Adopting new rules for the word 'adoption'

Families: Many adoptees and their parents say news accounts shouldn't mention it unless it is pertinent.

October 07, 2001|By Lisa Richardson | Lisa Richardson,Special to the Sun

It was news coverage of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman divorce that catalyzed years of accumulated exasperation into an actual campaign. No, it wasn't the blitz of reports on the marriage's end but the repeated references to the couple's two young children as "adopted." Those constant reminders that Cruise and Kidman had adopted Isabella and Conor was flint to tinder, sparking a nascent nationwide grass-roots movement in the adoptive community.

"It was the straw that broke the camel's back," said Rachel Adelson, president of a computer and home electronics publication. In 1998, she and her husband, who live in North Carolina, adopted a daughter. "Why does the media see the need to mention that someone is adopted? It happens all the time, even when people are elderly, even when they're dead, and it's just irrelevant."

Adelson and other parents who have adopted children have launched a campaign to convince the media that millions of people are insulted when they are identified as "adopted" regardless of whether that fact is pertinent to a story. In an effort to accomplish this efficiently, they have drafted a letter, now circulating widely in adoption circles, that will be sent to the Associated Press wire service, which is headquartered in New York. The letter asks that AP include guidelines for "adoption" in its widely used stylebook.

While many media outlets create in-house style guides for their journalists, for decades the Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual has set the industry standard for word usage.

This is subtle social tinkering through word power.

"We in the media do have to remember that the way we refer to things becomes the way people in general refer to things," said Michael Feazel, managing editor of Warren Communications, which publishes newsletters for the audio industry. Feazel has taken the lead in circulating the letter, primarily over the Internet, to the adoptive community.

AP, however, does not single-handedly determine correct usage and then impose it, according to the editor of its stylebook, Norman Goldstein. There is no system by which new entries are included, and suggestions come from teachers, activists and religious leaders, among others. Goldstein exhaustively vets suggestions with the journalism community before changes are approved.

Under "adopt," the AP's stylebook advises: "Amendments, ordinances, resolutions and rules are adopted or approved. Bills are passed, laws are enacted." It says nothing about people. The letter suggests this rule: "As in the case of race or gender orientation, the fact [that] a person was adopted should be mentioned only if it is absolutely essential to the story. Mentioning adoption when it is not relevant wrongly implies a separate category of family relationship."

Egregious examples abound, activists say. They point to recent obituaries of Maureen Reagan, which typically noted that her brother, Michael, was adopted. "The fact that he was adopted 50 years ago was as relevant as information that someone else was born prematurely or by C-section," the letter says. Also, adoptive parents should be referred to as a child's mother or father, the letter says, and biological parents should be called such, instead of "real" or "natural."

"I'm Korean, so the fact that I'm adopted has always been very obvious because my parents are not," said Susan Cox, vice president of public policy for Holt International, an adoption agency with programs in 14 countries. "People would say to me things like 'Who are your real mom and dad?' I would give the names of my parents, and they'd say 'No, no, no, I mean your real parents.' I'd say they are my real parents. 'Oh, well, I mean your Korean parents.' Then I'd say I don't know," Cox said.

"I think it's an enormous and important step," said Beth Hall, director of an adoption agency in the Oakland, Calif., area and co-author of last year's Inside Transracial Adoption.

Hall and other advocates stress that their campaign is not a matter of semantics. The constant attention paid to whether a child was adopted, they say, is a subtle imposition of second-class status on adopted children and their families.

More than 6 million people who live in the United States were adopted, and when their extended families are factored in, an estimated 100 million Americans have been touched by the practice. As the numbers grow, the nature of adoption has changed, and old stigmas have begun to fade. Since the late 1970s, advocates for "open adoption" have believed that children should not be denied the knowledge that they have been adopted, and that after adoptees reach adulthood, they should have the right to their original birth certificates, which include the names of their biological parents. Oregon, Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Delaware and Tennessee have passed laws giving adults adopted in those states unrestricted access to copies of their original birth certificates.

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