What’s wrong with adopting out an adopted child?
‘Re-homing’ is a term coined to describe the adopting out of adopted children. Reuters today published a long story on the practice, describing several cases in which children adopted from overseas by American parents were then put up for adoption again within the States, in one case only a few days after the initial adoption.
The adoptions described in the Reuters piece are problematic for obvious reasons. It appears that lax oversight arrangements in the US, particularly for intra-state adoptions, have allowed couples to adopt out their children with little or no vetting of the new parents, in some cases into abusive families, and often without much consideration of the child’s interests. But might there also be less obvious considerations in play here?
It’s possible to imagine more legitimate forms of ‘re-homing’, but I suspect most of us would feel squeamish even about such cases. Suppose a couple adopt a child through a rigorous and well-run adoption process, and then, shortly afterwards, adopt the child out through an equally rigorous process, and in the reasonable belief that the child will be going to a better home. Though obviously less objectionable that the practices described by Reuters, I find this kind of case to be nevertheless intuitively problematic – more problematic than cases in which non-adopted children are adopted out by their natural parents shortly after birth – and I suspect many would share this view.
What might explain this intuitive response?
One suggestion would be that we think such cases involve failing to take one’s obligations as a parent seriously. We are inclined to assume that if a couple ‘re-home’ a child shortly after the initial adoption, they were never really committed to caring for and being loyal to the child in the way that a good parent would be. We might suspect that the parents really only intended to ‘trial’ the child, keeping him or her only if things turned out well. (By contrast, we perhaps tend to assume that parents who have a child in the ordinary way do not take this attitude.) No doubt many actual instances of re-homing involve such attitudes, but they needn’t. We could imagine parents who adopt a child fully intending and expecting to be good parents, but subsequently (and quickly) discover that they are not cut out to raise a child, or not this particular child. In such a case, the attitudes of the parents would be no different from those of many parents who have a child naturally and then give him or her up for adoption shortly after birth.
A second suggestion would be that we think parents who have adopted a child lack some of the ‘excuses’ for adopting out a child that other parents might have. Presumably many non-adopted children that are offered for adoption were born as a result of unintended pregnancies, and one might think that parents who unintentionally are morally free to give up that child for adoption in a way that other parents are not. It’s difficult to see how this line of thought could apply to adopted children however; one can hardly adopt a child unintentionally, at least, not if the adoption was arranged through the proper channels. Adoptive parents are also less likely to have the ‘excuse’ that their circumstances are not conducive to raising a child, or to raising a child well. If the initial adoption was arranged properly, they will have been vetted to ensure that they are capable of raising the child before the initial adoption.
I don’t think either of these explanations can fully account for my intuitions, however. Suppose that one child, Jack, is born to parents who intended to have a child, wanted to have a child for reasons that are unimpeachable, and have strong reason to think that they will be parents. Shortly after Jack’s birth, his parents judge, reasonably, that they are not coping well with parenthood and decide to give Jack up for adoption. Suppose that another child, Jill, is adopted by parents who wanted to have a child for reasons that are unimpeachable and had strong reasons to believe that they would be good parents. Shortly after her adoption, her adoptive parents judge, reasonably, that they are not coping well with parenthood, and decide to give her up for adoption. Even here, I’m inclined to think that adopting out Jill is more problematic than adopting out Jack, but I don’t think either of the explanations that I mentioned above can account for this.
Reflecting on this sort of case leads me to think that we (or at least I) intuitively hold adoptive parents to higher moral standards than natural parents. When adoptive parents realise that they are not up to parenting, we are more inclined to think ‘you should have thought harder about that earlier’ than in cases where non adoptive parents realise that they are not up to parenting. In other words, we think that parents who adopt must be more confident in their future parenting abilities and commitment than other parents. This, I think, at least partially explains our negative intuitive reactions to ‘re-homing’.
Of course, even if this succeeds in explaining our intuitive reactions, it may fail to justify them. Perhaps there are good arguments for holding adoptive parents to higher standards than others. For example, perhaps the fact that adoptive parents have generally had to ‘outcompete’ other candidate parents in order to complete the adoption places them under a special obligation to make good on the adoption. But I’m not at all sure about this.