Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Adoption: Redemption or Exploitation?

Becca McBride


By Becca McBride

June 30, 2014


A version of this article originally appeared on, an online journal of the Center for Public Justice dedicated to engaging young Christian thinkers in a conversation on what it means to do public justice.

As a Christian political scientist studying how adoption can protect the rights of vulnerable children, I have been living between two conversations about the practice. When I talk to Christians about adoption, or interact with the Christian community of orphan advocates, the conversation is about how adoption is transformative and redemptive. Adoption is a reflection of our understanding of how we have been adopted into God’s family, and as such, it communicates the Gospel. Many Christians see adoption as one of the best ways to protect vulnerable children because it provides a context for protecting children’s other rights. 

When I talk to other groups who do not share my Christian perspective, I am struck by how they see adoption as exploitation. For them, adoption is marred by corruption and likely to be connected with trafficking. Even under the best of circumstances, intercountry adoption removes children from their country and culture of birth to be raised in a foreign country. Many academics connect adoption with a colonial view of the world, claiming that the Western developed countries adopt children from developing countries in order to “fix” those countries’ problems. When these communities hear Christians talk about the redemptive power of adoption, they often misunderstand adoption to be about evangelism. When Christians say that adoption communicates the Gospel, those outside the Christian perspective often hear that Christians adopt children in order to raise more Christians, instead of understanding how Christians see a family as foundational in protecting children’s rights.

These two conversations miss important nuances. Both perspectives share a concern for vulnerable children, which should be the common ground upon which they can collaborate to create innovative solutions for protecting these children. But more often, each perspective dismisses the other as misunderstanding the problem and failing to offer effective solutions.

For example, the Christian community has been so captivated by the power of adoption to change the lives of individuals, families, and communities that we can miss the pain that is intrinsic to adoption. Adoption is not necessary unless there has been profound pain—the pain of death, the pain of separation, or the pain of abandonment. We have a theology of adoption that can tragically be divorced from a theology of pain. Many families have suffered when their adoptive journeys are full of pain, because they feel that their story is not the redemptive poster child for Christian adoption. We can forget that adoptive stories are also part of a fallen world. 

The groups that criticize adoption as a method of protecting vulnerable children, and dislike Christian adoption in particular, have been eager to protect the full spectrum of children’s rights, including the rights to culture and religion. But often these groups miss the reality of a child growing up in an institution, even an institution within the culture of their birth. Children in an institution lack parental advocacy and a context within which they can grow and thrive in their culture and their faith. In the end, privileging institutions in a child’s country of birth over international adoption does not necessarily protect the cultural and religious rights of vulnerable children. Instead, institutionalization can subject them to a life where they lack the relational context needed to fully realize their cultural or religious identities. 

So how do we engage in these conversations so that the children we are trying to protect do not suffer as they wait for us to work together to develop solutions?  First, we must recognize and examine the assumptions behind these contentious conversations. For example, if the assumption is that Christian adoption is about evangelism, we miss a very important part of the picture. Any adoptive parents, regardless of whether their convictions are faith-based or secular, will socialize their adoptive child to those viewpoints. There are no neutral parents, and there are no neutral institutions. On the other hand, if we assume that groups that do not favor adoption are blatantly anti-family, we miss the fact that both sides share a desire to protect vulnerable children. 

Second, because of this shared desire to protect vulnerable children, we can work collaboratively toward a spectrum of solutions to the multifaceted problems that render children vulnerable. Any time we assume that our solution is the best solution, we reduce our creativity and innovation.

If having the best solution becomes the enemy of having a better solution, we have failed the vulnerable children that we are trying to protect. Compassion calls us to understand the perspectives of those with whom we are engaging, instead of dismissing their ideas as incoherent. If we withdraw and refuse to interact or collaborate with those who do not share our political, cultural, or religious perspectives, we easily lose an important window for change. 


-Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College. Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”