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Blood and Foils: Adoption, Biology, and the Need to Combat Essentialism Wherever We Find It
How arguments about adoption relate to right-wing nativism and anti-LGBTQ extremism
Last year, I wrote a piece for The AZ Mirror about the dangerous confluence of increasingly extreme reproductive health policy proposals in the wake of the Dobbs decision and the GOP’s ugly rhetoric on immigration. At the time, candidates like Blake Masters were calling for a hyper-restrictive approach to immigration while also toying with total abortion bans and even questioning more settled ideas about access to contraceptives.
What worried me then was the way these notions seemed to work together to form a pretty ethno-centric vision of the future—keep brown people out, have more Americans. There are plenty of pro-natalists out there who don’t marry that commitment to nativist politics, but the combination is a nasty thing. That piece got me invited on Dr. Phil to talk about the politics of procreation. While there, I had the displeasure of encountering exactly the sort of ugliness that concerned me from two of the other panelists—the twist, however, was that they were both black men.
Jesse Lee Peterson, a longtime right-wing polemicist on L.A. radio and an associate of MAGA figures like Nick Fuentes and Marjorie Taylor Greene, wasted little time launching into a tirade about the need for “more white babies” and the superior quality of white people’s contributions to American life. It was a disgusting performance, though it certainly got him the outrage he likely came to get.
Anton Daniels, a manosphere YouTuber with strong ideas about masculinity and wealth, argued that poor people should not have children given their limited means and the supposed burden they place on society. These were offensive assertions, but perhaps even more offensive was his claim that adoptive parents cannot and should not love their adopted children in the complete and maximal way that they might their own offspring.
I am adopted, as you know if you’ve read this other piece I wrote for Arc Digital:
Peterson was nakedly racist and dare I say Hitlerian in his love for white babies. Daniels’s comments were basically eugenicist, both in their attack on the poor and in their obsession with biological relation. Neither merits much more focus here.
I tell this story because adoption and the relationship between the adoptive process and deeply troubling ideas about biology and identity have poked through in recent weeks, both in online discourse and in concrete policy decisions. I want to explore them below.
Can You Ever Outrun Your Genes?
For all its decline in quality, the website formerly known as Twitter still manages to throw a controversial post or topic up to the algorithmically-driven masses on an almost daily basis. Recently, for many, this came from a thread launched with the declaration that “There’s no ethical way to adopt.” The engagement that followed brought together a range of people surprised or outraged by the statement with the wider community of advocates against adoption.
In general, the arguments against adoption range from sound (e.g., some people would raise their children if they had the means, and it is unjust for them to be forced to make such a decision) to the tendentious (e.g., preferably, children should only be raised by their biological parents or other kin, and non-biological guardians should not be accorded the status of parent).
Many arguments around adoption’s ethics are focused on broader systemic issues both with the adoption process and its institutions and with the wider socioeconomic conditions that can lead to a child being put up for adoption. Here, it’s safe to say the critics have more than one good point.
The adoption system is more than a little imperfect, and the way closed adoptions restrict adoptees’ access to their own medical histories is outrageous. I do not personally have nearly the sort of knowledge I would like to have about what could be lurking in my health forecast, and I have a messy process ahead of me if I want to obtain that information. I am also deeply saddened by the idea of a mother giving up her child solely because she lacks the means and support necessary to raise them.
The biological arguments are thornier. Here, blood and kinship are elevated to near-mystical status. Nancy Verrier’s 1993 book, The Primal Wound, based on her master’s work in the 1980s at the now-closed John F. Kennedy University, argues that the separation of an infant from their birth mother is a moment of lasting trauma. Elsewhere, Verrier has stated her view as this:
I believe that this connection, established during the nine months in utero, is a profound connection, and it is my hypothesis that the severing of that connection between the child and biological mother causes a primal or narcissistic wound which often manifests in a sense of loss (depression), basic mistrust (anxiety), emotional and/or behavioral problems and difficulties in relationships with significant others.
This has popularized beliefs among many adoptees and other advocates that adoption is always traumatic, adoptees who do not recognize their own trauma are in denial, and separation from biological kin is always already an ethically compromised act.
So, can adoption be ethical? Is separation from one’s kin always already an act of violence, no matter the circumstances? Can an adoptee form a healthy, new identity as a member of a non-biological family?
