The basic question
Some people have asked me to publish a few articles on adoption. This issue has been under discussion in our sister churches in The Netherlands for the last several decades. Decisions have been made by general synods and still the matter is under discussion. The Canadian Reformed Churches, as far as I am aware, have never made a decision in this respect.
In our sister churches in The Netherlands all decisions of general synods since 1892 are considered to be settled and binding, as long as they have not been revoked or changed by a later synod. Although decisions of general synods in The Netherlands are not binding for the Canadian Reformed Churches, still in cases in which no explicit decision has been made by one of our own synods, most people go by what has been decided in the Old Country. With respect to baptism of adopted children we have a case in point. I have never heard that a consistory denied a request to baptize or acted in any way different from the churches at the other side of the ocean in this respect.
It is worthwhile to note that there has been a certain development and shift in the discussion about this issue. First, all the attention was focused primarily on the question whether adopted children could be baptized. Slowly, but very clearly, the point has become whether adoption, as such, is acceptable. The question of baptism does not cause a real problem, at least not with those who have an adopted child. Those who use the possibility of adoption, and in general those who are in favour of using this option, are usually of the opinion that adopted children ought to be baptized. Those who are against the baptism of adopted children are in most cases also against adoption per se. They will never adopt a child and they feel that the whole idea of legal adoption goes too far. They prefer not to go farther than a foster parent relationship in cases in which a child has to be placed in another family.
Because of this development in the discussion and this crystalization of opinions, we will deal in this article with the adoption as such, and for the time being leave the question of baptism out of the picture.
We will focus on adoption as such, because not every case is the same. There are certainly situations in which an adoption should not be recommended. There are sometimes wrong motives, on the part of those who give up a child for adoption as well as on the part of those who want to adopt a child. There are also situations in which adoption is the most preferable solution. That is why we want to deal with adoption, apart from the question of baptism.
A compassionate emergency measure
Different general synods in The Netherlands have busied themselves with questions concerning adoption. In a study report of Deputies at General Synod Amersfoort-West 1966/67 adoption was called “a compassionate emergency measure in a sinful world.” (Dutch: een barmhartige noodmaatregel in een zondige wereld, Acts p. 377.)
After lengthy discussions on different aspects of adoption the report comes to the conclusion that “the Lord opens two ways for responsible parenthood and the constitution of a covenant family namely:
- the ordinary way (flesh and blood);
- in a few cases the extraordinary way of parental compassion (adoption).
Both ways are governed by His royal good pleasure. (Acts p. 381)
In a report of an advisory committee at the same synod we read: “If there is no longer any prospect of a proper functioning of the relationship between parent and child and the unmistakable interest of the child requires a compassionate measure, no objection can be made if the possibility of adoption is utilized. In such a case we are allowed to say that the child, under the guidance of God's providence, has been placed in the foster family.” (Acts p. 508)
These statements of general synod were discussed extensively for a number of years. A final decision was made by General Synod Hattem 1972. With respect to the question whether it is correct to use the “Adoption Act 1956” for the purpose of adoption synod decided:
- That no valid grounds have been brought forward for a general statement that believers are not allowed to make use of the “Adoption Act.”
- That, if believers submit themselves to the wisdom of the Word of God, they do not have to face any impediment to utilize the “Adoption Act.”
We have to note how carefully synod formulated its statements. It does not say that adoption is always the right way to deal with the problem of a child. It does not justify every case of adoption. It only says that no grounds have been brought forward for a general rejection of every form of adoption. It says that the “Adoption Act” can be used in the correct way. This does not justify or deny the many cases of misuse or abuse of the law in this respect.
To understand the crux of the matter it is important to realize what the alternative to adoption is. Adoption means that the child legally becomes a member of the adopting family. All ties with the natural parents are terminated and the child receives all the rights of a member of the new family, including the name and the right of inheritance.
The alternative to adoption is fostering. A foster child does not legally become a member of the family. There is no legal relationship between the child and the foster parents. In some cases, especially with orphans, the foster parents may be given the guardianship over the child, but that is not necessarily the case. A foster child can easily be moved from one foster home to another, if the guardian wishes to do so; or the child can be brought back to the natural parents. In the case of adoption the child becomes a legal child of the adoptive parents. There are only a few, very restricted possibilities to revoke the adoption and that is always up to the courts.
