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Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America

By Adam Pertman; 256 pp. Boulder, Colorado: Basic Books. $25.00.

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Adam Pertman’s new book, Adoption Nation: How the Adoption Revolution Is Transforming America, is a sound description of the state of adoption practice in the United States today. Pertman blends discussions of federal laws and the open-records controversy with overviews of the impact of adoption on adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents.

Pertman is a longtime reporter and editor for the Boston Globe, as well as an adoptive parent. His book began as a series in the Globe. However, what works well as a newspaper series does not necessarily work as well in a book. Pertman describes the market forces shaping adoption, the political aspects of adoption controversies, and the history of adoption in this country, as well as its impact on the people involved. In so doing, he takes a newspaper reporter’s approach—skimming the surface, touching on all sides of an issue, and humanizing the issue with personal dramas. One topic quickly follows the next, without any of them being explored in the depth necessary to challenge deeply held beliefs.

The reason it is so difficult to get agreement on adoption policies and practices is not simply because everyone—adoptive parents, birthparents, adoptees, and adoption facilitators—is out there protecting his or her own interests. It’s because the issues are so complex and the nuances so subtle that what makes sense in one context is appalling when applied to another context. For instance, Pertman outlines the dilemma of birthfathers’ rights, but doesn’t contribute any ideas for the resolution of this thorny dilemma. How can we acknowledge the importance of a birthfather taking responsibility for an untimely pregnancy when to do so would conflict with the birthmother’s choice? Pertman points out some of the subtle issues like this one, but he glosses over them on his way to the next topic.

Perhaps analysis was not his intent, but if not, then what was the purpose of the book? The impact of adoption on members of the triad, as well as the compelling arguments for more compassionate adoption practices, have been addressed elsewhere, by authors such as Lynn Franklin, Jim Gritter, and L. Anne Babb. While Pertman’s book is quite comprehensive, the merit of trading depth for breadth is arguable.

The question, then, becomes how well Pertman does with this comprehensive overview, and the answer is that he is indeed a good reporter. He has a grasp of the issues and is able to describe them accurately and sparingly tersely. He selects dramatic stories to illuminate the issues without resorting to sensationalism. His point of view is enlightened and progressive.

However, Pertman doesn’t resolve the dilemma of how to adequately present the inadequacies of adoption practice without leaving the impression that the institution itself is fraught with difficulties. To avoid condemning adoption, Pertman sometimes implies that nothing need be done to address the flaws. “These are serious problems,” he seems to say, “but they don’t happen very often.”

Pertman’s book is a useful addition to the literature of adoption because it is current and comprehensive, but one is left wishing it were a bit more potent.

Lois Ruskai Melina is the author of Raising Adopted Children and co-author of The Open Adoption Experience. 

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