My answers are fairly direct, even if the overall question of ethical adoption is not. Adoption is not categorically unethical; biological relatives do not and should not have exclusive claim on raising a child as parents; and it is not impossible for children raised by adoptive parents to experience the fullness of familial connection, edification, and love needed for a healthy life.
Ultimately, I reject the idea that either a faulty system or the presence of individual injustices means that all adoption is and always will be unethical. Critically, it certainly doesn’t mean we can’t create better systems of adoption that reduce ethical defects and injustices.
I wholeheartedly reject the assertions that biological parents and other kin are always preferable to non-biological ones or that non-biological guardians shouldn’t occupy the position of parent at all. When examined practically, this makes little sense. It encourages a kind of thinking that suggests we are always better able to understand, love, and value a person the closer the match in DNA. That’s a troubling sentiment. Moreover, we simply have ample evidence that kin can mistreat one another, can fail to create loving and supporting environments, and will even reject each other outright.
Beyond this, the idea that adoption always and irrevocably damages a person is not proven science, but it is a dangerous maxim by which to advocate for justice. Primal wound theory is not derived from rigorous scientific experimentation and testing. It’s Freudian anecdote that has become a popular, even dominant in some quarters, way for psychotherapists to approach the adopted experience.
As Dr. Jean Mercer, a retired psychology professor and founding fellow at the Institute for Science in Medicine, has stressed, “Emotional attachment to a caregiver has not developed at birth and is not apparent until six months or so later.” Dr. Charles Nelson—Professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, as well as the Richard David Scott Chair in Pediatric Developmental Medicine Research at Boston Children’s Hospital—shared similar thoughts in an interview in which he declared, “a theory that says just because they were separated from their birthmother leaves a permanent wound is just false on the face of it.”
I cannot in good conscience make room for this level of essentialism and determinism when it comes to any aspect of human life, much less one that is so entangled with questions of opportunity and justice.
I won’t try to draw too great a metaphor here, but I can’t help but see the language of biological essentialism and determinism as it relates to issues of national identity and our wider conversations about culture, race, and who belongs in a given society.
Broadly speaking, immigration is not only central to the American story, it’s a liberal-democratic ideal that must be upheld if we’re really to be people who can say honestly that we believe in freedom and pluralism. And it is easy to see how a framework that says biological origins are the most important factor in an individual’s future outcomes and that being raised around blood kin is always preferable to non-biological alternatives can be mapped onto theories of ethno-nationalism. There’s a primordial thinking here that has always poked its head out in nativist politics, which says that your origins are your essence and that liberal attempts at celebrating diversity and pluralism are flawed from the start.
I should note that transnational adoption is beset by corruption and regulatory issues. And it is indeed important to be sensitive to the challenges of racial difference in both domestic and transnational adoption. Moreover, many transnational adoptees languish outside the confines of citizenship that are conferred to biological children in many countries through birthright citizenship. This is profoundly unjust. But, in part, it’s unjust precisely because transnational adoption does not by default constitute forcing together irreconcilable parties. And treating transnational adoptees as still somehow alien to the place they’ve been brought suggests that it does.
In the same way that what makes a citizen runs deeper than blood or soil, family cannot be reduced to gene pools. A worldview that is governed by such a totalizing understanding of biological nature is one that strips individuals of their agency and shaves the concept of family down to a crass pseudoscience.
Someone Else’s Kid
Some anti-adoption advocates argue that adoption is a legal lie. Allowing adoptive parents to assume the role and title of parent, often placing themselves on the child’s birth certificate, is presented as an unnatural defiance of basic biological fact. In other words, families are born, not made.
There is a terrible history of adoption being used to forcibly dismember families and communities, particularly when it comes to indigenous peoples in places like the United States, Canada, and Australia. And I am in agreement with nearly all of the criticisms of closed adoption, a system with ties to Georgia Tann’s historically monstrous child trafficking, wherein adoptees have no access to their own medical histories and there is no path laid out for even the possibility of later contact. But the insistence that adoption violates the natural order, that installing non-kin as legal parents and affirming this relationship through practice and culture is somehow an illegitimate play-act is another proposition altogether. And the implications of such thinking when we extend it even marginally beyond its premise are quickly shown to be quite menacing.
