- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 19, 2004

During the week preceding “Be My Baby” on “20/20,” the media ruckus focused on the obnoxious, reality-TV-style promotion of the show’s “inside look at open adoption.” The universal condemnation of those promotions was well deserved. It is almost beyond belief that anyone, even TV-hype writers, could be so insensitive as to cast adoption in terms of a reality-show competition, where contestant couples vie for a baby. It’s no wonder that ABC News and the Federal Communications Commission received thousands of complaints.

So other than that, how was the show? Flawed from the get-go. The very idea of broadcasting an adoption on national television is degrading and inhumane. The purpose of adoption is to serve the best interests of children. “Be My Baby” violates that basic principle. Was it in little Ryan Liam’s interests to have the intimacies of his adoption splashed across video screens for the world to see? What choice did he have, and what will he think of this circus when he is older? As my 14-year-old, whom my wife and I adopted as an infant, intelligently observed during the show, “They’re treating the baby like an object.” And he had not seen the promotions.

“Be My Baby” delivered an inside look at one type of open adoption. But if “20/20” was serious about educating people about this complex subject, it should have done a better job of communicating the range of openness in adoptions today, and the range of professional opinion concerning it. There is not much controversy over such openness practices as birthparent involvement in the selection of the adoptive parents; one or two meetings between birthmother and adoptive parents before and/or at placement; and letters and photographs for agreed-upon times following placement. But some adoption professionals question the wisdom of the arrangement this birthmother, Jessica, required — i.e., ongoing visits throughout childhood. Likewise, many couples considering adoption are unwillingtoacceptsuch arrangements.

Adoptions with ongoing visits are probably here to stay. Some birthparents and adoptive parents will continue to consent mutually to such agreements. But despite 20 years of openness advocacy, most birthmothers do not seek ongoing visits throughout childhood. Evidently, they share the same concerns some adoption professionals and adoptive parents have, that such visits may be confusing for the child and disruptive for the family. One of Jessica’s comments illustrates another common concern, which is that ongoing visits may make it difficult for birthmothers to accept the reality of relinquishment and move on with their lives. “He’s their child also. I think of it as we’re both sharing him,” said the 16-year-old birthmother.

“Sharing” a child between birthfamilies and adoptive families is not how law and society define adoption, even in adoptions as open as this baby’s. Adoption is the transfer of parental rights and responsibilities from one set of parents, or parent, to another set of parents, or parent. With adoption, the adoptive family becomes the adopted person’s true and permanent family, as if he or she were born to that family. To avoid the kind of misunderstanding expressed in Jessica’s comment about sharing, good crisis-pregnancy counseling keeps the decision about openness separate from the choice between parenting and making an adoption plan. Blending the two issues can lead birthmothers to the wishful thinking that through openness they can avoid the heart-wrenching challenge of relinquishment.

Like virtually all birthmothers, Jessica lovingly chose adoption based on what’s best for her baby. “I had to do it for him … It was best for him,” she said. But she misunderstood what it means to be a parent when she said, “It was definitely not the best decision for me.” By definition, the best interests of the parent are one and the same with the best interests of the child. Making an adoption plan can be painful for the birthmother, very painful. But it can also be the right and best thing to do for the baby. And if it is, then it is right and best for the birthmother, too, because that is the sacrificial nature of parental love. Understanding this principle is important for birthmothers to have peace about their decision.

Whatever insights into open adoption “Be My Baby” may have delivered came at the expense of violating the most basic principle of adoption — serving the child’s best interest. Barbara Walters and ABC News have done a lot to promote positive public attitudes toward adoption. Unfortunately, they missed the mark by a long shot with “Be My Baby.”

Thomas Atwood is president and CEO of the National Council For Adoption.

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