Forgetting children we've already created

August 14, 2002|By Adam Pertman

NEWTON, Mass. -- We are irresistibly drawn to subjects that deal with the core issue of our existence: creating life.

So we have engaged in raging debates about such revolutionary inventions as birth control pills and in vitro fertilization. Today, our collective attention is turning to even more complex and controversial technologies -- most notably cloning, stem cell harvesting and reproductive techniques such as frozen embryo transfers.

It's not just fascinating to examine these mind-boggling developments, of course; it's essential. Because they raise profound moral, ethical, cultural and legal questions and because they challenge us to define, or redefine, nothing less than who we are and want to be.

As I read about how we might one day create children, however, I can't help but wonder when we will begin showing as much concern for the children we have already created.

Notwithstanding President Bush's new campaign to encourage the adoption of boys and girls from foster care, the answer unfortunately appears to be "not anytime soon." Commendable as the president's effort may be, it primarily consists of public service ads and a Web site on which waiting children will be shown. But there's no funding or other resources for additional personnel, recruitment, educational initiatives or similar programs that would have a more systemic, long-term impact.

But that's no surprise. Our country has never given sufficient attention or assistance to poor children, sick children, children in foster care and children who are abused or neglected.

Not long ago, when state and federal officials could barely find enough ways to spend their huge budget surpluses, few of them suggested devoting a penny to hire more social workers, provide better health care or otherwise improve these children's prospects.

And no one, including the president, is proposing any of those steps now, even though charitable contributions, adoptions and other forms of help to needy children have declined since Sept. 11 as the economy has taken a beating and as people have focused on other, undeniably important concerns.

"These children haven't ever been a high priority in this country ... and they are nowhere near becoming one now," says Judith Ashton, executive director of the New York State Citizens' Coalition for Children. Ms. Ashton, like many children's advocates, believes the primary reasons are class and race; that is, most of the boys and girls in need of help aren't affluent or white.

While those are certainly major factors, the events of the last 11 months have amply demonstrated just how colorblind and generous Americans can be. So there clearly must be other forces at work, too.

For example, ours is a culture that promotes individual action over collective responsibility. It's therefore no wonder many parents assume, since they adore and advocate for their own children, that there must be adults doing the same for other children. Wrong.

Similarly, many of us assume the politicians and policy-makers who love to say things like "children are our most valuable resource" must be taking reasonably good care of that treasure. Wrong again.

Another cruel reality that undermines children's prospects is their age. They aren't old enough to vote, to lobby, to make their voices heard or to hire publicists to get their stories into the news. They must depend, instead, on the well-intentioned but only sporadic attention given them by politicians, along with the more sustained but poorly financed efforts of overworked social workers, stressed-out guardians, volunteer-driven advocacy organizations and other surrogates.

All of which brings me back to the still-nascent national dialogue about potential scientific marvels such as human cloning or, more immediately, already available techniques such as frozen embryo transfers.

Yes, we must figure out what to do and how to do it for each new technology, based on its particular merits and challenges. But it is equally vital that we frame the discussion in a way that facilitates judgments based on a view of the entire picture rather than just isolated fragments of it.

So when presidential commissions, congressional committees and journalists elicit information from experts about the implications of wondrous new ways by which we may create children, for example, they should also include experts on foster care in the conversation so that Americans can gain a full understanding of the context in which we -- as individuals and as a nation -- plot our future.

That would seem a reasonable approach for making sound decisions. Moreover, it would place our country's youngest, neediest citizens not just on a Web site, but in a spotlight that has never shined on them before.

Perhaps once we see them clearly we will begin caring as much about their future as we do about the fate of the cells that compose their bodies.

Adam Pertman, a writer and lecturer on family issues, is the author of Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution is Transforming America (Basic Books, 2000).

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