Friday, November 28, 2003

Cloning versus Adoption?

Brian Weatherson of Crooked Timber links to a paper by Stephen Coleman defending reproductive cloning against its critics. One such critic, David James, argues that adoption provides a viable alternative to all reproductive technologies (including cloning, fertility drugs, and in vitro fertilization). Coleman offers the following rebuttal:
The problem unique to adoption is that these cases involve an existing child, and in most cases, existing parents. In the words of Barbara Katz Rothman “For every pair of welcoming arms, there is a pair of empty arms. For every baby taken in, there is a baby given up”. The vast majority of mothers do not relinquish children for adoption because they want to, but rather because they are forced to through poverty. They are not unwilling to care for the child, they are simply unable. This is especially the case with international adoption. Virtually all the children adopted internationally come from economically or politically oppressed areas. Probably only the orphans from these areas can really be classed as “unwanted”. Even within the USA, one study found that 69% of parents giving children up for adoption cited external pressures, including financial constraints, as the primary reason for surrender. Given these problems, adoption hardly looks the glowing alternative to reproductive technology that James suggests.
Much as I’m in favor of cloning, I fail to see how the above even begins to constitute an argument against adoption. In fact, I think it strengthens James’s case. While the decision to give up a child for adoption is undoubtedly a wrenching one for biological parents, the existence of willing adoptive parents does not make the biological parents worse off in any way. It merely provides them with one more option. Suppose there’s a poor woman who has just given birth to a baby, and someone with better finances offers to adopt it. Does that offer somehow make her poorer? Of course not. She can still choose to keep the baby, with all the hardship that would entail; the potential adopter has merely provided her with another route, which she is free to accept or reject. Her position is still unenviable (who wants to be poor?), but no worse – and arguably better – than it would be if adoption were ruled out.

And the same goes for anything that increases the size or quality of the pool of potential adoptive parents, and contrariwise for anything that diminishes the pool. So despite my support for cloning, I have to admit there’s something to the adoption argument. If the possibility of cloning substantially reduces the number of willing adoptive parents, both the children who could have been adopted and their biological parents may end up worse off.

It is true that the choice between keeping a baby and giving it up for adoption can cause a great deal of anxiety for the biological mother. Foreclosing the adoption route would eliminate any anxiety associated with making the choice. Instead of facing this agonizing decision, the mother would have no option but to keep the baby. But adoption will always be an option, whether or not reproductive technologies are available, so there’s no avoiding either the choice or the anxiety. And besides, I think it’s a good thing for a biological mother to ask herself, in all seriousness, whether she is ready to raise a child. Raising a child takes time, effort, and (yes) money; if biological parents don’t have all of these things to offer, then for the sake of the children they should at least consider adoption.

However, as James and Coleman both recognize, the adoption argument is hardly unique to cloning; it applies to any other technology that improves the ability of potential parents to have non-adoptive children. I’d be curious to know whether the advent of fertility drugs and in vitro fertilization substantially reduced the number of people seeking to adopt children. I strongly suspect that the effect of cloning would be smaller, given most people’s likely preference to have children genetically similar but not identical to themselves. (I personally would prefer a genetically related child to an adopted child, but I’d prefer an adopted child to a genetically identical child.) In any case, we would have to weigh the cost of fewer adoptions against the gain from better satisfying the preferences of parents who would prefer genetically identical to adopted children. If some people are so focused on genetics that they’d prefer clones of themselves to adopted children, they are hardly the ideal adoptive parents.

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