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Pet Sins November 2005

Adoptive families and biological families - stereotypes of 'bad seed'

K had a pattern of expressing anti-adoption bias in his speech. A typical example: he once had a conversation someone called M, who came from a different country. The discussion topic somehow drifted to adoption. M said that in the region of the world where he came from, adoption was quite common. M had many relatives adopted out of the family, and as many adopted into the family. K's response was "Doesn't widespread adoption reduce the genetic quality of the population?"

Why would K come to such a conclusion? The stereotypes he held are unfortunately, common ideas prevalent in many societies. He perceived that biological parents who give up their children for adoption must have gotten themselves into this situation through poor impulse control (inability to say no to unprotected sex outside of wedlock) or deficiency of intelligence (inability to perceive the consequences of having a child without the necessary support systems, be it a stable marriage or sufficient funds) or just a general lack of ability to succeed in life (inability to support a child once the child is born, due to lack of education, lack of a good job, etc). Since he strongly believed intelligence, mental illness, personality disorders - all factors that influence adult behavior - are genetically determined, biological parents of adopted children were, in his opinion, a naturally inferior bunch and their 'inferior' genes and 'bad behavior' will be passed on their children.

He went on to mention *one* foreign news story about how an adopted son joyfully murdered his supposedly loving, devoted adoptive mother to get money to buy drugs."Bad genes" and "a natural lack of affection for a non-biological parent" were the causes, he believed. Unfortunately, K is not alone in his bias. The stereotype of 'bad genes' in adoptees goes back a long way and exists in various cultures. A well-known example is the fictional character Benedetto from the world-famous novel "The Count of Monte Cristo". The illegitimate son of the villainous Royal Prosecutor Villefort and materialistic, unscrupulous Madame Danglars, the infant Benedetto was abandoned by Villefort but rescued by someone almost immediately and given into the care of a doting, gentle adoptive mother. However, none of her good qualities rubbed off on him. The spoiled Benedetto grew up to reflect the treacherous character of his birth parents, robbing his mother and indirectly causing her death.

There are scientific studies that show a certain degree of genetic inheritability of behaviors such as depressive disorders, ADHD, and anti-social personality disorders. But whether or not parents who give up their children have a higher rate of 'negative' behaviors and whether or not adoptees have a higher rate of undesirable behavior is not the point of this article. Better-informed academics can debate it elsewhere. The purpose of this article is to take a look at the double standards that we as a society apply to adoptees, by examining why K's statements more accurately reflect his deep-seated prejudice than the reality of adoptive families:

  1. Firstly, K's assumption that adopted children came from a different (supposedly inferior) stock compared to biological children was quite clearly not applicable in the case of M's country. M came from a place where open adoptions between friends and relatives were not uncommon. In some cases, one biological parent and one adoptive parent were actually siblings, or parent and child. In that culture, the birth parents and adoptive child often shared the same genetic and social background with the adoptive parents. Sometimes, biological parents had more children than they could afford, and made arrangements for some of their offspring to find other homes within the community or extended family. In other cases, a childless couple may make a request of friends or relatives with multiple children to give them one of their offspring. All of the adoptees that M encountered in his home country were born to married couples. They did not fit K's stereotype of "child born out of wedlock". They were aware of who their birth parents were, and in most cases, the two families were in regular contact. But K, knowing nothing about social conditions in M's country, immediately jumped to his own conclusions.
  2. K has repeatedly cautioned others against adoption, referring to studies involving adoptees that purportedly indicated that nature triumphs over nurture, that 'bad genes' stands a high chance of overcoming adoptive parents' love and care. But the time came when K decided to have his own biological child by looking for an egg donor willing to co-parent. All of a sudden, the concern for 'bad genes' and 'inheritable negative behaviors' gets thrown out of the window. One of the candidates he propositioned to be an egg donor was B. K already knew that B had some chronic mental health issues. B had apparently inherited Asperger's Syndrome with individuals going back 3 generations of one side her family exhibiting symptoms. From the other side of her family, she inherited a violent temper, also evidenced through three generations, even in relatives whom she had never met. It should be said, however, that none of her bad-tempered relatives had run afoul of the law, probably due to being in a community with strict social values, and the support/social censure of extended family.

    B was not a public danger, but her lack of ability to understand social cues and navigate social environments, combined with her natural temper had created lifelong difficulties. Although B had learnt to cope with her limitations to some degree, made good, trusted friends, appeared to be socially functional and led a productively-employed life, she did not want to pass on the same genetic burden to another generation. She turned down K's request, being frank about her genetic heritage, which also included a list of physical diseases, but he repeatedly tried to change her mind. "Even with genetic predisposition, nurture can overcome nature!" K said. That is the very opposite of what he said about adoptive children. He would give his biological offspring the benefit of the doubt, even if the biological mother was a proven case of what some people would call 'bad genes', but he would not extend the same benefit of the doubt to an adopted child.

    In the end, K failed to change B's mind, so he found another egg donor, C, who was an unwed mother in her earlier life. C has since married someone other than the father of her first child, had more children within marriage, and divorced because of a unilateral decision she undertook despite her spouse's concerns. By M's own admission, his chosen egg donor had 'impulse control' issues, though perhaps not of a serious or gravely anti-social nature. The only difference between C and the biological mothers of adoptive children whom M strongly believes to be 'genetically inferior' is that C didn't need to give up her first child for adoption.

    This post is not intended to denigrate B and C, who are both decent humans. No matter how good (or bad) the circumstances of our birth, we are all imperfect, we all make mistakes, and we all have the capacity to learn from them and grow over time. B, a successful college educated professional, was clearly able to learn to control her worst impulses and not engage in overtly anti-social behavior. C, although once an unwed teen mother, is not any more impulsive than anyone who ever had unprotected sex but who were more fortunate and did not suffer consequences. And many, many other humans, even otherwise responsible adults, have similar temporary lapses in judgment. Society usually does not judge them harshly. The point is, had B and C been the birth mothers of adopted children, K would have viewed their common human flaws very differently, and used those very same flaws he chose to ignore in his potential egg donors as a reason to say adoption is a risky road because of the inheritable behaviors of the "messed up" biological parents.

As a society, we close an eye to the imperfections of what we consider to be 'normal' families, i.e. children raised by biological parents, while seeing the same flaws many times magnified in what we consider to be 'abnormal' families, i.e. children raised by non-biological parents. Sure we can argue about statistics that show adoptees are n times more likely than biological children to be [insert negative phenomenon]. That's not the point. The point is, even with all factors being equal between two families - one adoptive, one biological - it still appears that many people judge the adoptive family by a different, harsher standard.