by Mary Branch –
“Have you considered adoption?” Amid the discussion of reproductive methods, this is a question that is commonly asked of the infertile couple. But what about couples who do not struggle with infertility? Is this a valid question for all Christian families?
Before we were married, my husband and I both expressed a desire to adopt children. As newlyweds, we participated in sidewalk counseling with women as they approached the abortion clinic. Frequently, those who believed a woman should have the right to choose abortion challenged us as representatives of the Christian community about the extended care of an “unwanted” child. We were thankful that we could respond positively because of ministries such as Save-A-Life (which provides counseling and care for pregnant women), Lifeline Village (a home for expectant mothers), and Lifeline Adoption Agency. But we were also challenged about our personal commitment to adopt children who were in need of a home. After facing secondary infertility (we had one child but were unable to have another), we adopted two children from Romania in 1991. Adoption of a child or children is an opportunity to respond to God’s call to care for the fatherless, and it provides a beautiful picture of how our Heavenly Father has adopted us.
When faced with infertility, there are three alternatives from which a couple may choose:
- Begin or continue treatment for infertility.
- Choose a childfree lifestyle.
- Adopt a child.
Let’s briefly look at each of these alternatives, weighing their benefits and risks.
Treatment for Infertility
Technological advances in reproduction have provided “miracles” for many infertile couples, but in some cases these advances raise some ethical issues. Many people consider a genetic attachment to their offspring as being very important and are willing to spend a lot of money to make that happen. Also, many have anticipated the physical and emotional experience of pregnancy and childbirth and have a longing to bear a child. There is nothing wrong with these desires per se. The major concern is whether or not reproductive technology crosses an ethical line.
Some people, such as those in the Roman Catholic Church, believe that procreation should occur only through marital sexual intercourse. Therefore, any kind of technological intervention in procreation would be unacceptable. However, Christian ethicist Scott Rae states, “Many of the reproductive technologies in question fit under the heading of general revelation; whether or not they should be used depends on whether such a use violates a biblical principle or text.”1 Just as one would seek out medical help for a heart, lung, brain or other organ malfunction, it is normal to seek medical assistance for reproductive problems.
Nevertheless, some kinds of reproductive technology do raise troubling questions. One issue to be considered is the legitimacy of using donated eggs, sperm, or a womb from someone outside of the marital union. Rae says that the “Bible assumes that the general rule is that procreation is to occur within the context of a stable, heterosexual, permanent, monogamous marriage.”2 The couple must give careful consideration to the fact that “the weight of biblical teaching suggests that third-party contributors are not the norm for procreation.”3
Surrogacy, a procedure where another woman is impregnated and gives birth to a child for another couple, also raises serious questions about the wisdom and morality of such an arrangement. Questions about custody arise, especially when the surrogate has allowed her egg as well as her womb to be used. Exploitation becomes likely as couples desperate for a child and women willing to be paid for a pregnancy come together. Another major concern is the surrogate’s willingness to give up the child she has carried, creating a detachment to the child as it is growing in her womb; hardly a desirable beginning for any child.
Another moral issue, which must be addressed if reproductive technology is to be pursued, is the protection of fertilized eggs. Two methods, in vitro fertilization (IVF) and gamete intrafallopian transfer (GIFT), involve hormonal treatments that stimulate the release of multiple eggs in a single cycle. With IVF, for example, the eggs are removed and fertilized before being implanted in the woman’s uterus. For cost efficiency, usually more eggs are fertilized than will be implanted in case another implantation is necessary. Those unused embryos are frozen until used by the couple or donated to another couple. There is definitely a dilemma when fertilized eggs become the abandoned children of the laboratory. To prevent this from happening, some couples have chosen to limit the number of eggs fertilized to 2-4 so that all will be used. Unfortunately, if the pregnancy is not successful, additional expense is incurred as more eggs must be retrieved from the woman and the procedure is repeated.
Another problem which may arise is the safety of implanting within the woman multiple embryos (IVF) or additional eggs for fertilization (GIFT). In such circumstances, a woman may become pregnant with four or more unborn children, creating a variety of complications and even endangering her life.
Given these moral difficulties, Rae concludes that the “general principles that should guide a couple’s use of GIFT and IVF are that all embryos created in the lab should have a reasonable chance at life. . . .No embryos should be discarded or be subject to experimentation. Nor should they be allowed to die natural deaths in the storage section of the lab.”4 Of course, such moral restrictions will limit the potential for success of these reproductive methods. For this reason, infertile couples may desire to consider other alternatives.
A Childfree Lifestyle
Another option for couples who cannot have children is to embrace a childfree lifestyle. As Christians trust a sovereign God to direct their lives, infertility can be a directional signal. In 1 Corinthians 7:32ff, Paul writes about the virtues of remaining single: “One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord.” In the same way, childless couples have additional resources of time and money which can be used for God and His kingdom.
