Kathryn Joyce’s new look at the adoption industry, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, contains within its pages true horror stories. Perhaps most shockingly, the book details what appears to be the long-term abuse of a group of Liberian orphans “adopted” into a life of virtual slavery in Tennessee — starved, hit, manipulated, and isolated by “parents” practicing an extreme brand of back-to-the-land Christianity.
But Joyce, through intensive reporting around the world, also tells the stories of “orphans” who have actual families, even mothers, back home and who were adopted under false auspices, as well women in the United States who are manipulated into relinquishing children for adoption by crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs).
Throughout the book, these dynamics of exploitation are recreated on a macro scale as the increasing drive for Westerners, often people of faith, to adopt orphans keeps feeding into, and off of, a global system of poverty, corruption, and mistreatment of women and children. Joyce’s work touches on bigger social issues, like the intersection of capitalism with reproduction, the role of religion in shaping policy, and the way conventional — and even inspirational — narratives of care and charity intersect with old paradigms of oppression and power.
Joyce recently spoke to RH Reality Check about how the movement she chronicles relates to abortion politics and the treatment of biological families of adoptees at home and abroad.
RH Reality Check: Ideologically speaking, how did the concept of adoption as a positive alternative to abortion end up morphing from “Don’t have an abortion, adopt!” rhetoric into this massive movement to actually facilitate adoption on a broad scale?
Kathryn Joyce: Adoption and abortion have long been linked. For years, it’s been presented as a neat, common-ground solution to the abortion debate — something that politicians on the right and left can agree on. For liberal politicians, it offered a way to moderate support for abortion. For conservatives, it was presented as a solution for women who didn’t want to parent, or who couldn’t. It was also framed as an answer to the pro-choice challenge: Who is going to care for all these babies you want women to have?
RHRC: You also address how the post-Roe landscape demographically affected the practice of adoption.
KJ: The real push to increase adoptions came in the last few decades, after the rate of domestic infant relinquishment for adoption dropped, going from around 20 percent of never-married white women in 1972 to closer to 1 percent today. The rates were historically lower for women of color, who were less likely to be pressured to relinquish in pre-Roe days because there was more adoption “demand” for white infants. Today, I think domestic relinquishment rates for Black women are statistically zero. So as demand outstripped “supply,” a lot of organizations became invested in increasing the number of women relinquishing.
RHRC: The capitalist angle strikes me, almost like the “market” for adoption mimics 19th century European imperialism, going to new territories to find “supply” through exploitation.
KJ: Yes, I think you see that overseas as well as here in the United States — the sort of “country-hopping” that happens in inter-country adoption, as adoption booms and busts move from nation to nation, but also in the experiences of U.S. mothers, about whom some organizations wrote multiple reports, trying to figure out how they could encourage more adoptions.
RHRC: Given your contact with people on both sides of the equation, do you think the choice to carry to term and then relinquish is never going to be as common as adoptive parents want it to be, which tips the power relationship?