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Are Adoptive Families Culturally Persecuted?

Dr. Debora Spar

On Friday I attended a daylong symposium about adoption. The keynote speaker was Dr. Debora Spar, President of Barnard College. The topic of her address was “Adoption and its Critics.”

Her speech floored me. I had not realized that adoptive families felt culturally persecuted.

She presented two main theories for why people oppose, or are uncomfortable with, adoption. The first was the cultural meme that adoptive parents are bad people, which she traced back to the stigma against barren women, historical myths of stolen children and changelings, the fact that adoption often involves more overt exchanges of money than does family formation by birth, and evolutionary anthropological ideas that people shouldn’t be inclined to invest heavily except in their own flesh and blood. She also pointed out that you can barely find a story of an adoptive family where the adoptive parents are not awful, using orphaned Harry Potter as a prime example.

The second was the cultural meme that adopted children are bad people, which she traced back to cultural misgivings about genetic unknowns, the human tendency to assume that their own genes wouldn’t be a problem but that foreign genes might be, and to the media’s handling of adoption, especially the disproportional amplification of ‘bad stories,’ and still probably poorly understood concerns about attachment disorder and identity development.