India vs. Mother Teresa’s Orphanages

A decision by the Missionaries of Charity, the Roman Catholic order founded by Mother Teresa, to shut down 13 of its 16 adoption services across India rather than adhere to new government rules that allow single parents to adopt has kicked off wider debate over the country’s adoption practices as a whole and the order’s in particular.

Social activists fear that in the battle between the Catholic order and the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development ministry, which has argued that the agencies should stay open, the victims will be thousands of hapless destitute Indian children who will be denied the warmth and care of a good home. There are 20 million destitute children in India. According to the Central Adoption Resource Authority of India, only 0.04 percent of abandoned children in India are adopted through officially recognized agencies.

The “Guidelines Governing Adoption of Children, 2015” were issued by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development in July, allowing single parents (separated, divorced, unwed mothers) eligible to adopt through online registration. "Any prospective adoptive parent, irrespective of his marital status and whether or not he has his own biological son or daughter, can adopt a child," the guidelines state.

The Missionaries of Charity has long been under fire for steering adoptions mostly to Catholic families. Despite being selected for sainthood shortly after she died in 1997, both Mother Teresa and the order she founded have come under considerable international criticism. She was sometimes accused of trying to convert the poor by stealth. The late atheist writer Christopher Hitchens was so indignant that he wrote an entire book about her, titled “The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice” describing her organization as a cult that promoted suffering and didn’t help those in need. Hitchens quoted her words on poverty in a 1981 press conference as proving her intention was not to help people. She was asked: "Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?" She replied: "I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.”

"The new guidelines hurt our conscience,” the nun in charge of the Missionaries’ home in North Delhi told local reporters. “They are certainly not for religious people like us. ... What if the single parent who we give our baby [to] turns out to be gay or lesbian? What security or moral upbringing will these children get? Our rules only allow married couples to adopt."

The adoption process is now online and centralized under the Central Adoption Resource Authority. It has also made it mandatory for all prospective parents to register with the national adoption agency. Previously, adoption agencies and homes across the country followed their own adoption rules which made it harder for some parents to adopt because there was no national monitoring mechanism.

Analysts acknowledge that the absence of national monitoring of adoption procedures – till the new tenets were formalized—sustained a thriving black market ecosystem for adoption, child trafficking and child abuse. Lack of specialized adoption resource centers in states only made things worse.

"The old rules also hampered scaling up adoptions. As a result, last year, CARA could place only 4,362 children for adoption," said an official at Palna, New Delhi's oldest state adoption center. For a country with nearly 700 districts, there are just 278 officially recognized adoption agencies including those closed by the Missionaries of Charity.

The ministry's target of 20,000 adoptions per year under the new norms will involve easing bureaucratic bottlenecks to adoptions, bringing more child care institutions under the CARA’s ambit, and curbing child trafficking.

"The new adoption norms allow single men and women to become adoptive parents, and this has offended the Catholic missionaries’ religious sensibilities," said Pratibha Khetrapal, a senior volunteer at Save The Children, a pan-India non-profit. "The Roman Catholic Church and its affiliated congregational orders consider marriage as one of seven sacraments."

Adding fuel to the fire was Maneka Gandhi, the Minister of Women and Child Development, who said the order’s move reeks of cultural bias. "They have cited ideological issues with our adoption guidelines related to giving a child up for adoption to single, unwed mothers. They have their own agenda and now when they have to come under a unified secular agenda, they are refusing it," she said.

Public opinion, however, is splintered. While critics feel that by winding up its adoption centers the order is prioritizing religious orthodoxy over humanitarian work and straying from its stated purpose, its supporters think otherwise. The latter believe that the organization is not against the right of single people to adopt but is putting the needs of married and childless couples first, which is appropriate in a society marked by diversity.

Indian legal professionals say that although Gandhi is entitled to her view, as a minister she has no right to force the order to continue with its adoption services. "It was the MoC's choice to discontinue with their services and nobody can pressure them to continue with their philanthropic work, " said High Court lawyer Aarti Jagmohan. "Having said that, an agency also cannot give precedence to religion over national laws or guidelines."

The MOC's discontinuation of its services has also disappointed scores of prospective parents – Indians as well as foreigners who flock to the country to leverage the charity's relatively seamless method to help them become parents.

One such couple is Geoffrey and Jessica Nash, 46 and 43 respectively, from the state of Oregon in US, who said they were looking forward to adopting a baby girl from the order this year, but have instead come in for huge disappointment.

"We tried adopting in India in 2005 through government channels. But it took us months just to complete the paperwork. We had to grease palms at every level. Ultimately, we were so disenchanted that we left the process midway. However, a friend had a good experience adopting through MOC, so it gave us hope. But now our hopes are dashed again."

Experts say that with abysmal adoption rates, the government should do everything in its power to ensure that more interested parents are able to adopt. Instead, it seems to be narrowing its choices. In 2013, the then government issued guidelines denying gay men and couples who travelled to the country to adopt. When the NDA government came to power last year, the hope for any reform in this regard was dashed due to its regressive politics.

Further, as Vikram Johri wrote in an article in The News Laundry, the order’s argument can be exploited by right-wing groups to strip the LGBT community of their already negligible rights. "The organization has sought to frame its argument as a necessity for the protection of to-be-adopted children, and has thus played into vicious stereotypes that portray gays as incapable of being responsible adults, or worse, pedophiles," Johri said.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel