NEW YORK — In most aspects of life, we have some sense of where the lines are, even if we decide to cross them. So comedians tell racist jokes, magazines publish sexist stories, and TV programs offer increasingly unsettling glimpses into just how far human beings will go to make a buck or get their 15 minutes of fame. The purveyors of such off-color fare invariably understand that they're pushing the limits, that they'll make some people cringe and others angry.
The producers of an upcoming Fox special, "Who's Your Daddy?" apparently didn't have a clue that they had wandered so far beyond the line that it was no longer in sight. But it would be hard to exaggerate the level of near-uniform disgust and outrage they have engendered within the diverse segments of the adoption community - a potential audience of tens of millions whom the show's creators presumably had hoped they would attract with their oh-so-clever concept.
In the program, scheduled to air Jan. 3, a woman adopted as an infant interviews eight men to determine which is her biological father. If she guesses right, she receives $100,000; if she fails, the contestant who fools her wins the money.
The very idea is perverse and offensive. By turning adoption reunions into a game show, "Who's Your Daddy?" takes an intensely personal and complex situation - and an increasingly commonplace one - and transforms it into a voyeuristic display. This manufactured reality inevitably alters the interpersonal dynamic for those involved and fails to take into account the emotional consequences for them; both experience and research tell us this isn't a formula for long-term success.
Moreover, the program exploits the adopted person and her biological father, even though they reportedly were willing participants. Think about how we'd react if some other aspect of one's being, such as race or gender, was being similarly trivialized; would the presentation be any less racist or sexist simply because the person volunteered to be used?
The list of offenses goes on and on, from the show's ignoring of the "real" parents who raise their adopted children, to the introduction of money and deliberate deception into the mix - which not only taints the process and raises questions about the participants' motives, but also adds two elements that have hurt adoption in other ways for far too long.
It's easy to understand why the media repeatedly focus on adoption. After all, its dramatic tales date back to Moses and have captured the imagination for millenniums.
Well told, such stories help explain the complexity of adoption, accelerate its integration into the mainstream, and provide insights into core human issues - that nearly everyone wants to know from where - and from whom - they come, for instance, and that few people can create a life and then pretend it never happened. Or the stories can alienate people, undermine them, and perpetuate the stereotype that adoption is a sideshow rather than the normal part of everyday life that it is, in fact, for so many Americans.
Adoption's history is full of secrecy, and that has made it tough to learn enough about it or to create constructive practices relating to it. That's a big reason too many inaccurate stories about adoption are told, and it's the major reason "Who's Your Daddy?" exists.
Armed with greater knowledge, lawmakers would lower the ridiculous hurdles that currently block the way of adults who want to find each other - as many adopted people and birth parents clearly do - and then they would not need to humiliate themselves. And, armed with greater knowledge, maybe even reality television producers would discover there are lines they should not cross.
• Adam Pertman is the executive director and Hollee McGinnis is the policy director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Pertman also is author of the book 'Adoption Nation.'