In the piece I wrote about adoption ethics a few weeks ago, I referenced the difference between adoption from China and adoption from other countries. I wanted to take a minute to look at that a bit more in-depth. In part, that’s because of some pushback I’ve gotten in my real life interactions with people about adoption ethics, as well as some online conversations. I thought it couldn’t hurt to spell out our decision to adopt from the China Special Needs line a bit more clearly.
I want to begin with this caveat: adoption changes daily. What I am saying is based on my knowledge and pretty extensive research and is true now, in October 2013, but things could change rapidly with new government policies in China or adoption policies in the U.S. or any number of factors. Adoptions from China have changed even in the last couple of years. This isn’t intended to be a document for all time. It’s just a statement for family and friends about why adoption from China is the choice we made.
To be clear, I AM NOT SAYING ADOPTION THAT IS NOT FROM CHINA IS UNETHICAL. Also, I AM NOT SAYING THAT ALL CHINESE ADOPTIONS ARE ETHICAL.
OK. Here we go.
Since 1979, pregnancies in China have been monitored under the one-child policy. Though the policy continues to shift in terms of enforcement in different regions and areas, in general this means that each family is allowed only one child. In a culture in which aging parents are expected to be cared for by their children, this has led to agonizing choices for many parents, especially the poor. Wealthier families can often afford to pay a fine in order to have a second child.
I’ve heard that the one-child policy is being repealed in several areas; again, all of this could change fast. From what a friend told me who just traveled to China this summer, the rumor is a policy change is coming (or has already come) so that any person who is an only child–basically, an entire generation–can have two children. This is a huge step.
But for poor families, the choices can still be really difficult. Either they cannot afford to pay a fine for more than one child or they cannot afford health care for children who are born with special needs. Chinese health care is mostly a cash-up-front system. So if a family has a child with a medical need, they have to commit to being able to pay for the necessary surgeries and treatments. If they cannot afford them, the child will most often be turned away from the hospital (I’ve heard heartbreaking stories–Carrie McKean is my source for many of them). There are of course hundreds, even thousands of exceptions, and many organizations work hard in the country to provide health care to enable families to stay together. But in general, a child born with any special need is inherently difficult for a poorer family to take care of.
The best case solution to this could be what is often suggested for other women in impoverished cultures–economic and educational development. (You should check out Scarlet Threads, my favorite economic development project in China.) But that still would not fix the problem of lack of decent health care. A bureaucratic policy shift would need to occur in order to solve it. As it is, women could spend their whole lives making fair trade items and still not make enough money to be a drop in the bucket in terms of the health care cost of raising a special needs child. Of course it would depend on the special need and the specific situation.
But the equation that is arguably the answer to the “orphan problem” in other countries–more jobs and better education for women equal more families being able to stay together–doesn’t really work in China.
The bureaucracy and communist caste-system is just different. Add to that the well-publicized difficulties of a culture that is built on sons being able to provide for the family better than daughters. You can see the dilemmas.
Chinese domestic adoption is increasing rapidly. THIS IS GREAT NEWS. The figure a friend told me from her visit over the summer is that 30,000 adoptions occurred domestically in China last year. I have no idea how much this number is up from years past or what the source is for that number (this was a physical therapist who works with our agency and had some great conversations with adoption officials in several different areas). Ideally, every child that is available for adoption would be adopted in-country, so they could have both the support of a family and their cultural connections. We are years away from that happening, but that seems like the goal to me. (That’s what has been happening in Brazil in the last several years, which is one of the reasons we are not adopting from there even though it’s our home culture away from home.)
To summarize: it’s not that Chinese people don’t like baby girls (which is what someone told me not too long ago). And it’s not that they don’t like kids with special needs. There are some cultural prejudices in Chinese culture that are true in almost every culture against kids with noticeable special needs and it’s certainly possible that many kids are abandoned and available for adoption because of those cultural stigmas. But my sense is that in most cases, it has as much to do with the health care system as it does social stigmas.
And before I start hearing from people that if we weren’t adopting from the China Special Needs line, those kids would be adopted in-country, let me just say–I don’t think that’s true. As I’ve learned from my friend Erin Raffety, who has done anthropological research on foster families of special needs kids in China, it is still difficult for foster families who want to adopt kids with special needs to do that. There are a lot of factors that make that true; I think it’s hard and sad.
Again, this is all based on anecdotal research and conversations more than journalistic-type sources. But if all the adopting families left the system tomorrow, most special needs kids in China would still remain in orphanages. Huge policy and cultural shifts would have to happen in the country to change that situation.
There is some hope that these shifts will occur and I am praying for that day. Until then, the reality remains. This article from May 2013 in the New York Times shows the impact of the brutal one-child policy: 336 million pregnancies aborted since 1971, many of them forced abortions (the stories in this article are graphic–be prepared). Among the many, many reasons for this high abortion rate are the type of forced abortions described so horrifically in the article, as well as gender-based and special-needs-based ones. The article gives a sense of the huge scope of this issue.
Because relinquishment is still not legal in most areas of China, abandonment of special needs kids can be the only viable option for many families. To be clear, there are as many boys in the Special Needs line in China right now waiting to be adopted as there are girls–gender doesn’t seem to be a factor in children who have special needs. In fact, two things have changed in the last ten years in which I’ve been aware of Chinese adoptions: there are no longer a disproportionate number of healthy baby girls who have been abandoned because of their gender who are not able to find a family (adoptions through the Non-Special Needs line in China can take 6+ years, last I heard). And there are no longer “minor” situations like birthmarks that are labeled “special needs” (in my experience, many of the families waiting in the Non-Special Needs line are moving over or considering children that in the Special Needs line). That’s why I keep talking about the China Special Needs line. For our agency and every other agency I looked into, they are two very distinct types of adoption (and there are variations within that: Special Focus kids are often harder to place).
Kristen Howerton said it best in a discussion about adoption ethics at Idea Camp–a basic rule of thumb for pre-adoptive families who want an ethical adoption is to go where the lines are short. I’m not talking about working with a shady agency that promises short wait times. But the Special Needs line out of China is really, really short. There are hundreds of kids waiting without much hope of being matched with a family. Most families I know, including us, got matched way faster than we expected.
This is especially true if the child is over 2 (like ours) and has particular types of special needs. It’s interesting to me what some people view as major and minor special needs; without going into too much detail about our little one, we felt very comfortable with her diagnoses, but were told by our agency that many kids with similar issues are hard to place. And I certainly don’t want to argue that every family should adopt every kid–I think adoption has become a more specialized situation in the last ten years as older children and special needs kids become the norm. I have a lot to say about that as well and will probably turn to that in another post, but I just wanted to lay out our own reasons first.
We chose China Special Needs because, though not perfect, in general it is one of the more ethical types of international adoption available. It’s not the only ethical type of adoption–not by a long stretch. But it does explain a little bit why a family who lived in Brazil and Chile and speak Portuguese and Spanish found themselves watching Mandarin lesson podcasts and hunting down authentic Chinese food in order to prepare themselves just a little bit for the new adventure to come.
I wrote this quickly, so I reserve the right to make changes to this post as I think of them–this is a difficult, complex topic and it helps to be able to look at it from a variety of angles. There are many big topics I skimmed over, so if you think I missed something or you have questions, I’d love to discuss this–with kindness and respect, please–in the comments.