Saturday, April 3, 2010

Babies Without Borders

Fascinating interview with Karen Dubinsky, adoptive parent, professor, and author of Babies Without Borders:

The professor recalls the juxtaposition of these starkly different interpretations of international adoption -- kidnap versus rescue -- in her new book, Babies Without Borders, a study of adoption and migration across the Americas.

* * *

"There is a way in which adoption is easier to grasp if you look at it in miniature, the tiny little telescope of the individual case," Ms. Dubinsky said in a telephone interview from her Kingston home this week. "It's usually pretty easy to figure out, and impossible to argue that something good hasn't occurred to the child. If you broaden the lens a little bit and look at the circumstances of the birth mother, that makes it more complicated. And I'm not talking just about stories of babies ripped out of people's arms, I'm talking about the birth mother who makes the ‘voluntary' decision. We all know that is not an easy decision. Nobody gives their kids away if they don't have to."

* * *

Events like the 1990 Romanian orphanage scandal caused applications to skyrocket, wrote Ms. Dubinksy, and fuelled the "transnational politics of pity." Then came low-interest adoption loans, airlines that featured special rates for adoption travel, "culture camps" that taught adopted children their heritage, and Hollywood mothers with foreign babes. And with adoption agencies bearing such names as Heart to Heart Adoption or Children's Hope, trading in "the vulnerability and cuteness of waiting children, always pictured isolated, alone, devoid of parents, communities and nations, and waiting for rescue," says Ms. Dubinsky, it is little wonder that many parents, and advocates, view international adoption as a humanitarian effort, citing poverty, malnutrition and poor child welfare systems in sending countries.

"The fantasy of the global cabbage patch", she calls it, filled with children who need help.
P.S. O Solo Mamma has an original interview with Karen Dubinsky, Babies Without Borders author pleads for less black-and-white thinking in adoption. It expands on some of the issues in the above article -- a must-read!


Anonymous said...

See additional interview at

Mei Ling said...

"If you broaden the lens a little bit and look at the circumstances of the birth mother, that makes it more complicated."

But nobody wants to look at that, because it's not black & white. It's easier to say "she loved you so much she gave you up" instead.

"We all know that is not an easy decision."

Maybe life versus death is an "equal" choice in the perspective of some. But IMO it should NOT be a standard. Why do people feel the need to keep saying "choice" or "decision" when death is not an option?

"Nobody gives their kids away if they don't have to." THIS.

Wendy said...

I agree mostly. However, this statement is just too broad and frankly, not true.
"Nobody gives their kids away if they don't have to."
There is a SMALL percentage that do.

One of the biggest problems is that many AP's, the general public, and the media play to the heartstrings of "savior" types and that mentality by using that small percentage. They also use varying cultures differences (lifestyles, customs, culture) to make the children look as if they need rescue--playing the old (and very discriminatory) 1st world, 2nd world, 3rd world game. Why that terminology has not disappeared is beyond me--I still see it in adoption conversations which is very disturbing.

Mei Ling said...

"There is a SMALL percentage that do."

How small is this percentage? Anyone have statistics?

I know it can't be ignored, because it's a very real fact in some circumstance, but can it really be 'justified' on a platform for the pro-adoption mindset?

Wendy said...

" but can it really be 'justified' on a platform for the pro-adoption mindset?"

No, it cannot be justified to be "pro-adoption" anytime. I don't think anyone should "pro-adoption"--bad terminology. I would call into question anyone who claimed to be pro-adoption--does that mean they are anti- first family or adoption at all costs? Actually, we have seen some radical organizations that do have that mentality as well as calling people to adoption--yes, I am questioning that.

Although there are some first mothers that do not want to parent--and I don't think they should be criticized either for their circumstances are varied--many more do not have the means or support. Adoption ethics should be challenged when it comes to the many that do want to parent and have no choices. There will always be a place for those who do not--look in any phone book or internet ad, there are people waiting. However, forming ethics around those who do want to and cannot (regardless of the reason) is wrong and will continue the demand creating the supply.

Liv said...

I am really struggling with this. Until about two weeks ago, I would have said that using the word "choice" for first mothers who surrendered their children due to poverty, life/death situations, and coercion was not correct. I would have stated that they had no choice, and I would have said that there are other situations where choices are so limited that they cannot said to be a choice at all. The reason I said this was because I saw that people pass moral judgment and easily dismiss those in such situations-- "You chose to give your child up" as a way to pass judgment on original mothers and dismiss them.

After a very difficult conversation with a close friend, I'm now beginning to rethink this stance. I see that there are many, many situations where all a person can do is choose between bad choices. Do we say that those people in all these situations have no choices? Or do we acknowledge that there is still choice even when one has to choose between bad choices and/or life and death choices? Do we say that only people with access to good choices have a choice? Couldn't an ethics of adoption be built around the idea of limited and coerced choices, rather than adoption not being a choice in certain situations? And isn't it perhaps important to do so because there are "pro-adoption" people that say that there is no choice but for women in those situations to give up their children?

I remember in high school I told a friend of mine from India that my mother had to give me up because she was so poor. She responded that that confused her because she saw many mothers in India raise their children in extreme poverty. She was not trying to hurt me by saying this, I could see that she was really struggling with what I had said and hesitated to speak for fear of how what she was saying might effect me.

