I am so happy that Tina Traster offered me the chance to read and review this important story of her daughter’s adoption from Russia (Siberia, to be precise) and the family’s struggle with Reactive Attachment Disorder.
Let me start by explaining why this subject resonates with me, and why I was excited to read this book.
I have long been an advocate of “Attachment Parenting,” which sometimes receives a bad rap in the popular press by people who misunderstand it as a rigid set of rules. Really it’s more about rejecting rigid rules, trusting yourself, and following your baby’s (and later your child’s) cues. It was already something I was doing at least in part when I learned what it was called from my sister (who founded the Knoxville Chapter of Attachment Parenting International), and I’m now friends with someone who actually wrote the book (or at least one of them!) on it. So I know how important secure attachment is for children, and how we as parents should be fostering that from the moment of birth.
But what happens when children don’t get that kind of parenting, or indeed much parenting at all? As Melissa Fay Greene asks in her foreword to Ms. Traster’s book: “[W]hat of babies who . . . are unable to attract permanent devoted caregivers and cannot seem to locate an adult to adore? . . . What happens to such a baby if she is not rescued before the light in her eyes has gone out? . . . When a baby or young child has learned that no one is coming, that no one thinks he or she is the cutest little baby on earth; that he or she must weather hunger, cold, and sickness in solitary, those are hard lessons to unlearn.”
Doesn’t your heart just break, reading that? I know mine does. And it’s something I often think of and worry about because of the work I do.
As many of you know, my husband is an attorney, and we do a lot of work in the juvenile court system. We see babies who are removed from their parents as infants, and allowed to see them for only 4.3 hours per month. Sometimes months and years go by before these children are reunited with their parents. Many times they are moved from one foster home to another. No one seems to discuss the effect this has on their ability to form attachments not just to their parents but to anyone. Conversely, I routinely read Petitions to Terminate the Parental Rights of some of our clients which claim that no bond exists with the birth parents (with whom the child may have lived for many years) and that a bond has formed with the foster parents (with whom the child has lived for a few months). We always question these non-evidence-based assumptions when we answer these petitions, and demand to see the science that would back them up, but of course there is no such science.
So we worry. We worry about these kids, and their futures, because we know secure attachment is so important. And that’s why this book is so important, not only for those who have adopted from foreign countries or are considering doing so, but for anyone who is interested in helping the troubled children in our social services system, or in doing something to reform that broken system.
When Tina Traster and her husband, Ricky Tannenbaum, set out to adopt a baby from Siberia, they did not even consider the idea that their child might have trouble bonding with them. On the contrary, Tina was more concerned about her own “queasy ambivalence.” She hasn’t read any parenting books. She is shocked, and not in a happy way, to learn that Julia’s adoption will take place much sooner than they had been told. She doesn’t even know how to change a diaper.
Tina’s honesty in disclosing her fears and her mixed feelings about adopting a baby strikes me as a bold move. It would be easy to blame Julia’s lack of bonding on a mother who has her own issues with attachment–one who is in fact in the middle of long-standing conflict with and estrangement from her own mother. But this tactic works because of Ricky, who is not ambivalent, who is deft and efficient in caring for the baby from the start, who is loving and nurturing and who seems to his wife to have it all together. We are accompanying Tina on her journey as she worries when she sees other babies and the way their mothers interact with them, and becomes certain something is different about Julia at the same time that she questions her own ability to mother. When Tina writes: “For the first two years after we brought Julia home, I thought I was the only one in the world who experienced difficulties with her, that I’d made a mistake, that motherhood and I weren’t meant to be . . . only in the last year have I seen Ricky become aggravated with her behavior. She’s just as unresponsive to him as she is to me,” her concerns are validated, and any misgivings the reader may have had as to the origins of Julia’s inability to bond are swept away as well.
It takes a while for Julia’s parents to accept the diagnosis of Reactive Attachment Disorder, and some time after that for them to decide to attack the problem head on, which they do not with the help of professionals but via copious research and then applying what they have learned on their own. They don’t advocate this approach for everyone, noting especially that some children with RAD can hurt themselves or others and would require professional intervention. But it works for Julia. While Tina is quick to make sure we understand that RAD is not something that goes away, that it will always be a part of Julia and will require constant vigilance by her parents, she has become “solidly attached.”