So, just as the young woman who has always dreamed of her wedding day must accept her call to singleness, so must the couple who has always dreamed of a house full of children accept God’s call to childlessness. If childlessness is God’s will for a couple, there can be joy and fulfillment as the calling is realized and embraced. Yes, there is life after infertility!
However, if the pitter-patter of little feet through the house remains the undeniable desire of the infertile couple, yet another option is available: adoption. Actually, there are at least two reasons why couples, infertile or not, should consider adoption.
First, there are children in need of a loving home. When I questioned my husband about whether our decision to adopt was God’s will, he responded, “There are children out there who need a home and we have a home wanting children—it’s a no brainer!” A shift in thinking is required when adoption is considered. The emphasis is no longer only on the couple’s desire for children, but the most important thing becomes responding to the child or children in need of a permanent family. For the childless couple, it means understanding that “being parents is more important than becoming parents.”5
Second, there is the opportunity to imitate God who has adopted needy sinners into his family. In his book, Adopted by God, Robert Peterson remarks:
I happen actually to have been adopted as an infant, so the doctrine of adoption is especially real to me. Briefly, it means that while I was without a future, a hope, even a family to belong to, somebody gave me all of these and more. And this was done, not because of anything I could ever give back in return for such a gift, but just because my parents wanted—even needed—to express their love to someone. Likewise, according to the Word of God, God the Father chose me and adopted me, so he could love me. I will never fully understand why my parents or God chose me. But I am forever humbled and just plain amazed that they did.6
Adoption gives our family an opportunity to reflect what God has done for us. Just as our adopted children were removed from an environment where they likely would have experienced institutionalization or death, Colossians 2:13-14 states, “For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” All three of our children are co-heirs, whether by natural birth or adoption. They will always be our children no matter what they do. They will all equally share an inheritance. They share our family name and more and more our family traits. We are all unique with different strengths and weaknesses, gifts and abilities, and yet come together as one family unit.
Sometimes people look at our adopted daughter and say, “She looks just like you.” This is actually a true statement in the case of our daughter! Our little girl, adopted from around the world, looks so much like our family that strangers will actually comment, “I can tell she’s yours.” I love those words because they make the cords which bind us together even stronger. We love to remember how God put our family together, even giving our adopted children family traits that have been passed down through several generations.
The physical family resemblance reminds me of a song that Amy Grant sang, “Father’s Eyes.” The song speaks of how we want to share the eyes of our heavenly Father: “eyes full of compassion,” “eyes that find the good in things.”7 As we grow in our relationship to Him, we will look more like Him. The longer our children live in our family, whether they look like us or not, the more like us they tend to become. Our hearts are knit together in love and we share a common purpose and values. This is a picture of our adoption into God’s family as we become more and more conformed to His image (cf. Romans 8:29).
When Christians understand their adoption into the family of God, they realize there is nothing they can do which would sever that bond. Jesus says, “No one can snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:28b). The Westminster Shorter Catechism states, “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace, whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the sons of God.” Romans 8:16b-17 says, “We are children of God, and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
Adoption Obstacles and Myths
Since adoption was always a part of our family planning, it was surprising for me to hear people voice concerns and raise issues which we had not considered before pursuing adoption. Some of the statements are pure myth, but other issues have arisen about which I wish we had been better prepared. The following statements express concerns (or myths!) which should be addressed by potential adoptive families as well as their families and friends.
“You must be wonderful people to do such a nice thing.” If you answered false to this statement, you are either an adoptive parent or know one! Even though adoptive parents must jump through many hoops to impress a social worker or an adoption agency, proving that they are indeed fit to become parents, they are no more noble or good than the couple who became parents through birth. In fact, when an adoptive parent believes she must maintain a facade of “extra, special goodness,” the frustrations, guilt, and sometimes anger, which are normal in parenting, become exaggerated. Adoption is a wonderful experience, but it does not require that only extraordinary people need apply.
“Too bad you couldn’t have a child of your own.” This is probably one of the most offensive things an adoptive family will ever hear. As Johnston explains, “The common value system declares that birth is superior to adoption as a method of family planning.”8 What is insinuated is that infertile couples must settle for second best, the leftovers, the children who have been rejected. Adoptive parents might feel pressured to prove to a “sympathetically” watching world that their child is as good as any non-adopted child, pushing themselves and their children into unrealistic expectations.
“Adopted children can never be normal; they all have problems.” When someone stated this “fact” to me, questioning my sanity as I was joyfully anticipating our upcoming adoption, my mind immediately went to the adopted children I had known who had problems—big problems! Then I thought of some troubled people who were not adopted and some adopted people who were not troubled. The fear of having a child with problems, whether physical or psychological, can be paralyzing for some couples as they ponder the adoption question. There are several issues which should be explored.
