Adoption, Family Ideology, and Social Stigma: Bias in Community Attitudes, Adoption Research, and Practice

Article excerpt

This article explores the impact of the dominant North American genetic family ideal on community attitudes toward adoption, on adoption research, and on the beliefs and attitudes of adoption case workers. It examines how the failure to recognize the stigmatized social position of adoptive families has shaped not only current public opinion about adoption, but adoption research and practice as well. In conclusion, the article offers suggestions for erasing negative bias from adoption research and practice.

Key Words: adoption, adoptive families, community attitudes, kinship, stigma

Although not everyone agrees that blood ties are enough to make a family, research suggests that the dominant North American family ideology defines a real family as the "nuclear family unit of a heterosexual couple and their biological children" (Andersen, 1991). Schneider (1980) demonstrated in his classic study on American kinship that the majority of Americans consider the crucial defining elements of kinship to be genetic. More recently, Nelkin and Lindee (1995) have argued that the thriving western fascination with genes and genetic explanations in matters of human bonding and development over the past decade has allowed the genetic or "molecular" family ideal to gain unheralded strength among researchers, policy makers, and in the culture at large.

The genetic family ideology has had far reaching consequences for the social institution of adoption and the individuals most intimately affected by it. As Bernardes (1985) has noted, an unfortunate consequence of this dominant family ideology is that all non-genetic family forms tend to be rendered abnormal, pathogenic, and unworkable. While a detailed investigation of the stigmatization of adoption in North American culture is beyond the scope of this article, there can be little doubt the adoptive family has been socially constructed as a deviant, stigmatized, and "burdened" (Kressierer & Bryant, 1996) family form. Historically, attitudes toward adoption have also been crucially shaped by the "the twin stigmata of infertility and illegitimacy" (Haimes & Timms, 1985). As the text on a recent Valentine's Day card made strikingly evident, adoption continues to be framed in negative terms:

Sis, even if you were adopted,

I'd still love you. . .

. . . not that you are, of course.

At least I don't think so.

But, come to think of it,

you don't really look like

Mom and Dad. Gee, maybe

you should get a DNA test

or something. Oh well,

don't worry about it.

We all love you, even

if your real parents don't.

Happy Valentine's Day.

(Carlton Cards, 1997)

Popular culture and media images of adoption are by no means inconsequential. A recent survey of community attitudes toward adoption in the United States showed that 52% of Americans regard the media (news, books, magazines and entertainment) as their primary source of information about adoption (The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 1997, p. 14).

The purpose of this article is to review existing data on the extent and effects of the stigmatization of adoptive kinship in the community at large, in the adoption research literature, and in clinical adoption practice. Although the article focuses on the stigmatization of adoptive family members, they are not the only ones whose lives have been and continue to be adversely affected by disparaging cultural attitudes toward adoption. Women who have given birth out-of-wedlock have been poorly treated and marginalized both in society at large and in the adoption system (e.g. Gordon, 1985; Kunzel, 1993; Shalev, 1989; Solinger, 1994). Furthermore, it would oversimplify matters to claim that alternative visions of family and kinship do not exist. In conclusion, this article addresses evidence of an alternative kinship model in North American culture, and offers suggestions for removing negative and stigmatizing biases from adoption practice and research. …