The Adoption Option


To save one life is to save the whole world. -- Talmud

Like most people, I'm usually happy to encounter a pregnant woman, to be reminded of an expectant mother's luminous beauty and the miraculous way human life begins. But during the past year, whenever I've seen a woman who I know is expecting her second, third or fourth child, I wonder if she and her partner have asked themselves this question:

''What if we added to our family by adopting a child?''

I admit that after our first child was born, and while my wife and I were debating whether to have a second, we never considered adopting any of the countless love-starved kids here and abroad in foster homes and orphanages. It never occurred to us, nor did anyone suggest it.

Until April of last year. That's when we came across a New York Times Magazine column in which Laura Cunningham wrote about her adoption of an orphaned baby girl from the People's Republic of China.

Her heart-rending, in-your-face piece described the ''one child'' law imposed by Chinese leaders in 1979 to alleviate the country's severe overpopulation. The policy has significantly lowered the birth rate. But it also has resulted in hundreds of thousands of Chinese girls being abandoned or murdered after birth, mainly because most parents want their one child to be a son who will provide for them in their old age.

My wife and I saw the column as virtually a dare by the author. We talked it over for a month. Could we love a child born to people we had never met and probably never would meet? Could we love a child of another race, another culture, another world, and raise her so she would understand and appreciate her heritage? Would the child be accepted and loved not only by her new big sister but also by her adoptive grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins?

After we determined all our questions could be answered in the affirmative, we went into action. We filled out a gazillion forms. We were fingerprinted for background checks by the FBI. We provided records that showed we were financially stable. We told a social worker about our relationships with our parents. More than once it occurred to me that if no child could be born until his or her parents first jumped through all the hoops we

were put through, the world might be a happier place.

Certainly the logistical hurdles -- not to mention the soul-searching -- associated with adoption would put off many people. There's also the expense, which, for an international adoption, roughly equals the cost of a new medium-sized car. Infertile couples may have no choice. However, parents who already have biological offspring might easily say, ''Who needs this aggravation? We can just have another of our own.''

Lawmakers are at least beginning to regard tax credits for adoption costs as an idea whose time has come. In addition, more American companies have begun to pay part of their employees' adoption bills. Dave Thomas, owner of the Wendy's fast-food chain and himself an adoptee, has lobbied for such credits to encourage adoption and create some equity with biological births, which are covered almost entirely by health insurance.

Monetary incentives are nice, but they won't persuade people to adopt. After all, for every reason to bring a child into your family, there are a dozen reasons why you'd be nuts to do so. In the case of adoption, the pitfalls seem even more numerous.

Yet who ever said acts of love are rational? We could have saved ourselves a lot of money and trouble if we had just decided to have a second child ourselves. But last December, when my wife and her dad returned from China with our beautiful, six-month-old baby girl and were greeted at the airport by 15 relatives and friends, the hassle and expense were forgotten. The joy of that moment, and of so many moments since, can't be tagged with a price.

Six months later, we're preparing to celebrate Juliet's first birthday. We don't know her exact date of birth, though we've contacted her orphanage to learn as much about her as possible. There's a lot we, and she, may never know. Still, we'll help her all we can along the way. Meanwhile, she is not our ''adopted baby'' or our ''Chinese baby'' but just . . . our baby. She has done what any new child ought to do for a family -- multiply the love within it.

When people meet her, they tell us, ''What a lucky baby she is.'' No, we say. We're the lucky ones to have her, lucky to have chosen the adoption option.

I= Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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