Rescuing Julia Twice is a gripping story, and Ms. Traster is a good writer (an award-winning journalist–this is no ghost-written memoir). It weaves together seamlessly the linear events of Julia’s adoption and what follows with scientific information (accessibly presented) on RAD as well as flashbacks to Tina’s past and the conflict with her mother. So this book is a lot of things put together, and that’s a strength. You will not be bored by it, and you will also learn from it. My only criticism is that I would have liked more story about Julia’s transition to firm attachment, and further information on the techniques her parents used. This is primarily the story of the road toward Tina and Ricky’s definitive realization that Julia has RAD, and I feel that the ending comes a little abruptly. However, to be fair, this may just be the story that Ms. Traster wants to tell, and she tells it very well.
Rescuing Julia Twice is available on Amazon both in hardback and Kindle versions. You can read more about Julia here, and more about Ms. Traster’s other writing here. Additionally, there are many resources on RAD listed in the Resources section at the end of the book.
As always, this review represents my own opinion. My only compensation was the review copy I received.
A few months ago, I was honored to be chosen as an “Off the Shelf” reviewer for Beacon Hill Press of Kansas City. Y’all may have noticed by now that I love books. So why wouldn’t I be thrilled to have the opportunity to read quality books (for free!) and talk about them here? My first review follows. My only compensation was the book itself, and the opinion is my own.
A Story Unfinished: 99 Days with Eliot is the story of every parent’s worse nightmare–the death of a child. And even more tragically, about knowing that death is inevitable before in the eyes of the world that child’s life has even begun. It sounds sad, and of course it is. But reading it will lift you up, not drag you down.
At a 30-week prenatal appointment, Matt and Ginny Mooney learned that their unborn child had a genetic condition–Trisomy 18–that would result in his death within hours or days of birth, if not before. But baby Eliot defied the doctors’ expectations and lived for 99 precious days. His parents chronicled his brief life in their blog, and those entries make up a portion of the book.
Knowing only that their time with their son would be brief, the Mooneys took full advantage of it, cherishing every moment. The shortness of Eliot’s life seems like a tragedy, but having feared he would die in the womb, each of those 99 days felt like a gift to the Mooneys and was treated as such.
This isn’t your typical biography. For one thing, you know in advance how the story ends–or at least how THIS part of the story ends. You know going in that Eliot dies in 99 days. And the story isn’t told in a linear fashion. Matt mixes the story of Eliot’s life with flashbacks and previews, and adds his insights. This was a little disconcerting to me at first because I didn’t expect it, but I think it works well for what he is hoping to accomplish with this book.
Because it’s ultimately not just the story of a baby’s life; it’s about what his parents took away from the experience, and what we all can learn from it. Yet I don’t want to make it sound preachy, because it isn’t. Matt believes in the goodness of God and the redemptive value of suffering, but he doesn’t sugarcoat the pain: “We do not get to pick the ways in which God chooses to reveal himself. Please understand what I am not saying. The loss of Eliot is bad, big-bucket Bad, and I make no attempt to tie a bow on our own experience nor the immense pain I come across in the lives of others. I miss him every day.”
People debate whether God causes bad things to happen, or ask why He doesn’t prevent them, or say that is He doesn’t prevent them, it’s just as bad as if He causes them. Some people believe that every death and every tragedy is part of God’s plan, and directly willed by Him with a purpose that we cannot hope to understand. Certainly all of us know that sometimes good things come out of bad things. Matt writes about this toward the end of the book, in talking about his journey to pick up his adopted daughter, abandoned in a Ukrainian orphanage because she was disabled. This was for me the most profound moment in a book that is overflowing with profound moments: “But for losing my son, I would not be in this car. I would not be in Ukraine. . . . If Eliot were here, I would not be here. The absolute worst thing in each of our lives was the thing that brought us together. Without walking a road of pain and misery, our paths would never have crossed. But they did. Lena is my daughter.”
That’s where I am tonight (and I pride myself on thinking up good titles!) I am ever so grateful to the folks at BlogHer for this NaBloPoMo challenge–it’s gotten me into great posting habits that I hope to be able to continue when November ends. HOWEVER, when it gets to be close to midnight, and my eyelids are heavy, and I’ve had such a busy day that a blog post isn’t already mostly written in my head yet (because that’s how I work!), it’s, well, a challenge!
