Positive language changes face of adoption

(Marge Scott)

Just before this year's annual March for Life, marking the anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston gave an interview to the Boston Herald. When asked about adoption as an alternative, he said, "There are plenty of babies, but the women feel that giving their child up is abandoning their child and somehow that's worse than having an abortion."

His response made me cringe. "Giving their child up" and "abandoning their child" are among my biggest pet peeves when it comes to negative adoption language.

I don't mean to pick on O'Malley, and in fairness I should note that he also used the positive phrase "entrusting their children to another family."

But if the church truly wants to be pro-life and encourage adoption as a choice for women who, for whatever reason, cannot parent their biological children, we need to pay attention to our language about adoption.

Language matters. Despite the backlash from some who decry the "PC police," it matters whether African-Americans are called the "N-word" or whether people with developmental disabilities are called the "R-word."

And because language is so powerful in shaping perceptions and self-identity, negative language especially matters when it refers to children or when we use it around children. As an adoptive mother of two and a birth mother who placed a child for adoption when I was a teenager, I have a vested interest in how our culture talks about adoption.

See how I did that? I said I "placed my child for adoption" rather than "gave the child up." The phrase "made an adoption plan" is also considered positive adoption language. Unlike the words "give up," which imply a lack of value or consideration for the adopted person, these phrases retain his or her dignity.

I believe most people -- including journalists -- inadvertently use negative adoption language out of ignorance. There are many good memes, blog posts and other resources on the Internet that address this issue. To add my voice to this educational effort, here are my top seven tips for pro-life, positive adoption language and conversation:

1) Avoid "give up" or "give away" for adoption. As I mentioned above, this phrase turns the child into an object. Ditto with the phrase "keep the child" for biological parents who choose to parent rather than place for adoption. While it's true that technically some children are "abandoned" by birth parents, it is insensitive to use this term, especially in front of young children or when you are not completely aware of the circumstances of the child's life before adoption.

2) On that topic, the details of the child's life before adoption are private. Since that information may be all that an adoptee has from his or her earlier life, it should be their choice with whom they choose to share it. So, in general, respect adoptive families' and adoptees' privacy.

3) Just because adoption is obvious because of racial or physical differences in so-called "conspicuous families," it doesn't negate the previous advice about privacy. It is not appropriate to ask a stranger "Where is she from?" "Why didn't you adopt an American child?" or "How much did he cost?" -- especially in front of a child who can understand what you're saying.

4) I would hope it goes without saying that obviously offensive terms, such as "orphan," "illegitimate" or "unwanted child" should be verboten. Just stop and think about it from the perspective of the adopted person. Would you want to be described as "unwanted"?

5) Avoid the terms "real parents" or "natural parents" because such phrases imply that adoptive parents are not "real" and undermine the permanency of adoption bond. The more accurate terms are "biological parents," "birth parents" or "first parents."

6) Adoption can be a wonderful way to build a family, but it is not necessarily the defining thing about a person. So it's not necessary to always refer to a person as "adopted" if it's not relevant (for example, "Her adopted daughter loves to dance"). For the same reason, the phrase "was adopted" -- as opposed to "is adopted" -- is more accurate.

7) While adoption can be a very positive thing for both the families and their children, remember that adoption always involves serious, significant loss. Adopted children (and as they age, adults) may lose connection or even knowledge of their first parents or their birth culture. Birth parents, too, experience real loss and grief -- which should not be diminished when mentioning adoption as an alternative for an unplanned pregnancy.

When I have shared these tips with others, they are usually surprised and had no idea their language might be considered hurtful. To some, it may seem nitpicking or oversensitive to say "birth mother" instead of "natural mother," but aren't we all sensitive about language when it involves issues that are important to us? I know pro-life activists who bristle when an unborn child is referred to as a "fetus" or their movement is described as "anti-choice," for example.

It's my prayer that Catholics who want to encourage a positive view of adoption in our culture will take these suggestions to heart.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. She is the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practice Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).]

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