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Adoption process becomes stunt for sweeps month on ABC's '20/20'
Adoption comes to Reality TV
May 01,2004 / Peter Ames Carlin
Untitled Document

    People like babies, and no wonder.

    They're cute, helpless and entirely guileless. They do cunning work with rattles. And if that weren't enough, their survival is a key part of sustaining the human race.

    Thus we do not steal candy from babies. We do not poke them with sticks. Nor do we turn them into prizes on TV reality programs.

    Unless, of course, you happen to be Barbara Walters and her colleagues at ABC's "20/20."

    Dashing headlong into the May sweeps competitions on Friday, Walters and company present a story they call "Be My Baby," an intimate, full-access portrait of one pregnant teenager as she arranges for her baby's adoption.

    Using a process called open adoption, the mother, a 16-year-old named Jessica, must choose her child's adoptive parents from a stack of applications sent to an Ohio adoption agency.

    Ordinarily this would be an intensely private and, one has to think, painful process for a young mother to undertake. But for whatever reasons Jessica decided to let the "20/20" cameras capture everything -- from her interviews with the aspiring parents and her first moments with her baby in the maternity ward to her eventual decision to hand the child to the selected parents.

    Adoption may be the best possible option for Jessica and the baby. And yet it's hard to imagine a more emotionally devastating series of events in anyone's life, let alone a teenager who has yet to reach maturity.

    Still, ABC is hyping the show as "a unique television event" and "an extraordinary competition." Just like a reality show, you might say. ABC isn't saying that, of course. That would be unseemly. Instead, they let one of their subjects, a man hoping to become a father, say it for them.

    "We were joking about the fact that it's like 'The Bachelor,' 'The Bachelorette,' " he said in an interview that is duly reported on ABC's promotional Web site. "You're in or you're out."

    Unsurprisingly, the antic tone of ABC's promotions has aroused no small amount of outrage. The bulletin board on the network's Web site is jammed with angry postings on the subject.

    "I'm completely disgusted," wrote one woman who described herself as the birth mother of an adopted child. "Adoption is an emotional, painful thing, not a GAME SHOW!"

    ABC spokeswoman Allyssa Ziegler Apple said the "20/20" producers stand by the story and, it seems, the ethics of focusing it on a teenaged girl.

    "Everyone agreed to participate," Apple said. " Her parents were all for it."

    All of the subjects let ABC's cameras into their homes six months after most of the shooting had ended in order to shoot where-are-they-now segments, she added.

    *** ABC plans a follow-up special six months later.

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