So how about some more adorable pictures of Leo? That way we all win!
In the wake of Todd Akin’s stupid (really, I could think of a fancier word but I think that one covers it) remarks about rape and abortion, and then VP-hopeful Paul Ryan’s follow-up distancing himself from Akin and downplaying his own oft-stated convictions regarding abortion in exceptional cases, pregnancy and rape are everywhere in the news this week. I think I have something to contribute, though, and I would like to solicit contributions from you as well, if you have something to add in the comments.
I understand, I believe, the pro-choice position on abortion, as much as I disagree with it: that a woman should have the right to decide what to do with her own body, including whether to become or to stay pregnant. And I think most pro-choice people understand the pro-life position: that abortion is wrong because the unborn is a person whose right to life cannot be trumped by its mother’s rights.
But I CANNOT understand the reasoning behind allowing exceptions for rape and incest. I challenge anyone reading this who holds those beliefs to explain them below.
Pro-lifers and even many people in the muddy middle on abortion often find themselves frustrated by radical pro-choicers who refuse to allow for any limitations on abortion: waiting periods, parental notification, banning procedures most people find repugnant, like partial-birth abortions. But abortion rights activists realize that they have to argue against these limitations because to admit limitations is also to admit that there is something unsavory about abortion, somethings serious, something that makes people uncomfortable. When President Clinton opined that abortion should be “Safe, legal, and rare,” some were uncomfortable with his language because why should it be rare if there is nothing morally wrong about it?
On the flip side, allowing exceptions for incest and rape does much more damage to a pro-life argument. After all, WHY are we against abortion? Because we believe that the unborn child is a human being from the moment of conception and therefore entitled to the protections that human dignity demands from that moment forward. With that as our premise, how can we offer an exception based on how that human person was conceived?
We can’t, not logically. But most Americans have not been trained to think critically. They are uncomfortable with abortion on some level. They are also uncomfortable with allowing suffering of any kind. They look for compromises and find them in limiting abortions to certain trimesters, and to allowing exceptions in certain circumstances.
But offering exceptions based on mode of conception is sexist, honestly. It’s saying, “Well, you poor innocent woman, you shouldn’t have to be further victimized by carrying this baby because it wasn’t your fault. But as for the rest of you sluts, you play, you pay.”
Inquiring minds want to know . . . does that woman on the cover of Time Magazine REALLY nurse her kid in that position? And did she REALLY think she was furthering the cause of extended breastfeeding by posing for that controversial cover shot? And did it ever occur to her that she was exploiting her kid and her relationship with him for personal gain?
I hate to give this any more attention than it has garnered already. (Good job, Time; your tactic worked!) I haven’t even read the article and don’t intend to. But if anyone ever doubted that the sources we once counted on to inform us of the news are now in the business of CREATING the news, look no further than this stunt. Time doesn’t care to inform us about the truth of extended breastfeeding and the benefits of attachment; they wish to inflame us and create a controversy where there doesn’t need to be one.
The reason I’m responding instead of ignoring is because I’m an expert on extended breastfeeding. And in the interest of my passion for the truth, I want to share my experiences so that the cover of Time won’t be all that rises to your brain when the subject comes up.
Just like anyone my age, I grew up seeing babies fed mostly with bottles. For a variety of reasons having to do with the culture of the times and poor advice, four months was the longest my mother nursed a baby. My impression of breastfeeding, even when I was first pregnant, was that it was something you did for a few months and then you switched to bottles. I saved the formula coupons I received in the mail while I was pregnant.
But, as you know, I love to read. It was inevitable that I would do a lot of reading while I was pregnant and a few books I read at that time changed my life. Emily never had a bottle of formula and I nursed her for 26 months. I nursed Jake for 38 months (and yes, that means I nursed him throughout my pregnancy with Teddy, and nursed the two of them together until they weaned when Teddy was 26 months old). William nursed at least until Lorelei was born (which is 42 months) and I don’t remember exactly but I know Lorelei was past four when she stopped. (Yes, I nursed babies for 13 years. Give me a medal.)