Because adoption is such an extreme measure, with such far-reaching consequences, we will have a closer look at the different implications of it. In which type of situation is adoption acceptable? What should be the motives of parents to give up a child for adoption? What should be the motives of the adoptive parents? There certainly can be wrong motives for adoption on both sides, with the natural parents as well as with the adoptive parents. There are situations in which adoption should not be recommended. In what follows we will try to analyze the circumstances.
The unmistakable interest of the child
In the previous section we saw how general synod emphasized that the unmistakable interest of the child has to be the keynote in all decisions concerning adoption. Although this may sound obvious, it is too often forgotten or ignored by people who have to deal with the practical cases of adoption.
Many bad feelings with respect to adoption and many protests are caused by people who use invalid arguments for adoption. Why do people want to adopt a child? It is not always in the unmistakable interest of the child. Some want to adopt a child to fill an empty place in their life. Others want to satisfy their desire to have a nice family, to have someone to look after and to keep them busy, while still others want to adopt a child because they hope it brings the joy and happiness into their life which they could not achieve without a child. In all these cases it is not to show compassion for the child, but to satisfy one's own desires. In such cases the child might not give the desired “reward.” To adopt a child requires self-denial and great sacrifices. It often brings unexpected problems and disappointments. If the motive for adoption was the fulfillment of one's own desires, the disappointment might be so great that the adoptive parents give up the child and that he is again moved to another home.
Especially in countries where not enough legal protection against wrong adoption procedures is provided, there are terrible examples of the shuffling around of children in an unacceptable way.
Adoptive parents should realize before they start any action, that they have to be prepared to do it only for the unmistakable benefit of the child. They have to be prepared to bring sacrifices, to cope with unexpected problems, and to face disappointments. In many cases the child turns out to be quite different than they had expected.
Natural parents sometimes recognize their own character weaknesses in their children, although often they are in for a surprise; no two children are the same. Even the best mannered parents can have ill-mannered children. Character and behaviour of the parents is not always reflected in the children, although some traits of character, either good or bad, are often found back in the children. In most cases of adoption the adoptive parents do not even know who the natural parents are, let alone that they can relate good or bad characteristics to the parents. There are many cases in which almost insurmountable problems arise when the children grow up. That can cause frustration and disappointment and it can become a matter of great concern. Adoptive parents have to be prepared to face such situations. If they do not begin the whole undertaking out of compassion for the child, they will not be able to cope with such situations.
It is perfectly clear that family circumstances can be a contributing factor in the decision to adopt. A couple without children, knowing that they cannot have children of their own, will sooner consider adoption than a couple with a fast growing family. It is also true that adopted children can bring, and have brought, happiness, joy, and the fulfillment of a dream in families without children. It can be very rewarding and it can give great satisfaction. However, that should never be the main reason for adoption. If compassion for the child is the aim, the parents will be able to cope with the problems and disappointments, and finally find satisfaction and a due reward.
Careful consideration on both sides
A decision to give up for adoption, or to adopt a child, should never be made without careful consideration. We already paid some attention to the motives on the part of the adoptive parents. Also on the part of the natural parents or parent careful consideration is required. A child should not easily be given up for adoption. We quoted already the report of the advisory committee at General Synod Amersfoort-West 1966/67 as saying: “If there is no longer any prospect of a proper functioning of the relationship between parent and child…” That has to be ascertained first. Adoption is a very profound interference in the life and the family relationship of the child. The child is removed from his natural parents. The original relationship is legally terminated and replaced by a completely new and lasting relationship. The child is taken out of its original environment and placed in a new situation. That should only be done if there is no prospect of restoring or improving the natural situation.
A mother should not be pressed to give up her child as long as she is willing and able to take care of the child; the responsibility rests, in the first place, with the natural parent. We might think that a child will be better off, and better cared for, if he is adopted, but let us not forget that the child should be left in his natural situation if at all possible. That is, for him, the best place to be. A child might feel more happy there than in a completely different atmosphere, where he can have more luxury and better care, but where he still does not feel at home. Many cases of disappointment are known, especially with children from a different part of the world, from a different race, or a different culture. This disappointment can be noticed on both sides: with the adoptive parents as well as with the adopted child.
We have called adoption an “emergency measure in a sinful world” and it should always be considered that way. If there is no prospect of a proper functioning of the relationship between parent and child, we have no choice. There can be a situation in which the natural parent is not able to take care of the child. There are also situations in which the parent is not willing to take the responsibility. In such a case we cannot say that the natural relationship between parent and child is disrupted or terminated through adoption. There simply is not such a relationship, or the relationship has been broken and has been destroyed by the parent. In such an emergency situation a compassionate measure has to be taken, in the unmistakable interest of the child, to avoid further damage and suffering on the part of this child.
