Adoption Ethics -- On Worldview

I suppose there are numerous ways to approach the discussion of adoption ethics. We could start by discussing discrete issues on a case-by-case basis--trafficking, laundering, falsification of paperwork, bribery, medical bill inflation (or even pure-D-ole non-involvement, which raises a different ethical issue altogether). Though I suppose those discussions might be enlightening (and though we might have a few of those discussions here in the future), I'm not sure it's the most dignified place to start. We could also begin with taking a strictly legal approach, begin with a policy discussion. "We are to consider only the 'best interest of the child,'" I could say, treating the phrase as the paramount and  sacrosanct consideration. Unfortunately, the interpretation of the international legal standard--the best interest of the child--is not quite as clear as one would hope. It is a subjective standard, to be sure.

Instead, let's build from a different foundation. Let's begin our discussion by considering worldview.


In 2010, Zambian pastor Conrad Mbewe visited my fair city to discuss, among other things, the state of the Zambian church. I first met him at a local coffee shop, he waiting for me in a back booth. A robust man, Mbewe rose and extended a greeting of truly biblical proportions. He was confident and assertive.

After ordering our drinks--black coffee for me and a latte for him--we returned to the back booth, and I bombarded him with questions about the plight of the African orphan.

"You seem to start with many Western assumptions when discussing the African orphan," he said, opening the lid to his latte and squeezing copious amounts of honey into his drink. He let the sting of his words linger, and after a moment, began chuckling as he looked at me with kind eyes.

"To understand the plight of the orphan in sub-Saharan Africa," he said, "you must first understand the African worldview and the extended-family system."

He began to unpack the extended-family and it's nuances. First, Mbewe explained that he had many mothers (his biological mother and each of her sisters) and many fathers (his biological father and each of his brothers). What's more, he said that the wives of his father's brothers are also his mothers, and the husbands of his mother's sisters are also his fathers.

Confused yet? It get's better.

Although the children of his father's brothers or mother's sisters may be considered his brothers and sisters, the children of his father's sisters are not. They are his cousins.  Why? Because the sisters of his father are not his mothers, but rather, his aunts.

"Therefore," he concluded, "if my parents have both died, and my father had three brothers and my mother had three sisters, and all of them are married, I have 6 mothers and fathers and countless brothers and sisters."

Clear as mud?

Mbewe laughed as I considered the flowcharts I had scratched onto my yellow legal pad.


Taking a more serious tone, he said, "until you begin to understand the African worldview, you will never truly appreciate the African concept of orphan care." He expounded, indicating that  the extended-family network operated much like our welfare system. There is a sense of entitlement there, an expectation that, in hard times, the family or clan will care for the child. And if the situation of the original birth family should improve, the child may return to his birth family.

"And when a westerner comes into the adoption process in sub-Saharan Africa," he said, "they are inserting themselves into the extended-family network. They are voluntarily joining a system already designed to care for the child."

He teased out the nuance, reminded me that the Western worldview is quite different. "Here," he said, "you do not see yourself as becoming part of our extended-family network. Here, you operate from the assumption that the parental rights of the African parents terminate upon adoption of the child. The child will never return to live as part of its original family. That concept is foreign to the sub-Saharan mindset."

I asked a simple question. If, then, we are approaching the adoption process with two separate expectations--expectations which are shaped by our worldview--how can the West best help in the African orphan crisis? His solution? "Help empower and support the extended-family network."


Worldview raises questions regarding expectation, and by way of example, I use a common scenario whereby an African mother relinquishes her child for adoption.

Consider it. Does the assumption of the extended-family shape a relinquishing mother's understanding of our place as adoptive parents? Does she view us as part of the extended family, another unit of support? Does she understand that upon relinquishment, all of her parental rights and all ties to the extended family are permanently severed? Can we expect her to?

As for us, do we stop to consider how our worldview rubs raw against that of a relinquishing mother? Our worldview is distinctly legal. We operate from the understanding that, upon adoption, it was as if the child's extended family never existed. Sure, it's a legal fiction, but it's so ingrained in our worldview that it shapes every decision along the way.

Understand, this is a only a thirty-thousand foot view of the role worldview plays in international adoption, but it's fundamental to understanding deeper issues of adoption ethics. Others have addressed this topic more specifically, including Mbewe (please make sure to read his article).

Also, understand that I do not think that this means we disengage from the adoption process. What do we do when a community is ravaged by the AIDS epidemic and the extended-family unit is destroyed? What about special needs children and double-orphans who will never have proper care or connection to an able extended family?

But, if we at least take the time to consider the interplay of opposing worldviews, perhaps it will shape the way we engage in orphan care solutions. Consider, for example, Mbewe's words:

"The problem with coming to Africa and adopting one 'orphan' from the extended family system is that your help is limited to one person only and not the rest of his family. ...[K]nowing the extended family system suggests A DIFFERENT EMPHASIS in caring for African orphans. My Western friends should consider empowering homes where younger or older 'fathers' and younger and older 'mothers' are looking after the children of their deceased siblings as a viable way to care for orphans." ~Conrad Mbewe.