I was keenly interested in Kathryn Joyce’s The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, a book about the evangelical adoption trend and the industry it’s driving, from the moment I heard about it. My own evangelical parents adopted two children from Haiti, and I had just read The Girls Who Went Away, a devastating book that describes the pain and loss of forced adoptions in the days before sex education, access to birth control, and reproductive rights. I was also beginning to see the adoption trend as another example of the persistent evangelical tendency to promote individual charity as a solution to systemic problems—particularly when those problems involve solutions like reproductive health and government help.

Joyce’s book is excellent and has elicited a predictable reaction in the Christian blogosphere, based in part on Joyce’s reporting in Mother Jones about a fundamentalist adoption gone terribly wrong. Basing his assessment on one interview, Ed Stetzer called her book “a hit-and-run journalistic hatchet job.” Jonathan Merritt reacted to Joyce’s article by accusing her of “attacking Christians for the good things they’re doing,” relying on “weak sources to paint a partial and distorted picture,” and making “a logical leap of stratospheric proportions to assume that the behaviors of this family are somehow representative of the thousands of Christians who adopt each year.”

The problem is that Joyce never makes this leap, neither in her book nor the Mother Jones story. Nowhere does Joyce claim that the extreme cases, particularly those involving child abuse, are representative of evangelical adoptions. She is consistently at pains, in both the book and her interviews, to stress that the people she’s writing about are almost all good people with admirable intentions. She does point to a well-documented trend, that spans from fundamentalist evangelical groups all the way to major organizations like Focus on the Family and the Southern Baptist Convention, in evangelicals advocating international adoption as a kind of acceptable social charity work that doesn’t compromise fundamentalist positions on sexual ethics. It changes nothing that Merritt has never heard of some of the adoption organizations involved; anyone who has actually been through the process certainly has. In both her book and her Mother Jones story, Joyce charts the history of this rising phenomenon without overstating its size or influence.

As is often the case when mainstream reporters present portraits of evangelical behavior that cut through their own self-justifications, Merritt tries to sidetrack the story with detailed assessments of the exact size and influence of certain books and organizations Joyce mentions and claim she has attributed some sort of outsize influence to them. The goal seem so be help evangelicals circle the wagons, not to consider that some in their tent—almost all very good people—are participating in what has become a global network of child trafficking to serve the desires of Western parents.

Joyce makes the very well-reported case that evangelical families are a big factor driving the international adoption trend, and many aspects of that trend should be reformed and reconsidered. In my reading of the book so far, she questions the way that evangelicals sometimes talk about adoption, the misleading statistics they use to describe the “orphan crisis,” the troubling theology that God has ordained another family to suffer the loss of a child so that you can adopt one, the clumsy Western condescension toward poor developing countries, and the tendency toward corruption in an industry “too often marked by ambiguous goals and dirty money.”

Joyce’s reporting on these aspects is very deep and very fair. She has interviewed hundreds of people, including adoptees, adoptive parents, and the leaders of the evangelical adoption movement. Indeed, in this Q&A by Ed Stetzer, some in the evangelical adoption movement acknowledge she’s right: that trafficking is a problem, that adoptive parents sometimes ignore warning signs about corruption, and that we need to prevent the orphaning of children in the first place.

This is a difficult discussion because many in the evangelical movement hear Joyce’s criticism and immediately think of the good, loving, and generous people they know who have taken in children who were truly in need and have taken on a colossal parenting challenge with grace and love. My own parents are an example of that.

But you can’t evaluate an entire system based on the individual people you know, especially when you may not know the full truth behind their stories, or by your own assessment of certain organizations’ “influence” from where you sit. The international adoption process can be confusing, murky, and very emotional; I can see why parents ignore warning signs in their deep desire for a child, and how easily agencies can deceive. I believe that my parents did a wonderful thing, but we still saw firsthand the corruption that Joyce describes, and we adopted children who are not technically “orphans” but have living parents who are simply facing terrible poverty.

Merritt betrays the bias of the adoption movement in his final dismissal of Joyce: “Her ideas for actually solving the orphan crisis that now affects more than 100 million children are more than lacking; they’re non-existent.” This entirely bypasses Joyce’s argument: that this statistic is misleading because the “supply” of global orphans is actually rising to meet the bottomless demand of wealthier Western parents. In so many cases, the billion-dollar adoption industry has turned third-world mothers into vessels for the hopes of Western families, and the children they birth have become a commodity. It’s a hard truth, but doesn’t it deserve more than a sweeping dismissal?

About The Author

Alisa Harris

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