When Emily was born, the above would have sounded just as weird to me as it may sound to you. But it’s different when it’s your own kid, your own baby. Sure, you look at a four-year-old next to a newborn and the contrast seems extreme, But when you are in the middle of mothering, there’s little difference between nursing your four-month-old or your six-month-old, your one-year-old or your eighteen-month-old, and so on. It’s a seamless transition. Do you think anything about letting your ten-year-old sit in your lap? Would you think it was odd if he wanted to climb into bed with you if he had a nightmare? Is it strange that my eighteen-year-old son likes to hug me and say, “I love my Mommy?” I don’t know, maybe you will think it’s strange, but whatever. You probably have your own sort of strangeness in your house.
I didn’t stand around in the kitchen with my kid on a step stool. I didn’t pose for any cameras. I lay down with my preschoolers and bedtime and naptime. We cuddled on the couch. They wanted to nurse for comfort when they were hurt or upset.
There are many benefits to extended breastfeeding. The nutritional and health benefits don’t go away as the child ages. I have the healthiest children I know, bar none. Emily has not visited a doctor for illness since she was TWO YEARS OLD. We’ve had one earache per kid. No strep throat. One or two antibiotic prescriptions apiece throughout childhood. My two younger kids slept with me from birth. There were no sleep issues or problems. I never had any difficulty getting anyone down for a nap or to sleep at night or back to sleep if they woke up (once I stopped stressing about solving sleep problems, which I may post about another time). If someone was hurt or sad, I could comfort them easily. And my kids are not clingy at all. Having their needs fully met as infants, toddlers, and preschoolers helps them feel good about themselves, helps them feel secure and safe. We live in a society that pushes independence on little kids and denies it to big kids. We stick babies in their own rooms and expect them to sleep through the night and then we monitor our teenagers’ homework and grades and go with them to college orientation and tell them what classes to take. That’s BACKWARDS, people.
And you know what? Extended breastfeeding is NORMAL. It’s NATURAL. Around the world, 50% of babies are still being nursed at the age of 20-23 months. In many countries the figure is much higher. The WHO recommends children be nursed until the age of two or beyond. If you don’t want to, that’s fine. But biologically it is not strange, not weird, not abnormal. It’s what women’s breasts are FOR, and even though Time meant to be provocative, it’s pretty damn pathetic that people can be whipped into a fury over a woman using her breast for its intended purpose on one magazine cover while not saying a WORD about all the synthetic almost-bare breasts adorning the covers of all the other magazines.
It’s a measure of just how crazy things are around here that poor William turned 11 on March 5 and had to wait until tonight to have his party. And just a family party at that (which translates to probably 16 of us). [update: this being the year 2021, tomorrow we will host the family for a socially-distanced driveway event. William’s 19th birthday in 2020 was actually the last time our whole family gathered together for an indoor celebration. We talked about the virus and how some people were even suggesting families should not gather and at the time we thought it was over the top and could not imagine such a thing being necessary.]
So today, in honor of my baby boy, I will post TEN INTERESTING THINGS ABOUT WILLIAM.
1. William weighed 13 pounds and 5 ounces at birth and was 24 inches long. He was my first vaginal delivery after three C-sections. All three local news stations interviewed us, and the story was picked up nationally. I got emails from all over the country. Later one of the clips somehow ended up in an episode of Animal Planet entitled “Extreme Births.”
2. William is an extremely picky eater. I guarantee you that he is pickier than your picky eater. His favorite food is “the rolls at the Great American Steak and Buffet.” [which is sadly now defunct . . . his favorite now is probably Asian.]
3. William loves animals. “I love all God’s creatures,” he once opined as a small child. I think he has become a bot more discriminating since–he hates hippos and pigs, he told me today. But by far, his favorite animal is the cat. [update: William no longer hates hippos or pigs and would probably deny he ever said such a thing. His favorite animals are Felidae, Crocodilians, and Hyaenidae, in that order.]
4. William is obsessed with Aliens, or as they are apparently correctly called, xenomorphs. All he wanted for Christmas was Kenner alien toys from the 1990s.
5. William hates everything to do with school, even homeschooling. [and now online college]
6. William loves to play on the computer. He loves Roblox, and he creates awesome stick figure movies. He also spends a lot of time watching YouTube reviews of toys he hopes to get. [and these days researching politics, animals, mythology, and many other interests]
7. William is VERY stubborn. If he doesn’t want to do something, he pretty much won’t.
9. William and Lorelei play very well together. She is happy to follow his lead about the kind of games they play.
10. William hates shoes. We just went shoe shopping to replace the battered Crocs he had been wearing for months, and it was agonizing.
