The latest proposal by House Republicans to eliminate the adoption tax credit has sent pro-lifers into a frenzy. The ERLC, Susan B. Anthony List, and related groups have denounced the Republican proposal as insufficiently pro-life. One prominent conservative website went so far as to suggest that Republicans should simply shut down the party if they do not keep the credit. Even Ross Douthat described the proposed cut as “zombie Reaganism at its dumbest.” My Twitter has been a steady drumbeat of people denouncing Republicans for their hypocrisy, never mind that the bill was itself authored by an adoptive father. Respectable opinions are all of one mind on this: the adoption tax credit must be saved, and anyone who says otherwise comes nigh being a moral monster.

Republicans deserve every bit of these denunciations by pro-lifers. The willingness to cut the ATC while perpetuating funding for Planned Parenthood demonstrates a feckless and flagrant disregard for pro-lifers and their concerns. But—and you knew there was one of those coming—defending the ATC is by no means an essential outgrowth of a ‘pro-life’ stance, as drying up the well from which Planned Parenthood draws its water must be. Having a conversation about the ATC through the loaded rhetoric of ‘pro-life’ obscures deep and difficult questions about how our society thinks of and has arranged its adoption practices. The benefits of the ATC as a policy are, I think, more ambiguous than pro-lifers would have us believe.

But first, an important caveat. The debate has, unsurprisingly, evoked a number of very moving and profound reflections by adoptive parents on the benefits of the tax credit. Such appeals cannot be dismissed easily. And yet, they are part of a pervasive trend of examining policy predominately through the lens of anecdotes of individuals immediately effected by those policies. That is an understandable response to a discourse dominated by abstractions. Yet it is important to think through what is at stake in framing such arguments this way. Suppose for one minute that the ATC actually has had the paradoxical effect of increasing the overall cost to adopt, such that to remove the credit would be to lower the cost of adoption for everyone—even if it might still mean that certain families who currently can adopt based on it can’t. Were that the actual effect, such a change would hardly be unjust. The idea that many people have benefited from a policy and would be harmed by its removal should have only limited weight. It’s not irrelevant, by any means. But it’s also not the decisive blow that many adoption advocates are currently framing such a claim as.

That hypothetical is not entirely groundless, I should note. As Ben Domenech noted in his (excellent) newsletter this morning, “the overwhelming reason for the high costs of adoption in America is directly attributable to government mandates and bureaucracy. This is not a matter for debate. It’s true.” While the adoption tax credit is a response to such problem, it is one that also incentivizes certain behaviors. And conservatives have argued for a long time that government incentives to do good things create market distortions that increase costs. Higher education is the clearest example of this phenomenon at work. While the data is harder to find on adoption, the hypothesis that something similar is happening here is by no means baseless.

Yet such a worry would only scratch the surface of the complexities surrounding the adoption tax credit, especially for those who want to frame it as intrinsically ‘pro-life.’ For one, such a move introduces genuine incoherencies into the movements emphases. Pro-lifers have done much to emphasize in recent years that there must be two recipients of social concern and welfare: the mother and the child. The aim has become to provide as much support to the mother as necessary so she will keep the child, and so mother and child can be together. However, the adoption movement in practice has rarely emphasized the obligations to socially support mothers beyond the birth of the child. The ‘support’ adoption offers disadvantaged mothers and parents offered is entirely negative: the child is removed from their care and keeping. While in many cases this might be necessary, in practice it leaves serious questions about how many women might otherwise want to raise their babies if their economic conditions changed, and what the obligations of adoptive parents are to those women—to support them in such a way that mother and child can remain together. That there is a thriving adoption market makes it likely that women who might keep their child will give up the child instead. For any non-materialistic account of the family that is interested, in the first place, in keeping biological children together with their parents this sort of incentivization is troubling.

To put the point in economic terms, the initial $50,000 that the transaction can cost could also be used to pay for that mother’s rent, baby food, and other material necessities which would allow mother and child to remain together. For an international adoption, that money would stretch even further. Again, my point here is about emphases within the movement: the adoption movement’s emphasis on removing the child is incommensurate with the pro-life movement’s (growing) emphasis on supporting the mother so she can keep the child.

Second, advocates of the adoption tax credit argue that it facilitates adoptions in cases where they would not happen otherwise. That seems true. But it also seems to create a real opportunity cost for our foster care system, where our near neighbors often languish waiting for adoption. While it is reasonable to defend the adoption tax credit on grounds that private and international adoptions can cost upwards of $50,000, the average cost to adopt from foster care is anywhere between $0 and $2500. That’s right: in many cases it is free.

And yet, despite the adoption tax credit adoptions from the foster care system have remained constant. That this has happened despite a massive increase in interest in adoption should give us serious pause about the domestic utility of the adoption tax credit. Tax credit advocates have framed private adoptions as a cost-saving measure for the government, as it is expensive to keep children in foster care. However, private adoptions also create markets in which parents opt to ‘match’ their preferences to a child while our near neighbors languish because (in many cases) their psychological and other needs make adopting them more complicated. That the cost is up front on families (rather than being invisible through the state’s support of a foster care system) intensifies this market effect, as the financial transaction more immediately grounds and allows the adoption to happen. Such an approach risks commoditizing the family in a way that a lower cost, state-mediated option of adopting from foster care paradoxically would not. Were the adoption tax credit to go away, the possibility of adoption would not: adoptive couples would simply have fewer ‘options’ to consider for whom they adopt, and subsequently less susceptible to reducing adoption to a commoditized form of ‘completing’ their families.

