Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Adoption's more popular than we thought

There certainly seem to have been a lot of articles lately on adoption -- positive stories about celebrity adoption and citizenship, negative stories about international adoption and attachment therapy, some scary, some glossy, some simplistic, some glaringly incomplete. It's enough to make you wince when you hear another one's coming down the track. But here's one that takes an altogether different view of adoption: a scientific one, in Discover magazine of all places, as to how adoption defies Darwinian theory and messes with supposed biological imperatives.

I'd say it was a pretty dispassionate dissertation on the subject, but really, it's not; the author is an adoptive father completely smitten by his adopted-from-China daughter, and while the prose is in the reasonable tones you'd expect from Discover, there's no doubt that, Darwin be damned, the writer thinks adoption's just dandy. And the interesting thing to learn here is it's not just he and us and generations of humans who think so.

According to Darwin, it shouldn't be. Apparently, the imperative of any individual is to further his own genetic line. Those who can't reproduce are obligated to use their nurturing and resources to enhance the chances of their near relatives, thus ensuring that the line will continue successfully. Furthering someone else's line by nurturing their offspring makes no evolutionary sense.

And yet, everybody's doing it. Humans have been adopting since ancient times, though it's certainly gone in and out of fashion. Mammal mamas in general will often take in a pup or a cub that's not theirs; sometimes it's a relative's, sometimes not. There are birds who plant eggs in other birds' nests, and fish commonly make up their family out of whoever's eggs are around. Somehow, the need to parent seems to be a stronger biological imperative than the need to extend one's genes.

That's a nice thing to hear, and one you don't hear much. For all adoption's long, cross-species tradition, it still doesn't get much respect. As infertility treatments go further and further in pursuit of desperate line-continuing measures, and birthparents seem able to reclaim children at will just because their genes match, and grown adopted children make a personal mission out of finding their biological forbears, it's hard sometimes for an adoptive parent not to feel like chopped liver. We hear a lot about birthparents' rights, and a lot about children's rights and their best interests. But when's the last time you heard anybody talking about adoptive parents' rights? It would appear that we don't have any.

And I struggle with that, because on the one hand, I don't really believe that anyone has a sacred right to parent a child -- any child in particular, or any child at all. I think it's a privilege, and one I am blessed to have, but "right" seems the wrong word. And yet, I think that to reduce parenting just to the gestation and bearing of children and undermining the value of everything that comes after is a travesty. At some point, how can a person who did nothing but give birth claim to have more of a "right" to a child than somebody who has loved and nurtured and raised that child? The genetic bond seems to be valued above all others, and I just don't get that.

I think of the decisions I make every day, every week, every school year that affect, for better or worse, the way my children learn and grow. I think of how much their time in a Russian orphanage affected the way they learn and grow. If they had been loved and nurtured from birth, they would be very different children today. And if somebody else had adopted them at ages 4.5 and 2, they would be very different children now at ages 10 and 7. Maybe they'd be better off. Maybe not. But to say that they are no more than the sum of the genetic material they got from their birthparents is mindboggling to me. As in so many things in life, it's not what you're given, it's what you do with it. And at this point in their young lives, what they've done with it belongs to me.

Take that, Darwin: There are more ways to leave a piece of yourself behind than simple propagation.

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