As Erin Kilbride reported for Human Rights Watch:
In January, Italy’s right-wing government ordered state agencies to cease registration of children born to same-sex couples. Now they’ve taken it a step further: a state prosecutor in northern Italy has ordered the cancellation and re-issuance of 33 birth certificates of lesbian couples’ children, endangering access to medical care and education.
This move means that past and future adoptions have essentially been rewritten to suit the extremist cultural politics of Meloni’s far-right government. It’s a stunning assault on gay rights and a perfect example of the dangers that still exist for same-sex couples, despite the very real progress of the past few decades.
Some have pointed out that anti-trans feminists who are outraged by this turn of events are simply witnessing the extension of their own obsession with biology and physiology. Take, for instance, British philosopher Kathleen Stock, a noted antagonist of the trans rights movement. Stock, a lesbian herself, was pushed out of the University of Sussex as a result of student outrage over her views. In her writings and public engagements, most notably in her recent book Material Girls, Stock staunchly defends the biological reality of sex. In response to Italy’s new policy, she wrote in an opinion piece for UnHerd that “sometimes, biological reality isn’t everything.”
Meloni’s assault on gay parents flips the roles, but the assumptions that blood and the body are supreme and immutable remain. And her government’s actions help show the perils of following such maxims to their extreme ends. This is a serious justice issue, just as the legal acknowledgment of trans identities and rights constitutes a serious justice issue. Same-sex couples deserve equal and full access to the legal and social means for building families as anyone else has.
But the far-right attack on parental legitimacy extends to ideological disqualifiers as well as biological ones. When Marjorie Taylor Greene referred to “fake mom and fake dad,” I argued that the thrust of her attack was about liberal parents rather than adoptive ones. Greene has argued,
The idea that mom and dad together—not fake mom and fake dad—but the biological mom and biological dad, can raise their children together and do what’s right for their children, raising them to be confident in who they are, their identity, their identity is, you know, they’re a child made by God.
Teaching your child that LGBTQ people deserve equal rights and dignity or that American history is often fraught with racial complexity makes a person a bad parent.
When groups like Moms for Liberty advocate for parents’ rights, they do not mean all parents. How could they? Restricting the free expression of LGBTQ teachers and students and hollowing out lesson plans and library shelves to fit their sanitized understanding of American history and life necessarily means imposing on other parents, on other people’s kids.
Consider the implications on historical education to their objections to works like The Story of Ruby Bridges and Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington. And think of the clear message sent when they deem LGBTQ content as inherently inappropriate and even “pornographic.” An Indiana chapter of the group recently drew fire for sending out a newsletter that prominently featured a quote from Adolf Hitler—“He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future”—and even cited him. To me, this reveals the illiberal and instrumentalist view of children that Moms for Liberty and other similar activists hold—especially the children of other people.
But children are not things to owned, not through DNA and not through ideological instruction. They are agents in their own right—developing, yes, but individuals nonetheless.
Blood Is Thinner Than…
Family is an emotionally and politically fraught concept. The problem is that both the putatively progressive anti-adoption movement and the reactionary anti-LGBTQ advocates are taking up an arch-conservative position that reifies familial relations as fundamentally biological and, by extension, suggests genetic proximity is a prerequisite for the deepest kinds of community building.
Having the freedom to access one’s history is important. But the past is not an oracle for the future, and approaches that elevate biological heritage to a supreme position risk dabbling in the same primordial mysticism of the worst forms of ethno-nationalism and eugenics.
I’m not calling all adoptees who view adoption negatively extremists. We shouldn’t be cruel or dismissive toward adoptees who are experiencing angst over their life histories or other groups who feel marginalized or diminished in society. I think the adoption system, like so many other systems, is in dire need of reform, starting with ending closed adoptions and granting citizenship to transnational adoptees. But I don’t think the existence of ethical defects means adoption can never be ethical. And I think it’s important to highlight dangerous and potentially harmful thinking wherever it emerges. These principles apply to a great many historically flawed institutions.
More fundamentally, family can take a great variety of shapes and forms, as can community writ large. Life is contingent, and when we drown that contingency in black-and-white thinking and reactionary attitudes we harm our ability to think richly about the kind of world we want people to grow up in.