Third, because of how it is structured the adoption tax credit incentivizes adoption for middle and upper-middle class families. Such a fact raises serious questions about why our government is subsidizing adoption for such individuals, but not for lower-class individuals. Most children up for adoption come from disadvantaged communities. Yet it is simply not at all obvious that the government should incentivize the removal of children from such communities into middle- and upper-middle class communities. A version of the above worry applies here: what if there are lower-class family members, friends, and neighbors interested in practicing a form of kinship adoption who cannot because they lack the resources to do so? One argument for not subsidizing them is that they do not make enough to pay taxes. But such a concern renders families and neighborhoods relevant only on the condition that they generate a sufficient level of material wealth. Such a creeping materialism about the family pervades our family courts, as the New Yorker’s recent haunting expose about elder abuse demonstrated. But it also stands beneath and within our thinking about adoption, as well. If we are to subsidize adoption, we should do so in a way that does not reinforce a classism about the family—as the adoption tax credit currently does.

The reality is that removing the adoption tax credit touches many middle-class families at a point on which they are most sensitive, namely, the formation of their family unit. Such intimate decisions obviously deserve a high degree of deference, and questioning them will inevitably generate a strong degree of defensiveness. Such responses are eminently reasonable. But they are also reason for heightened caution, that we do not allow the good intentions of such families to trump the systemic and broader social conditions in which our adoption policies go forward. We are most susceptible to self-deception when we are persuaded we are doing the most good. And on this issue, such heightened scrutiny is even more important: we are considering, after all, choices that give families custodial rights and privileges over children to whom we all as a society have an obligation.

Such heightened scrutiny should apply to our varied responses to the tax proposals under consideration. Consider the disparity between the pro-life response to the adoption tax credit’s potential extinction and proposals to expand the child tax credit.  The latter has received tepid (at best) support from pro-life institutions, even though such a credit would apply to every social class and immediately give more material security to women who do keep their children. Expanding it was proposed and killed by Republicans, and pro-lifers said not a word. While I have sometimes argued that pro-lifers are generally supportive of such a policy, the enthusiasm for it clearly comes nowhere near the concern for the adoption tax credit. And that, too, should give pro-lifers pause. What precisely does it mean that we are so set on preserving a policy which is almost exclusively used by the middle classes, and which is ordered toward the separation of mother and child (either actively, or in response to such a separation), but are so blasé about a policy that would benefit the lower classes and encourage keeping families together?

At the very least, treating the adoption tax credit as a sine qua non for a pro-life position renders the movement unable to resist the dilution of the term to “policies of any sort that benefit children.” There is nothing pro-life about putting money in the pockets of an institution that systematically slaughters infants in the womb, as Planned Parenthood does. The prohibition on unjustified killing is absolute; there can be no compromise, no negotiation about it, even as we work incrementally toward social obedience to it. Yet the policy questions of adoption are in no way in the same class. They are prudential matters, and are subject to an extraordinary number of variables. Yes, an adoption tax credit is a strong social signal about what we value. But if we were properly pro-life, we would want such a signal to be deployed by all the members and segments of our society, and not only those whose means have sufficiently allowed them to enjoy the benefit and take on the responsibilities accordingly. It is simply not obvious that being pro-life requires being ‘pro-adoption’ in this narrow sense. The badness of abortion-on-demand is unmitigated, and its prohibition unquestionably just. But the remedy for children without parents is far more complex. I will have no in principle objection if the adoption tax credit stays, as it almost certainly will. But the identification of it with a pro-life approach to public policy is a serious problem.

The common thread throughout the above reflection is this: our adoption practices should, in the first instance, prioritize family and neighborhood reunification and support, such that the placement of a child into a home where they have no pre-existing bonds of blood or history only happens as the very last resort. I have not argued for such a claim directly; to do so would take me beyond this essay. But a Christian notion of adoption begins with the reunification of the people of God with their Lord through their incorporation into the life of Christ. It is a new event in history, a real beginning. But it is also a restoration, a recapitulation of what has been that transfigures and transposes it into a new key. Such a notion should govern our social practices. At the very least, it may prompt new ideas for what form adoption might take that have hitherto been left undiscovered.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

  • Oh, it figures you’d take time out of dissertation hell to go on a ranting tirade about this! ;-)

    It was only earlier this year that these sorts of neglected or invisible realities in the world of adoption were brought to my attention. Might have been your writings. (Maybe Alastair’s?) The idea of “caring for the widow and the orphan” as a singular reality of working to keep a mother and child together was an insight that took me by surprise.

    Thanks for taking the time to write about this subject today.

  • enness

    I’m sorry, I don’t have time to argue about whether adopting a child from foster care or otherwise is ever “free” or if the adoptive parents come from the right class, trying to keep people from being murdered keeps me quite busy.

    • Cal P

      Why do you have time to leave hit-and-run comments then?