After finding my first family, I see that while poverty may have been a factor, physical and psychological coercion may have also played a part, too.

As someone who has a lot of compassion for my own first mother and first mothers as a whole, I find it difficult to say she had a choice (even if it was limited and coerced) because I fear people will judge her. But I find it ethically immature that people would do so. And since there are many, many circumstances where people have to choose between bad options, does that mean that many people in the world have no choices? What about my friend who said that she saw mothers in India who kept their children even in extreme poverty? How can I say that was not a real choice if they made the decision to keep their children?

This question of choice is made even more difficult for me because even though I have compassion for first mothers, coming from my side of things, I feel that I could never give my child up. Quite honestly, I'm not even sure that given extreme poverty and coercion that I could do so. Does that make me an incredibly selfish person? Is a woman who does decide to keep her child even when facing extreme poverty and possible death a selfish human being? Again, "pro-adoption" people would have you think so. They would say there is no choice but for the woman to give up her child.

Another thing I struggle with is how does social change come about if people in such situations accept that they have no choice?

This is something I'm really struggling with, and something that I would like to engage in some open and compassionate dialogue about.

Bukimom said...

Liv, I am wrestling with many of the same questions that you are. I, too, see that many people in the world are faced with impossible choices--keep a child when the economic/familial/societal pressures would make life unbearable/impossible to do so, or let a child go when the heart screams how wrong this is.

I have a hard time with people who claim that willing adopters drive the adoption "industry," who don't seem to see the larger picture of what people are really facing. On the other hand, if I am willing and able to provide a loving home to a child whose mother faced those terrible choices and chose relinquishment, does that make me evil? In other words, is my choice bad because my child's birth mother had no good choices?

I see adoption as good, but in a limited way, because it cannot solve the bigger issues. Some people would like to make adopters responsible for those bigger issues, when really it is a collective problem for everyone.

Mei Ling said...

"Or do we acknowledge that there is still choice even when one has to choose between bad choices and/or life and death choices?"

IMO, there is no *freedom* of the choices presented.

Which kind of makes a "choice" in itself a moot point given the circumstance of what we are weighing.

There's a world of difference between someone making a bad choice to start smoking because he grew up in a household of smokers for 18+ years, and a mother who has to "choose" between keeping her child in poverty or letting her child go.

She doesn't want to let her child go, but she doesn't want her child to suffer. Either way she's going to suffer, because if she lets her child go she'll likely suffer heartbreak and she won't have her child. If she keeps her child she'll still suffer poverty.

Liv said...

I think there's a spectrum of reasons and stories for adoption. Sometimes it's not about "no good choices." Sometimes other people do step in and, I believe, change the way the situation would have played out. I do not think my adoption would have happened if someone from the outside hadn't stepped in and "suggested" adoption. I have no reason to believe that I would've ended up in an orphanage. I believe that my mother would've kept me. I was not starving. I may not have received a higher level of education, but I would've have gone to some school. But when that person from the outside came in and began to speak of adoption, that's when I think things really changed. Of course, I don't know everything yet, so it's possible my understanding of the situation may change. Sometimes this happens in cultures that have completely different conceptions of adoption that we do here in the West. They don't even understand adoption in the same way. (Samoa is one example of this, but this seems to be happening in some African countries, too.) And then there are cases where I think adoption contributes to lack of social change. A lot of children who were adopted from Korea were given up because of the lack of social support for single women, just like the Baby Scoop era. International adoption continues in Korea even though the country is trying to increase the birthrate. There is still that much stigma against being a single mom. Those are just a few short examples of the spectrum of possible stories involved in relinquishment.

I don't think providing a loving home to a child makes someone evil. How could that be the case? However, I do think there's more to wanting to adopt than the desire to provide a home to a child; there's the desire to be a parent--a very real and natural desire. There's nothing wrong with that. But there are people out there who do prey on those desires. Profit should not be part of the adoption world. But it is. And that is part of the reason things are problematic. If all adoption stopped tomorrow, would there still be children in need of homes? Yes. But would there be children that would be kept with there families because adoption was no longer an option? Yes. Would all those families be perfect? No. And others would do just fine. I don't think adoption will ever stop, nor am I someone who thinks stopping it will stop all social ills. Adoption has always been around, though in much different forms than it has evolved into in contemporary society. The evolution of adoption into an industry is where the problem lies. I do think adoption, functioning as it does as an industry, and often as an industry that judges women and the poor, is very problematic. Along with this, there's no doubt that we need to provide women and children with education, family planning, and economic resources. And we need more ways to help the children of this world, too.

Not all people who choose to adopt or are thinking about adopting have looked at all these issues or want to. I think it is necessary to for a variety of reasons, one of the most important being that it's a good bet your child will go through this questioning, too. You're doing that, and that's great. I know the discomfort you're feeling from the other side. It isn't easy for me to question all these things. We live in a society that thrives on easy answers. We're not raised with an understanding that complexity need not be shut away, and that in fact welcoming it is probably the best thing we can do to ensure that we are living as fully as possible. I'm really glad there's places today to dialogue this complexity and the opportunity to hear others voices. Thanks Mei Ling & Bukimom for responding. I really appreciate it.