A compassionate emergency measure
We have called adoption a “compassionate emergency measure in a sinful world.”There are three aspects to this definition which are equally important and should be taken into consideration in all cases.
- It has to be a matter of compassion and not selfishness.
- It has to be an emergency measure and not a standard procedure.
- We have to realize that we are living in a sinful world.
In previous sections we have already emphasized the fact that adoption never should take place to satisfy the adoptive parents but only to show mercy to the child. We have also stressed the fact that a child should not lightly be given up for adoption. This should happen only if there is an emergency situation. The third aspect is equally important. We have to realize that we are living in a sinful world. Adoption should never be seen as an ideal situation and it should never be promoted as an aim in itself. However, in this life we are confronted quite often by the devastating consequences of sin.
Jesus Christ came into this world to make full satisfaction for all our sins. Still, in this life, the consequences of sin are felt. Christ, in His care and mercy, uses human beings to alleviate suffering and misery in this life. He has shown, during His life on earth, that He cares for those who suffer. He has paid special attention to children. He has taken them into His arms and He has said, “Let the children come to Me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 19:14. And He has also said, “Whoever receives such a child in My name receives Me.” Matthew 18:5. He will use human beings to help children who need help. He wants us to show mercy and to give relief to children who suffer because of the devastating consequences of the sins of their parents.
Giving up a child for adoption is not always a matter of unwillingness on the part of the parent. It is often also a matter of inability to take care of the child. In 95% of the cases the child comes from an unwed mother. Especially in such a situation we are confronted by the brokenness of life and the devastating consequences of sin. The mother herself is often still a child and not able to take care of the baby. It happens quite often that the grandparents of the baby do not want to have the child in their house. Either the baby has to leave or both mother and baby are kicked out of the house. They make it impossible for the mother to take care of her baby. This can create an unbearable situation. It also happens that the young mother is forced into a situation in which she has only two options, namely, to give up the child for adoption or to accept abortion. A young girl is not necessarily forced into such a dilemma, she often sees it herself as the only way out.
Because we reject abortion as murder, we have to consider whether adoption can be an acceptable alternative in a situation in which the normal relationship between parent and child is destroyed by sinful human actions. An emergency measure can be necessary in a sinful world, to avoid hurting the victim even more. That does not condone or play down the sins of the parents and the shortcomings of the grandparents in such a case. They have their own responsibility. However, compassion, with respect to the child, can make such a measure necessary, to avoid more damage and harm to the child that has become the victim of the wrongdoings of others.
Does adoption cut off natural ties?
One of the main objections against adoption is often the fact that it cuts off natural ties. The parent-child relationship is terminated by a judicial decision. Do we have the right to terminate or cut off such a relationship or has a judge the right to do so for that matter? Those who are against adoption argue that in such a situation a foster home would be an equally effective measure. We doubt whether this argument holds water. If adoption takes place along the lines set out in the previous sections, we cannot really say that a natural relationship is terminated or cut off through adoption. We simply accept the reality that there is not such a relationship of love and care between the parent and the child. Such a relationship has never developed, or has been destroyed. Legal adoption registers this sad reality.
However, there is more to consider in this respect. If a child is placed in a foster home, there is always the possibility to call the child back. There are cases in which a mother, who has given up the child for adoption, after the child has grown up, calls him back because she sees a possibility to “exploit” the child. In such a situation legal adoption does not only protect the adoptive parents, but first and foremost the child, from being exploited. Also here it is true that adoption should be a measure in the unmistakable interest of the child.
There is another aspect that has to be considered. A child is supposed to obey his parents. After adoption the adoptive parents have become the legal parents and the child knows what he is supposed to do. However, if a child is placed in a foster home, it will usually still have contact with the parents on a more or less regular basis. Such a child is supposed to obey the foster parents while it lives in their house and is under their supervision. However, because the natural parents are still the legal parents, the child also has to obey them. That can, and often does, bring the child in the very difficult position of being caught in the middle.
A similar situation arises when parents are involved in a divorce. The child often does not want to make a choice or take sides with the one against the other. Still the child is in a dilemma, because it cannot obey both at the same time. This conflict is even more complicated if one “party” is the real parent and the other “only” a foster parent.