In a study published in 1994 by the Search Institute in Minneapolis, Minnesota, 881 teenagers who had been adopted at birth were, in most cases, as well adjusted as non-adopted teenagers.9 With the wealth of information available through books and the Internet, as well as opportunities to participate in support groups, parents can be better informed about communicating with and anticipating the unique needs of their maturing children. Adoption does not seem to be the cause of problems that adopted children may face.
Another statistic to be considered, though, is that adopted children are four times more likely to experience attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) than the general population.10 Also, there is a higher incidence of learning disabilities. Some of the possible reasons for these differences could be due to poor or limited pre-natal care. Exposure to drugs and alcohol during pregnancy can also affect the baby’s health. Johnston adds another factor: “Additionally, one of the primary causes of unplanned pregnancies is impulsivity and poor judgment, traits which are often related to ADHD and al learning disabilities and which have a strong genetic component.”11
Since newborns do not come with ADHD or LD labels, it is very possible that or three days of caring for him, adoptive parents will find out a few years after those adoption
papers have been signed that “Little Johnny” can’t read or “Little Susie” can’t sit still. But that is true for the parents who have given birth to their children, too! It is wise to be alert to symptoms indicating these problems so that intervention can take place as early as possible. As Christine Adamec says, “Adoptive parents who seem to do the best with children with special needs are those who are flexible and adaptable and count meeting the child’s needs as most important.”12 Keep in mind that some very productive and outstanding people have had to overcome the disabling factors of learning disabilities and
Adopted children who are older or who have been in neglectful or abusive situations are at higher risk for problems in adjustment. But the satisfaction of providing a loving and stable environment for a child in need can be very fulfilling. Once again, information and counseling are available and should be taken advantage of when facing these circumstances.
“And they all lived happily ever after.” No child comes with a guarantee whether by birth or adoption. After struggling for five years with my beautiful daughter’s learning disabilities and ADHD, a wise lady confronted me saying; “You didn’t get your fairy tale ending, did you?” After the emotional pain of infertility and the exuberance of a successful adoption, I had expected a sweet, peaceful ending to the story. I had viewed myself as the rescuer who had saved the damsel in distress, and expected her adoration and devotion. I needed to learn that wrong expectations can lead to disappointment, frustration, and anger. When I gave up my wrong expectations and accepted that a fulfilling life is not necessarily an easy life, adjustments could be made which made both of us happier. (I should add that this is a continuing process!)
“Do you really think you can bond with a child to whom you didn’t give birth?” This question to me seems almost absurd, but I realize it is a legitimate fear of those who believe that giving birth to a child produces some kind of magical attachment. After giving birth to our oldest daughter, I was so sick and weak that I was unable to provide immediately for her needs. After recovering from the shock of post-partum pain, I was able to begin to care for her, and bonding began. Our son is the cuddly sort and was ten days old when we adopted him. After two or three days of caring for him, I felt totally attached to my new little boy. Our adopted daughter was almost three and a half years old when she joined our family. She was naturally resistant and apprehensive about her new situation. About six months after her adoption, she became sick and for the first time welcomed my affection and care.
Bonding and attachment are not the result of the physical experience of birth, but are developed as physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs are met. The cycle begins with the child expressing a need (usually quite loudly as hunger or discomfort are felt), the parent meeting that need (with a warm bottle, a dry diaper, or a tender hug) and then the child trusting that caring person. As the cycle is repeated, the bond between parent and child grows stronger. Just as spouses are attached to one another without a genetic link, so it is possible and probable that adoptive parents will bond with their children.
Is adoption the best option for infertile couples? Does fertility rule out the possibility of adopting a waiting child? Certainly not everyone is called to adopt, but Christians should consider whether it is an option for them. It does provide an alternative to radical reproductive technologies. And, most importantly, “There are children out there who need a home…!” AJ
Mary Branch is married to Craig Branch, director of ARC. They have been married for 20 years. Besides raising their three children—Catherine (17), Kimberly (15), and Chip (almost 12!)—she enjoys tennis, reading, and having people over to try new recipes!
1 Scott B. Rae, Moral Choices, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 152.
2 Ibid., 152.
3 Ibid., 154.
4 Ibid., 158. For more on the ethical concerns associated with these and other reproductive technologies, see Scott Rae’s article in this issue of Areopagus Journal, “How Far Should We Go to Have a Baby?”
5 Patricia Irwin Johnston, Adopting After Infertility (Indianapolis: Perspectives Press, 1992), 270.
6 Robert A. Peterson, Adopted by God, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2001), 27.
7 Gary Chapman, Father’s Eyes, (Cool Springs, TN: Paragon Music Group, 1978).
8 Peterson, Adopted by God, 7.
9 Johnston, Adopting After Infertility, 132.
10 Christine Adamec, Is Adoption for You? (New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1998), 15.
11 Adoption Book Catalog (Ringoes, NJ: Tapestry Books, Spring/Summer 2000), 42.
12 Johnston, Adopting After Infertility, 262.