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Nobody’s Child

Does biology really matter?

I have assumed so far that biological parents do have the prerogative to keep and raise their offspring. The only question has been how best to explain why. My explanation leans on certain biological facts—facts about who comes from whom. There is a certain sort of adoption advocate who thinks even this much leaning on biology is too much. "Caveat biology!” (beware biology!) they caution: we shouldn’t think that the facts about where children come from have moral importance. That’s perniciously “bionormative,” some claim, characterizing the error with a single pej orative term. It’s time to hear from these voices of doubt.


Harvard law professor Elizabeth Bartholet takes a skeptical position on biological ties in her writing on international adoption. Since reaching a peak in 2004, international adoption has been in decline. The pattern, says Bartholet, is that a few irregularities come to light, and then sending countries shut down the adoption pipeline. Young children remain in orphanages too long, and fail to thrive in low- quality institutions, thus becoming less desirable to potential adopters. Red tape complicating the process often means a child is simply never adopted.

On the other side of the debate about international adoption, both journalist Kathryn Joyce and Samford law professor David Smolin claim there are serious problems when children are transferred from extremely poor countries to extremely rich countries. One problem is that adoption intermediaries make huge profits on the transfer, creating incentives for them to build more orphanages and seek out more parents willing to give up their children. The money flowing into these facilities makes it irresistible for some parents to seek better opportunities for their children by placing them there. The parents may think of the orphanage as essentially a poor person’s boarding school. They may think a trip to America is only temporary—an enriching year abroad. It’s open to question whether these parents really want to relinquish their children, as opposed to being in need of socioeconomic support. Their children are certainly not “orphans.”

In other places (Joyce discusses South Korea), what motivates mothers to relinquish babies is very often connected to the “sin” of unwed motherhood. If social norms allowed it, these women would keep their children. This was the situation in Western countries as well, during the 1950s and earlier, before single motherhood became socially acceptable and abortion gave women more control over their reproductive destinies.

The adoption critics’ concern for biological parents is largely misplaced, Bartholet seems to think. She sees it as rooted in “wrong ideas about children.” One supposedly wrong idea is that children belong to their birth parents and to their community. She writes, “Those who believe in children’s rights, in the idea that children enjoy full personhood, should find it easy to reject claims based on ownership rights by birth parents and nations that treat children effectively as property.” Well and good—children are not our property. But are they nevertheless "our own” in some other sense? That too she seems to reject, since she disparages the "blood bias—the assumption that blood relationship is central to what family is all about.” It’s because of this bias, she thinks, that people work so hard to procreate, if they face the problem of infertility, instead of immediately turning to adoption. She regrets the ten years she spent undergoing infertility treatments before finally adopting two boys in Peru.

How did we wind up with the blood bias? In her book Family Bonds, Bartholet writes dozens of times that we are "conditioned” to believe it. We are subjected to a barrage of messages about "natural” bonds and about how blood is thicker than water. Her own ten years of wandering in the infertility desert were the result of all this conditioning, she says.

In arguing that we are "conditioned” to believe in the importance of biology, Bartholet is not merely pointing out the surfeit of reinforcing messages: rather, she is claiming that our belief is caused by the messages, not by any reasonable response to the world as it is. We are bombarded with messages about the goodness of romantic love, but nobody says we are merely conditioned to value romantic love. We value it at least partly because it has value! By speaking of "conditioning,” Bartholet is challenging the whole idea that biology does in fact matter, that it really does make a difference who a child comes from.

In contrast, Bartholet urges a child-centric approach, with the emphasis on what’s best for the children themselves. Children are persons with rights, and are not mine or yours or anyone else’s, she insists. We are to imagine what an infant would want, if an infant could rationally sift all the evidence about the various futures open to him or her. And she thinks parentless (or seemingly parentless) infants in Peru, South Korea, Ethiopia, China, and other countries would want to be adopted by potential adoptive parents from places like the United States. That is what matters, not any alleged (but unreal, according to Bartholet) entitlement that parents have to the children they physically bring into the world.

Another adoption advocate, Peter Conn, is adamant that there is nothing special about biological parenthood. If you thought there was, you would have to be wedded to silly, outmoded ideas about the natural order. You would be susceptible to all the nonsense about the natural superiority of men in the history of thought, and open to what Aristotle says about the naturalness of slavery. All appeals to natural facts are suspicious, he thinks, because appeals to natural facts have sometimes camouflaged prejudice, custom, and emotional gut reactions.

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