The proper solution in such a situation is to make clear to the child that it has been placed in a new situation. If contacts with the natural parents cause a conflict, in most cases these contacts have to be terminated in the interest of the child. However, that means that actually the same situation exists as with a legal adoption.
Our conclusion must be that legal adoption is not much different in its effects than a foster home, except that the factual situation is legally registered and more security is provided for the child to prevent that his unmistakable interest will be ignored to the advantage of those who want to exploit him.
The possibility of repentance
We have stated before that adoption can be necessary because of the brokenness of human life, as a consequence of sin. Some argue that adoption is too extreme a measure because it is irreversible. It does not leave enough room for repentance and the restoration of the original situation after amendment of life. That sounds reasonable and is certainly a point to be considered carefully. However, there are a few aspects we should take into consideration as well.
Before the court grants a request for legal adoption, the child has to be in the foster home for a certain period of time. The court decides whether it is in the unmistakable interest of the child to continue that situation. Before it comes to a formal adoption the child has already gone through a lot of embarrassment and suffering. After a while the child begins to feel at home and to get used to the new situation. A new relationship of love, trust, and care is growing. The child sees the foster parents or the adoptive parents as the people who care for him and love him. The child feels safe and protected in the new environment. That is the actual situation. This situation might have been caused by the sinful attitude of the natural parents, or by their negligence or unwillingness to take care of the child. In all these cases it is a matter of fact that the child, after much suffering, finally has found a safe place to live. The child is settled in a new environment. To remove the child from the new home and to bring him back to the natural parents will cause, in most cases, new embarrassment and suffering.
It is quite well possible that the parents, after a number of years, recognize the mistake they have made and ask for forgiveness. We always have to be prepared to forgive. But to confess a sin does not take away the consequences of such a sin, and real repentance and remorse have to be shown also in the way someone accepts and carries the burden of lasting consequences of his wrongdoings. It is not a proof of real repentance if a person tries to put the burden of his wrongdoings on someone else. Neither is it correct to ignore, play down, or deny the consequences of one’s own specific sins.
If a drunken driver kills someone in a traffic accident, he may ask forgiveness, and we have to be prepared to forgive, but that does not take away the fact that he has to face justice in court, neither does it bring back the person who has been killed. When a parent has destroyed the relationship of love, respect, and trust between parent and child, and later the parent confesses his or her sin and asks forgiveness, we have to forgive, but that does not take away the fact that the parent-child relationship has been destroyed. A new relationship may grow, but it would be wrong to expect the child to act as if nothing had happened. That would put the burden of the consequences of the wrongdoing on the child instead of on the parent who was in the wrong. If a parent, for whatever reason it might be, treats a child in such a way that it has to be placed in a foster home or in an adoptive family, the relationship of love, trust, and affection between parent and child is damaged, destroyed, or prevented from developing. Real repentance in such a situation means accepting this reality as a consequence of ones own previous actions. It might be hard for the parent to accept that the child is placed in another family, but requiring the child to come back is not a proof of real remorse and willingness to make up for previous wrongdoings. It rather means that extra suffering is imposed upon the child to give the parent the feeling that the past has been undone. It is an attempt to exonerate the parent at the cost of the child. It is like cutting down a tree and after having apologized for it, demanding the fruits of the tree.
Remorseful parents should rather show how real their repentance is, by leaving the child in the new situation. They first have to consider the unmistakable interest of the child and put their own feelings and emotions in the second place. That might be the sacrifice required to make up for the past.
For all these reasons we do not believe that adoption ignores the possibility of repentance on the part of the negligent parent. It only protects the child against unreasonable demands of parents who want to let their child pay and carry the burden of their own wrongs.
Abuse of adoption
Objections against adoption are sometimes triggered by the cases in which the possibility of legal adoption is abused. We have heard about tragic and heartbreaking cases. Some parents “buy” a child to fulfil their own dreams. In some countries there seems to be a “black market” in children. The poverty and misery of people is abused. In an illegal way children are sold and smuggled out of the country. With phony papers they are given up for adoption. Unscrupulous people try to make money this way.
We mentioned already before that adoption always has to be a well considered decision, in the unmistakable interest of the child. It has to be a compassionate measure. Many cases in which a child is “bought” only to satisfy the adoptive parents, turn sour. The child becomes the victim of disappointment on the part of the adoptive parents – a disappointment which is the result of wrong expectations.
