One of the reoccurring themes I hear in the conversations about orphan care are the words “total orphan”. Often a parent is defending or bragging about the ethics of their adoption by claiming that their child was a “total orphan” or potential adoptive parents are saying they are looking to adopt a “total orphan” as if that makes it all magically ethical.
According to UNICEF a total orphan is a child who has lost both their mother and father. I know quite a few adoptions of total orphans that I find unethical. And I know quite a few adoptions of children with one or both parents alive that I believe are completely ethical.
It’s just not that simple.
Just because a child has lost both their parents doesn’t mean there aren’t aunts, uncles, grandparents, or cousins that wish to care for them…. Or that they cannot be adopted domestically. Consider a child who has lost both their parents to AIDS but lives with their aunt and uncle as a welcome member of the family. Through tragic circumstances the child is separated from the aunt and uncle and brought to the orphanage. The aunt searches tirelessly for her niece and months later finds the orphanage where she was brought. Sadly the orphanage has already given her up for adoption. The aunt and uncle grieve as if their own child has just died. Was that ethical?
In another circumstance a child is severely beaten daily by her mother. Her mother refuses to feed her and screams verbal abuse at her whenever she is home. One day she pours scalding hot water on the child and the child ends up in the hospital. A missionary couple hears word and talks to neighbors and discovers the abuse. They search out the father to find he is an alcoholic who is barely taking care of himself and has no interest in his daughter. The couple are refugees and have no other extended family that could take the child. The missionary couple pursues adoption. Was that ethical?
Sadly, in a country like Uganda these stories are not as uncommon as we would like to think.
Adoption ethics are complicated and unique to every situation. I’m sorry but we cannot simplify them by only pursuing the adoption of total orphans… and we cannot pass judgment on a family simply because their child has birth parents.