregnant as teens than their straight counterparts, for example. (There are few stats on pregnancy rates for transgender youth). Likewise, somewhere between six and 22 percent of homeless girls have given birth. These statis-tics reflect the need for reproductive health education and services specific to LGBTQ youth; the lessons of “Child Catchers” suggest that part of that work may be defending the rights of LGBTQ youth to choose parenthood, and providing material support for those who choose it.

–T. F. Charlton

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