Jonathan Merritt

Exploring Adoption

Are evangelicals doing more harm than good?

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Not satisfied with documenting clear abuses and inadvertent consequences, Joyce paints the evangelical adoption movement with too broad a brush, drawing from the experiences of individuals who do not represent the large swath of evangelicals and the adoptive parents among them. She tells stories, for example, of "large, homeschooling families in which the parents already have lots of biological children" (imagine: they already have plenty of children, but they want more!), implying that adoptive Christians are wild-eyed zealots. What percentage of those adopting actually fit Joyce's description? She doesn't say, but the data don't seem to be in her favor.

The "Quiverfull movement"—the name given to Protestants who eschew birth control and seek to grow large families—makes up about 10,000 of the more than 100 million American evangelicals, according to NPR.[2] And only about 3 percent of the entire American population homeschools, according to the latest data.[3] Certainly there are some "large, homeschooling families" with "lots of biological children" who are adopting. But to assume that the behavior of this tiny demographic (which is any case hardly ipso facto objectionable) represents the thousands who adopt each year is unfair at best and dishonest at worst.

Joyce also exaggerates the influence of several fringe Christians leaders, publications, and ministries in her attempt to paint a portrait of over-zealous adoption advocates run amok. For example, she heavily references Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of To Train Up a Child and founders of No Greater Joy Ministries. The Pearls have received much media attention as their philosophy of child discipline has been linked to cases of child abuse and even death.

But their infamous book has estimated sales of only 28,737 in all retail outlets since 2001.[4] Their ministry brings in approximately $1 million in annual contributions, a number that may seem impressive at first but is low when compared with other evangelical ministries in America. As I noted in my column at Religion News Service, "If the Pearls' 'No Greater Joy Ministries' were based outside of Atlanta, we can surmise they might be listed somewhere in the bottom quarter of evangelical ministries in the metropolitan area of our city alone."[5]

A more critical flaw than Joyce's use of peripheral examples is her failure to quantify the scope of the problems she seeks to highlight. This book is littered with phrases like "many" or "most" or "most often"—estimates that are rarely supported by empirical data. As readers strain to wrap their minds around the issues Joyce discusses, they never know just how big or small the problems really are. Instead, they are left to rely on Joyce's stories and quotations from more mainstream voices, which are cited only by what one might generously call a "non-traditional" method. By this I mean she provides no direct citations.


I spoke with one Christian adoption advocate about an uncited quotation attributed to him in the book. He said that he has never spoken to Joyce and can find no record of the quote attributed to him in any manuscripts from talks he gave that year.

In lieu of citations, Joyce offers readers what amounts to a blanket bibliography for each chapter. The reader is forced to choose between trusting that Joyce has reported accurately and doing the tedious work of trying to match the sources listed with the information, stats, and quotes in each chapter.

But Joyce's readers are ill-served in another way as well. Her narrative would have been much more credible if she had been willing to give readers the other side of the stories she tells. I've been fortunate enough to interact with these issues on a deep level as a member of the national board of directors for Bethany Christian Services, America's largest adoption and child welfare agency. The inner workings of this organization, at least, offer a counter-narrative to Joyce's sweeping indictment.

The vast majority of adoptions performed by Bethany are domestic, not international, and many of those involve older children adopted through foster care. Bethany also offers programs like Safe Families for Children, where a child is voluntarily and temporarily placed with a non-birth family for 35 days on average, while the parent(s) recover from whatever problem has jeopardized the family, with the explicit goal of reunification. Priority is placed on caring for orphans wherever they exist, which means reuniting them with their families if at all possible.

When Bethany performs an international adoption, extra precautionary steps are taken to minimize or prevent the kinds of problems Joyce mentions. Before an adoption from Ethiopia can be approved, for example, Bethany hires two sets of investigators—one of their own and an independent investigator from an outside organization—to review the case and verify that the child has been orphaned and not trafficked. Bethany is accredited by the Hague Convention, ensuring the highest level of external accountability. As a result, the majority of international adoptions performed by Bethany involve special needs children who are not at high risk of trafficking.

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