My forthcoming book, You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are, takes a closer look at the strong evidence that shows the critical role of genetic relations in child-rearing and adoption.
The debate of the role over nature and nurture in raising adopted children has been the central issue of the institution since its inception and later growth into a global business and social engineering system that literally has created millions of family relations involving people who have no genetic relationship. Adoption historian Ellen Herman, of the University of Oregon, calls adoption as practiced in the United States “designated kinship by design.” It has been a large-scale experiment from the beginning, testing what Herman calls “enduring beliefs in the power of blood, and widespread doubts about whether families could thrive without it.”
Today, those who defend adoption, including social workers, adoption advocacy groups who champion closed birth records that harm adoptees, and many Christian and fundamentalist groups who embrace orphan adoption, argue that nature has a minimal or little role in the rearing of an adopted child.
The wealth of evidence from evolutionary biology and psychology and from studies of child abuse of stepchildren by a non-related parent show that genetic relations greatly impact child care in families, in most cultures globally. As Canadian evolutionary psychology researchers Margo Wilson and Martin Daly note, “There is nothing magical about parental discrimination: preferential treatment of one’s own young exists only where a species’ ecology demands it.”
Stories of abuse of adopted children crop up routinely, usually shared by adoptees on social media and not covered rigorously by the mainstream press. Occasionally a sensational story of a harmed adoptee does get extra attention.
The 2011 killing of one young Ethiopian born orphan and adoptee, Hana Williams, in rural Sedro-Woolley, Washington, did lead to moral and political outrage and more nuanced reporting of the Christian transnational adoption movement. The writer Kathryn Joyce has profiled the business of global adoptions by evangelical U.S. Christian families and the underlying issues of creating families among non-related parents and children in her book The Child Catchers. Joyce provides one of the most detailed profiles of this tragedy, taking on mostly taboo topics that many people involved in adoption do not wish to discuss, even professionally. Such discussions harm the very real “business of adoption” and what I sometimes call the “adoption industrial complex.”
Adoptees’ Experiences Often Go Unnoticed, But Their Stories Matter
Outside of these news flashes, adoptions happen daily and touch millions, and the tragic story of Hana Williams is an outlier. But the issues in her story matter.
Most adoption stories involve the mundane reality of simply growing up and having family relations, over decades. That experience is different for many adoptees. The long view of it over time can be hard to convey to nonadoptees, many of whom carry hidden biases against adoptees that also are rooted in most adoptees’ status as being illegitimately conceived.
The most recent episode of This American Life presents a story–360: Switched At Birth–that describes how two girls were switched at birth and brought up in two different families who lived near each other in Wisconsin. Both of the women described feeling lifelong differences from their family and even how their parents provided less interest in their well-being growing up. This is not remarkable nor even an indication of the two mothers acting badly to the girls they raised who were not their blood kin. The parents were acting as people will naturally do–showing discrimination that evolutionary biology research shows will ultimately favor one’s blood kin over someone who they know is not their genetic offspring.
As an adoptee listening to this story, I did not hear anything new or remarkable in this episode. I heard what sounded very normal to me, having grown up as an adoptee. It is called “being adopted.” It is how you live your life.
Likely the producers of This American Life wanted a story that was quirky and unique, because it was a classic “switcheroo story” straight from Mark Twain’s pantheon of stories, namely Pudd’nhead Wilson. It was not the boring adoption story about life as an adoptee–stories that do not get told well by most media. Adoptees’ lives do not qualify as news, except in these extreme moments. But these stories do matter because the taboo topics of illegitimacy and adoption, including how adoptees experience adoption throughout their entire life, impact millions of adoptees and their families.
You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are will explore the themes of kinship and parental discrimination in greater depth. For a sample, read a preview of Chapter 6: Blood Is Thicker than Water.