Media executives are always looking for new ideas to satisfy America's insatiable appetite for reality TV. But just when you think nothing could outdo a show with people who eat live insects, the bar gets lowered again. This time, instead of makeovers and marriage partners, it's a ratings booster that manages to exploit, of all things, adoption. Worse yet, this reality show masquerades as journalism.
Tonight ABC's weekly news program "20/20" is to air Barbara Walters's profile of Jessica, a pregnant 16-year-old who will select among five couples vying to adopt her child. Jessica will participate in an open adoption, an increasingly popular practice that allows adoptive parents and, in many cases, the child to maintain contact with birth parents.
"20/20 cameras were there last October when the competition for Jessica's baby began as the finalists arrived at the agency one by one," the ABC Web site reported. "Each couple would have less than half an hour to convince Jessica that they should be the parents of her unborn son."
So which couple will get the proverbial rose? Will it be the police officer and his wife, who already have adopted a premature baby? Perhaps the high school teachers for whom "adoption is their last hope to have a child." Or will the teen choose the couple who "were joking . . . that it's like 'The Bachelor' [or] 'The Bachelorette.' You're in or you're out tonight."
"I hate to even think about it this way," notes another prospective father, "but it is a marketing thing. You are marketing yourself." Based on the show's marketing efforts (some of which have been toned down in response to public criticism), viewers are led to believe that the competition to adopt other American children is similarly fierce. In fact, recent data indicate that approximately 126,000 children in the country's troubled child welfare system are waiting for permanent homes. Approximately half these children have lived continuously in foster care for at least three years, almost one-fourth for five years or more. And while demand is consistently high for infants, especially white babies, the competition to adopt is not nearly as stiff when it comes to older children, African American and Latino children, sibling groups and children with disabilities.
Despite recently declining pregnancy rates, 34 percent of teenage girls get pregnant at least once, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. And unlike Jessica, many teen mothers deciding whether to give up their children for adoption do not have family support or quality legal representation. Among teens who choose to keep their babies, less than one-third earn a high school diploma, and almost half go on welfare within five years of the birth of their first child.
There is also a lack of comprehensive federal support for adoptive families, especially lower-income and middle-class families. Eligibility for federal adoption assistance payments for families who adopt children with special needs is based on the income of the child's abusive or neglectful parents, not on the needs of the child. Moreover, adoptive parents often find it difficult to find and pay for counseling, respite, child care and other services if problems arise later.
"20/20" is sure to point out that allowing caring people to compete for a baby is not illegal. After all, the child is not being purchased, the prospective couples have been carefully vetted and the birth mother has made a fully informed decision. And a competition supervised by a reputable adoption agency is no different than the vagaries of adoption in the real world. Many adoptive parents admit that they, too, felt as if the process was a roller coaster ride in which they had to contend with birth parents who might change their minds, unexpected expenses and endless red tape.
A contest in which another human being is the prize is reprehensible, no matter how positive the outcome for the child. Steeped in game show vernacular, this self-styled "look at adoption in America" belies the true complexities involved in the decision to adopt, the diverse needs of children and adoptive families and the profound rewards and challenges families experience long after the adoption is finalized.
As the show attracted more and more negative attention, Barbara Walters, an adoptive mother herself, issued a formal apology for the sensational promos, but she still encouraged America to tune in. "For the record," she said, "we should say that '20/20' simply reports what happened."
She also promises a happy ending in this case: a birth mother who makes a tough but loving choice, a child who finds a caring home, and even defeated couples who end up adopting another baby. But portraying adoption as a game undermines our humanity and makes all of us struggling with these issues losers.
Copyright 2004, The Washington Post