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Commentary

Grace Poe and our prejudice against the ‘ampon’

“Ampon din lang ako,” declares Vice President Jejomar Binay. But he is referring to a situation that is rather different from that of Senator Grace Poe.

Binay’s biography indicates that he was orphaned at the age of 9, and it was then that he began to live with his uncle, Ponciano Binay. Was Jejomar legally adopted by Ponciano? Or was he succorred by Ponciano without a formal process of adoption? What is clear, however, is that Jejomar Binay knows the full identity of his biological parents: Diego Medrano Binay from Bauan, Batangas, and Lourdes Gatan Cabauatan from Cabagan, Isabela. He grew up knowing them.

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On the part of Grace Poe, however, the search for the identity of her biological parents has not reached a conclusive answer.

As these two cases indicate, “ampon” has more than one meaning. An orphaned child, even if already quite grown, will not have the means to provide for his or her physical needs and is thus brought under the care of a guardian. This “bringing under the care” is known as “pag-aampon.” There is often no legal procedure for this type of adoption. But what generally prevails is a sense of kinship obligation, which is why the guardian is usually a relative. The guardian extends parental care to the child, and a parent-child relationship evolves, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

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For a complex set of reasons, a mother or both parents may decide that they cannot raise a child. Sometimes the child, in almost all cases an infant, is passed on informally to another couple. Or it may happen that the infant is handed over to a trusted institution, such as an orphanage, or to the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

The child is considered a foundling, an unhappy word that says the child has been deserted or abandoned and is of unknown parentage. Our Westernized legal system uses this definition of a foundling. In reality, the parent or parents undergo an emotionally tortuous process of “giving up” a child that ends not in willful abandonment, but in the steely resolve that the child will be better off in the care of someone else.

There are many different stories of how a couple (with or without children) meets the child, whom they decide to take under their wings. The couple that accepts the responsibility for raising the child engages in a process of “pag-aampon,” and a parent-child relationship develops, with varying levels of success as in any family.

What differentiates the child who is “given up” for adoption from the grown child who is transferred to the care of a guardian? It is the birth certificate, which carries the name of the adoptive parents. There are variations in the legal process that leads to this outcome. But they all involve the participation of the DSWD, which represents the child and the biological parents; a family practice lawyer, who represents the prospective adoptive parents; and the Family Court, which hears the case and issues the adoption decree. This ruling leads to the birth certificate issued by the National Statistics Office.

The adoptive parents become the legal parents of the child. They are “true” parents (“tunay na magulang”), in the legal sense and in the sociological reality of extending the full range of parental care to the child, who in turn recognizes their parenthood. Because the adoptive parents are true parents sociologically speaking, they need to be distinguished from the birth or biological parents. In a sense, the child has two sets of parents, both of whom are true.

In countless cases, however, the birth of the adopted child is “simulated” to produce the birth certificate, as the adoption did not undergo the prescribed legal process. It is as if the adoptive parents were the biological parents, and no adoption had ever taken place. This is done to conceal the truth.

But why conceal the truth? Because as a society we have looked down on the ampon. (Many parents, too, shy away from the possible shame of infertility.)

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The usual depiction in popular culture is of the ampon as a problematic child—forgetting that biological children living with biological parents can result in unwholesome or even disastrous relationships, while genuine and meaningful parent-child relationships develop in adoptive families.

There is nothing magically “natural” about parent-child relationships because kinship—cultures of relatedness—requires work. Deep and lasting relationships do not simply happen. Working on kinship ties entails not just providing for material needs, but also, more importantly, talking to and understanding each other. It involves tutoring and mentoring not just for classroom subjects, but also and more especially for living life as an adult: the moral upbringing and the broad socialization process of the child. It requires disciplining and being disciplined. It demands various forms of sacrifice on the part of both parent and child. What has now become a buzzword, “bonding,” suggests that one sets aside precious time to nurture relationships in the family, for bonding does not come naturally.

The societal prejudice against the ampon, however, is pervasive and needs to be confronted. The case of Grace Poe compels us to look at ourselves in the mirror. When we consider her case, our stereotypes about the ampon melt into air.

Yet the bias will not go away so easily. Many avoid using the Tagalog word ampon and would rather use the English “adopted,” to circumvent the connotations in Tagalog. But this route merely sidesteps the issue.

Implicitly acceding to the social prejudice is the Vice President’s use of the word “lang” (“only”)—“Ampon din lang ako”—as though the adopted child is an inferior being, a second-class citizen. As though there is a gold standard and the ampon falls short of it.

Our social prejudice ultimately explains the legal argument that a foundling is stateless and not a natural-born Filipino. This bias leads to the interpretation of the law that negates the rights of the adopted child, purportedly on the ground that the “real” parents are unknown, as if parenthood is reducible to biology and as though the judicial process of adoption never happened.

It is interesting that even Senator Poe has not stated that she is a natural-born Filipino, pure and simple, because of the Filipino citizenship of her parents, Fernando Poe Jr. and Susan Roces, to end any doubts about her nationality.

Shouldn’t legal adoption confer not only civil legitimacy but also natural-born citizenship? This is consistent with the spirit of the law as well as with international norms and practice. Why is it controversial in the Philippines? Should politics trump our humanity?

It is high time that we, as a nation, discard this social prejudice and accept an adopted child as equal to any other child to whom God has given life and dignity.

Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr. and Benjamin T. Tolosa Jr. are faculty members of the School of Social Sciences of the Ateneo de Manila University. They are proud adoptive fathers.

A shorter version of this Commentary appears in the June 9, 2015 print edition.

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TAGS: Grace Poe, Jejomar Binay, politics
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