William (age 10) hit me with a couple of difficult topics right in a row the other night. This post is part one.
Many parents struggle with how to talk to their children about where babies come from. When I was growing up, I had many friends whose parents completely ignored this essential topic, leaving them to be instructed God only knows by who, how, or when. Lucky for them they got to go to Girl Scout camp with me. No joke, I drew a diagram and labelled female body parts–they had never even been taught the proper names.
I was raised to call things by their right names. And when I was four, and my little sister was on the way, my mother showed me pictures of birth, which fascinated me. I remember getting in trouble for telling a friend how babies got out of stomachs. Her mother had told her they were all cut out (much less rare nowadays, sadly, but not in the early seventies) and she was upset with me for telling her the truth. I remember being puzzled as to why this mother, who was by profession a nurse, would lie about this.
When I was seven, my mother took the occasion of my aunt expecting to read me a book entitled Where Do Babies Come From? It was a simple book with artistic illustrations in soft colors (I hate the cartoony sex ed books that are popular these days). I remember being extremely skeptical and asking her to show me exactly where it really said the part about how babies are made!
I admired my mother’s approach and saw no reason to deviate from it in the raising of my own kids. I wanted them to be informed, and I also wanted them to be comfortable asking us anything. So when Emily was little, I picked up my very own copy of the previously mentioned book at the used bookstore. Then I waited. I had always heard that you shouldn’t give kids more information than they were ready for, and to follow their cues. With two brothers arriving in quick succession, Emily knew plenty about pregnancy at a young age. Finally, when she was seven, she asked me what the daddy had to do with it. Voila, I pulled out the book and read it to her. Then I let her read it again herself.
The hysterical sequel to this was when her Daddy came home, and she was so excited that the first thing she did was to share this information with him, and then demanded that he read her the book as well. He was horrified but hid it well. Then she asked us. “Did YOU do that?”
I don’t have as clear a memory of talking to Jake and Teddy–Jake says that Emily actually told him surreptitiously at some point–but I know I read them that same book, and taught them the right words, and answered all their questions. I recall Jake saying something like, “Well, you must have done it three times, since you have three children.”
This approach was a success with my three big kids. True, occasionally someone would holler, “Penis!” while standing in line at the grocery store. And I have been amazed at some of the questions they asked me, without any embarrassment. But today, they are not shy about saying anything in front of me, which can be disconcerting but is better than the alternative.
So now we come to William. He’s ten–will be eleven in March–so you would think we would have had this talk by now, right? I kept waiting for him to ask me the questions that would start us down the path to the conversation. But here’s the thing about William–besides being extremely innocent for his age (he’s homeschooled and doesn’t have close contact with any other little boys except his cousin) he also doesn’t pick things up unless they concern the topics he is vitally interested in–at the moment, xenomorphs, transformers, Godzilla, and animals. He knows just about everything there is to know about those subjects. I have frequently heard him refer to animals mating, and I wondered what he thought that entailed. I assumed he probably knew a lot–how could he not, in a houseful of teenagers with their computers and movies and uncensored conversations–even though we had never had an official talk.
Because William is so oblivious we often carry on discussions right in front of him and assume he is not paying attention. So the other night John and I were working and I asked a question that involved the very young mother of a client, who was married to a boy who was not the father of our client. William wasn’t even in the office but he heard me and started asking questions. “How could her husband not be her baby’s father?” he asked me. I said, “Well, she was married, but she had a boyfriend at the same time.” He mulled this over for a moment and then said, “People don’t mate like animals, do they? I mean, you just have a baby with someone if you spend a lot of time with them, right?”
I could just feel John cringing at his desk and knew I wasn’t going to have any help in this conversation! I said, “Actually, people do mate.” “How?” said William. Buying time, I asked him, “How do you think animals mate?” “I don’t really know,” he responded. “I know they have to be near each other, and bugs have to actually be touching each other.”
So here’s where I should have been able to reach for my trusty book, right? Oh wait.