We have to emphasize, time and again, that the first responsibility for the child is with the natural parents. Adoption should only be considered if there is no prospect of a proper functioning of the relationship between parent and child. It should be an emergency measure in the unmistakable interest of the child.
However, abuse of adoption should not drive us to the other extreme, namely, to condemn every good application of this possibility. Legal adoption is rather a measure to avoid such abuse. The courts have to decide whether the interest of the child is really served by adoption. It should be a matter of mercy. We know that “the mercy of the wicked is cruel” (Proverbs 12:10), but as Christians we have to show what compassion and mercy really mean. It has to be the mercy, taught by Holy Scripture. Jesus Christ has shown us what real mercy is. He has shown compassion for children and we have to follow His example. He has laid His hand upon them and has said, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” and, “Whoever receives such a child in My name receives me.”
In order to avoid abuse of adoption we have to consider all aspects and be on the alert. Support and guidance of the office-bearers is necessary in a case of adoption. However, that requires some knowledge of the implications and the ethical aspects of adoption on the part of the office-bearers. It happens, too often, that the adoption of a child occurs without any involvement, advice, or support of the office-bearers. They get involved after the whole matter has been settled and baptism of the child is requested. Let the officebearers stay in touch with the families, also in this respect, and let the families ask the advice and support of their officebearers.
God's sovereign good pleasure
There is still one very important point that needs attention. Some argue that a husband and wife who have no children and know that they cannot have children of their own, have to accept the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord in their life also in this respect. Isn't adoption an attempt to go against what the Lord has brought into their life or has kept away from them? Should they not rather accept the will of the Lord in their life, than try to constitute a family through adoption? They seem to be relevant and legitimate questions and very suggestive ones at that. Still we consider these questions more suggestive than convincing. Of course, we all have to accept the Lord's sovereign good pleasure. However, that does not mean that we have to sit idle and accept a certain situation as unavoidable if we are able to make a change for the better. We have our own responsibility and we are allowed to use the available means. When we are sick we have to accept the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord. In a case of incurable illness we have to see the hand of the Lord and we can count on His help to cope with the problems. We know and confess that He will turn everything to our benefit. Our heavenly Father takes care of us and He never makes a mistake. Still, we have to see a doctor when we are sick and we have to use the available means to cure the disease. He who refuses to see a doctor should not speak about the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord but confess his own negligence and irresponsibility. We have to accept our responsibility and we have to give account to the Lord for what we have done with the available means.
If a young couple, after having been married for a number of years, still has no children, they might see a doctor to find out whether there is a specific reason and whether something can be done to take away the cause of the apparent infertility. In some cases a simple remedy can solve the problem. In other cases more complicated measures are required. It can be necessary to perform an operation to take away an obstacle. In all such cases people do not sit idle, speaking about the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord. No, they try to solve the problem, within the scope of their responsibilities and possibilities. That is certainly not in conflict with accepting God's sovereign good pleasure. The same counts for all medical treatment.
When a couple has come to the conclusion that they cannot have children of their own, or that it is very unlikely, are they then allowed to apply for adoption, to constitute a (larger) family in this way or do they have to accept their childless family as the will of God with respect to their life? The answer depends on the circumstances and the motives for their actions.
In previous sections we have already explained at length that adoption should never be initiated to satisfy one's own desires. But on the other hand it is also quite well possible that the Lord will use a childless couple to show mercy to a child that needs help and to provide a new home for it. That can also be seen as the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord. The main question is whether such a decision is made in prayer, expecting the help, wisdom and guidance of the Lord, and in a desire to serve Him.
Adoption is an unusual way to receive a child. It should remain an emergency measure. But adoptive parents who go this way in prayer because they feel it is their God-given task, are certainly allowed to see the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord in it. They may consider it a privilege to be allowed to show mercy through this compassionate provision in a sinful world. They can accept such a child as a gift from the hand of the Lord. If they are prepared, in self-denial and with many sacrifices, to take care of a child that needs help, they will probably enjoy the satisfaction of being allowed to bring up a child in the fear of the Lord.
We will conclude with a quote, taken from the report at General Synod Hattem 1972 (p. 532).
“We certainly do not have to speak about the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord only in a case where a couple remains without children. We can be equally convinced of and confess the sovereign good pleasure of the Lord if it pleases Him to give children via this measure of child protection.”