Some years ago, I attended a Right-to-Life banquet at the University of Notre Dame. The theme that year involved a celebration of both adopting parents and adopted children. My adopted son attended and received a rousing ovation from the crowd. Being not yet two years of age, he imagined that all the clapping was a game, and he was happy to join in. In a fortunately less spectacular fashion, my wife and I were thanked by the emcee for helping to create a pro-life culture.
This latter act of gratitude, although appreciated, made us uncomfortable. We have adopted two children, but neither was welcomed into our home primarily because of our desire to participate in building a pro-life culture. We are an infertile couple, and adoption has been the way that we’ve been able to live out a parental vocation.
Adoption was less an act of altruism on our part and more an outpouring of a gift into our lives that we had almost given up on—the transformation of our identities into “mother” and “father.” We were not primarily focused on saving the lives of children who were in danger of being aborted. We were participating, through the act of adoption, in the human task of caring for, educating, and cultivating the next generation. Simply, we fell in love with two kids—as everyone with a heart falls in love with kids.
In this sense, I’ve often been hesitant to see the adoption of our children as directly related to fostering a pro-life culture. Parents, whether they adopt or not, are often too busy changing diapers, cooking meals, providing discipline and education, and trying to get even a little sleep to reflect on these simple acts of parenting as part of some grander scheme of cultural renewal. They’re being dads and moms. This work of parenthood, despite the proliferation of Hallmark holidays honoring parents and grandparents, is really just part of being human. Being thanked by strangers for this fundamental work always seems a bit strange.
In the years since this dinner, as my children have grown older and we’ve seen a political left come into existence that treats abortion akin to a sacred rite of passage (see any tweet from Alyssa Milano), I’ve come to see that perhaps adoption as a way of being a parent may indeed facilitate the renewal of a pro-life imagination. Such a renewal is less about the performance of a theoretical altruism that rescues children from abortion, although such adoptions happily occur. Rather, adoption offers a new way of understanding the gift of the child—less as an isolated monad in relationship with other monads and more as a creature oriented toward gift from the first moment of the child’s existence.
The child’s existence is gift not simply to the biological mother and father but the entire human family. Adoption is the institutional way of upholding the gift of the child whether his or her mother or father recognizes that child as a gift.
The Limits of Rights Talk
Much abortion discourse concerns the language of rights. Crudely, the argument is about whether the rights of the mother or the child have pride of place. On the political left, it is assumed that the rights of the mother trump the rights of the child—in New York, for example, up to the point of birth. Among the pro-life, this argument is considered abhorrent, since it eviscerates the rights of the unborn. Both mother and father seem allowed to enact whatever upon the unborn, because the parent is in a position of ultimate power.
While legal scholars and practitioners do need to employ the language of rights, such language is limited in its ability to foster a pro-life imagination. The language of rights makes sense in a teleological society, one in which the flourishing of a creature is oriented toward a common end shared by all human beings. When we say that a child has rights, we don’t simply mean that the individual child is owed this or that treatment. Rather, the child is a human being, and to be human means that one has an intrinsic dignity that must be upheld.
As Alasdair MacIntrye has argued in After Virtue, we no longer live in this kind of society. In this sense, the abortion debate is reduced to a question of power, as all debates eventually are in a society without metaphysics. Who has the power? Is it the mother or the child?
Human Beings Are Relational, Dependent Gifts
This concern with the power of the individual exhibits an almost demonic anthropology. For it understands the human being as an isolated monad, existing apart from the rest of the human community. Biologically, this is obviously false. The child depends for his or her existence on the mother; and the mother’s own body is knitted closely to the existence of the child.
But the monstrosity of this position holds not only in the case of the relationship between mother and child. The gift of the child is not merely a concern for the mother. The child exists with the potential to contribute to the flourishing of the entire society. Here, I don’t mean that the child’s existence is measured as valuable insofar as he or she could cure cancer or serve on the Supreme Court. Simply by existing, the child is already oriented toward the act of love. The capacity of the child to love, to enter into all sorts of relationships, is part of the flourishing of the child, as well as of the entire human community.
And this is why adoption is important to consider not only as an act of altruism. For adoption fundamentally recognizes that it is not just the child’s biological mother and father who benefit from the presence of the child. The child, simply by existing, can renew the lives of countless men and women. The child enters into friendships, into a variety of relationships that are not reducible to the biological.
The child reveals that we are not isolated individuals who can freely choose to be or not to be in relationship with other completely independent individuals. Instead, we are creatures intrinsically oriented toward gift. As I held my son in the hospital days after his birth, he opened his eyes for the first time. I am not his biological father. But in the moment that his gaze turned to my own, in that precise moment, he changed my life. His bios, his living, became united to my own bios. His flourishing became intimately tied to my own, whether or not we share a strand of DNA in common. I remember spontaneously calling out, all alone in the hospital room, “I will love you forever.”
This capacity of my son and daughter to awaken this love in me is a radical challenge to the discourse of pro-choice advocates. The pro-choice position requires a modern anthropology, one where there are only the individual mother and the individual child, whose needs and rights often contend with each other’s for dominance. Bracketed out of the argument is the manner in which the human person is created for relationship, for the kind of self-gift that enables human flourishing.
Renewing the Pro-Life Imagination
But of course, pro-life advocates can fall into this same thin, eviscerated anthropology. For if the child exists in relationship from the very beginning of his or her existence, then it is not enough to defend the rights of the child apart from his or her relationship with biological parents. Rather, the flourishing of the child necessitates the equal flourishing of the mother, the father, and the entire community in which the child will be raised. Renewing the pro-life imagination will require supporting birth mothers who may feel forced to choose abortion because they don’t believe they have sufficient money or social capital to raise their child.
To be pro-life is to recognize that the child never exists in isolation. From the beginning, the child is a gift to the entire community. The flourishing of the child is evidence that the society has returned that gift of love to the child. As a political community, we owe something to every mother and child, because we all owe something to one another.
One other area where the pro-life community often fails is an implicit prejudice for biological parenting against adoptive parenthood. I don’t know how many times my spouse and I have been told, “I hope that you can have one of your own one day.” Beside the insensitivity of such a claim (after all, I have cleaned enough of my children’s vomit in the middle of the night that I see them as my own), it also is evidence of a malformed anthropology. Yes, biological parenting is a gift. But one doesn’t love only those with whom one shares genetic material. Adoption reveals that we are made for more than a tribal love, a kind of insular care simply for those who are our own. Instead, we are made for a love that is to be shared with the entire human family.
Adoption is a radical pro-life practice. That’s not because adopting parents necessarily save children from abortion—some do, and some don’t. Instead, adoption provides an antidote for our culture’s reductive philosophical anthropology, which sees us all as atomized individuals in competition with one another for scarce resources. In truth, the human creature is made from the beginning for love. It is possible for an adopting parent and adoptive child to share the deepest kind of love, not simply a paltry shadow of biological parenting. This infinite love is possible because the child is created for this love from the beginning of his or her existence. The child is gift. And adoption reveals this fact, whether or not a biological mother or father recognizes it.
Those of us who are pro-life need to recognize this, too. Otherwise, the only culture we’ll foster is the very one that supports abortion—isolated monads in competition with other isolated monads.