Right. The book was in the house. The house that BURNED DOWN. Damn it.
Flying solo, I started with the part about each parent having a seed that will make the baby and that the seeds have to get together. “How?” was the natural next question. So trying to sound completely at ease, I briefly described the process. “Really?” he said. “That sounds disgusting.”
“It sounds strange,” I said. “I didn’t believe it myself when I first heard it. But it’s really not disgusting, it’s nice. It’s something people want to do when they love each other.”
“I still think it sounds disgusting,” he said. Then he turned to John to continue his discussion of the Cloverfield monster.
. . . right about now, actually, I was welcoming my first child into the world.
We knew that Emily’s birth would require a C-section because she was breech. Although my obstetrician was one of the last left in town who would assist at a vaginal breech delivery, he required that one have a “proven pelvis,” and mine, alas, had not yet been tested. (I think we can all now agree that I can win all pelvis competitions.) We wanted her to choose her own birthday, though, and I wanted to experience labor–I had so looked forward to a natural birth!
I woke to signs of labor that morning–it was a Monday. John called in to work. We were so excited! I was scheduled for my regular weekly OB appointment that afternoon, and the doctor agreed that I was in early labor and that he would be happy to schedule the surgery that evening. We didn’t go straight to the hospital, though–I had something I wanted to do first.
After we completed our errand we reported to St. Mary’s Women’s Pavilion, which is probably the best hospital ever. And so, it appears from the pictures, did about half of Knoxville. Emily’s arrival was anticipated with much excitement. Of our friends, we were the first to have a baby. She was the first grandchild on both sides as well. She had four living great-grandmothers and she was the first great-grandchild for three of them. Looking back at the pictures this evening, I believe I counted twelve people who were in the waiting room while we were in the operating room.
Here’s a picture of John, all suited up and ready for the birth. He looks a little nervous. He didn’t know yet how much he was going to enjoy C-sections. (I never grew to share his enthusiasm.)
I remember in the operating room asking when they were going to begin and John saying they had already started. I am not one of these people that cares to watch myself being disemboweled on the operating table. The screen was up. A little tugging was all I felt, but I did suffer some sort of anxiety reaction at some point and had to be restrained as I was attempting to get off the table. I recall John saying, “She’s so small! She’s so tiny! She’s a girl!” He who had hoped for a boy the entire time was instantly smitten. And she wasn’t tiny–at 8 lbs. 14 oz. she was pretty big, although the smallest of our five.
The trip down the hallway to the recovery room was surreal with all the people running out of the waiting room hoping for a glimpse. My father even had my sister Betsy (who was away at college) on the phone giving her a play by play. We had 45 minutes alone to get ourselves together and prepare for the onslaught of admirers. John spent the time calling his family and out of town friends on the phone, and changing Emily’s first diaper (he had said he wasn’t going to change diapers but he could not stand to see her uncomfortable).
I love this next series of pictures because you can really sense the party atmosphere. This first one shows John shaking hands with my father, with my Uncle Charlie looking on.
Mima is in the background just coming into the room.
See in this next one how everyone is arrayed around the bed (which you WILL NOT see because I am in it, looking dreadful) just staring in delight at this wonderful new creature?
From left to right are my cousin Jeffrey, my Aunt Mary Leslie, and my friends Katrice, Kim, and Rico. Granny’s hair is visible behind them! My sister Anne and my cousin Sarah were there too, as was my mother, who must have been taking all the pictures.
Doesn’t it look like a party? That’s because it was! The errand we ran before coming to the hospital was picking up a birthday cake. It was John’s 25th birthday, and right after this picture we cut the cake, while he admired the best birthday present he ever received.
So, I really meant to get back on a regular blogging schedule for the new year, and I was doing pretty well. My last post, however, was January 20, and that’s when I got sidetracked. Because late that evening I became an aunt again! This is Leo. Isn’t he beautiful?
Leo’s parents have other kids at home who wanted their Daddy to stay with them. So guess who got to stay overnight in the hospital to help with the baby? 🙂 I love the hospital and I found the sofabed quite comfy, so I was happy to oblige.
And after Leo came home, of course I have been visiting whenever I can, and that is where my blogging time went. He is the sweetest baby in the world. He never cries. When he is hungry he just tries to put his hands in his mouth. He really is the ideal baby–fits in without disrupting the pattern of the household.
Here is a picture of him with Teddy (who was a little reluctant at first but ended up holding him for quite awhile) and with Lorelei (who wants to hold him every time she sees him–for about three minutes, tops).
The following was one of my last columns for the East Tennessee Catholic. I did a quick check before reprinting it here to make sure that it still accurately reflects the Church’s position on this issue.
Most of the mail attorneys receive is dry and uninteresting, as you might expect. But the brochure I pulled out of my husband’s PO Box one morning last Spring was different—it was eye-catching, all pink and spring green and adorned with butterflies and an adorable baby peeking out from under a blanket.
It was an invitation to a conference in Washington, D.C.: “Emerging Issues in Embryo Donation and Adoption.” Sponsors included the National Embryo Donation Center, Bethany Christian Services, and UT’s Graduate School of Medicine. The sessions looked fascinating, and I was particularly intrigued by one of the speakers, Father Peter F. Ryan, a Jesuit priest with an impressive array of academic credentials, who planned on “Making the Ethical Case for Embryo Donation and Adoption.”
To me it seemed like a perfect solution to the tragedy of the thousands of embryos abandoned to cryopreservation tanks after their parents “completed their families” through assisted reproductive technologies. We Catholics believe embryos are morally equivalent to born children, right? And it’s a moral good to adopt unwanted children, surely? Says the 1987 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instruction Donum Vitae: “The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.”
Our evangelical brethren have embraced embryo adoption. One prominent Christian adoption site has a program trademarked “Snowflakes,” a clever moniker referencing both the current condition of the embryos and their uniqueness. However, reading stories of some non-Catholic couples who have chosen embryo adoption highlights some of our theological differences since evangelicals do not object to IVF.
What is the Catholic Church’s official position?
Donum Vitae was silent on the issue. A 2005 article in the Washington Post, written by Alan Cooperman, said: “[T]he debate over embryo adoptions is just beginning to take shape. ‘There are very few moral issues on which the Catholic Church has not yet taken a position. This is one,’ said Cathy Cleaver Ruse, chief spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.” The article went on to say, “One of the leading voices in the church in favor of embryo adoptions is the Rev. Thomas D. Williams, Dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome. ‘It’s reaching out to another human being, albeit in an embryonic state, in the only way that that little being can be helped.’”
Responding to the many new bioethical issues that have arisen since 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions in September 2008. It addresses the problem of frozen embryos at length: “With regard to the large number of frozen embryos already in existence the question becomes: what to do with them? . . . a grave injustice has been perpetrated . . . The proposal that these embryos could be put at the disposal of infertile couples as a treatment for infertility is not ethically acceptable for the same reasons which make artificial heterologous procreation illicit as well as any form of surrogate motherhood; this practice would also lead to other problems of a medical, psychological and legal nature. It has also been proposed, solely in order to allow human beings to be born who are otherwise condemned to destruction, that there could be a form of ‘prenatal adoption’. This proposal, praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life, presents however various problems not dissimilar to those mentioned above.”
The USCCB’s December press release does not characterize this statement as an absolute ban on embryo adoption by faithful Catholics: “The document does not reject the practice outright but warns of medical, psychological and legal problems associated with it and underscores the moral wrong of producing and freezing embryos in the first place.” The National Catholic Bioethics Center, in an article written by Director of Education Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D, concurs: “There is ongoing debate among reputable Catholic theologians about this matter, and technically it remains an open question. . . . Dignitas Personae expressed serious moral reservations . . . without, however, explicitly condemning it as immoral.”
This is yet another debate that no one saw coming back when the birth of the first test-tube baby was celebrated. The problem of the orphaned embryos underscores the intrinsic immorality of IVF. As Dignitas Personae concludes: “All things considered, it needs to be recognized that the thousands of abandoned embryos represent a situation of injustice which in fact cannot be resolved.”
The column turned out to be eerily topical as only a few months later an unmarried teacher at the Catholic high school my children attend (as did I and my mother) decided to adopt an embryo. She wrote the parents of her students a lengthy explanation of her research into the issue, which included consultation with the Bishop and the Principal of the school. A minor firestorm erupted when one family expressed their disagreement by sending an email to every parent in the school and then withdrawing their children.