Sunday, December 5, 2010

Save the Children?

Excellent post from Patricia J. Williams' Diary of a Mad Law Professor at the Nation:
'Twas well after midnight when I came across some morsels of advice from the Ontario-based website Under the listed advantages of international adoption is the proposition that "it allows adoptive parents to be matched with children that share their ethnic heritage.... It also allows socially conscious couples to bring a child into a much more advantageous and privileged living situation than would be possible in the child's country of birth."

Contrast that with the site's description of domestic adoption: "One major drawback is that there is no guarantee that the child you want will end up being placed with you. Public adoption agencies serve the interests of the child, not the parents, and will always place the child in the situation they feel is best for him or her.... You must also accept that many children waiting to be placed...come from difficult backgrounds and may have been emotionally, psychologically, physically or sexually abused. Developmental delays and medical conditions...[are] a risk you have to assume as a prospective parent of a domestically adopted child."

I spend a good bit of my professional life studying the ethics of adoption, and is hardly alone in its assumptions. There are at least 18.5 million children worldwide who have lost both parents, and their plight is largely shaped by North American parenting preferences. From the rushed airlifts of Vietnamese, Korean and Haitian babies (some who later turn out not to be orphans at all), to the rage for Chinese girls, to Madonna's splendiferous beneficence—popular culture too often interprets international adoption through the lens of a "first world rescues third world innocents" narrative. What's missing from this tidy plot is sensitivity to the social disruptions that render so many children homeless to begin with.

* * *

The plight of homeless children in war-torn or poverty-stricken places is surely heartbreaking. And relatively speaking, children in the industrialized West are many times better off than the average child in Sierra Leone. But let's not confuse "helping" global crises with the individual decision to adopt a child. We have an international crisis of child protection; but that's not something that adoption alone, or even primarily, can fix. It's just not a great idea to adopt a child because you want to end war or cure world hunger. Maybe you should work for an NGO instead or help plow a field. Such efforts are often undervalued, but they contribute significantly to the betterment of dispossessed children.

To posit adoption as "rescue" from turmoil risks inflecting the personal family dynamic with missionary smugness in a way no child should be asked to endure. For example, if you adopt your nephew and raise that child with the message that you are Mother Teresa for having taken him in and that he's ever so lucky to have been rescued from sluttish "Aunt Sally"... Well, it's got to be hard for a kid not to feel ambivalent about the part of himself that is born of Aunt Sally. Similarly, in many international and interracial adoptions, kids are raised to look down on their origins and "feel lucky"—to their documented distress.
"Socially conscious couples?" That's a new and icky way to posit "saving a child" through international adoption.  I'm glad Professor Williams is calling foul on it.


Mei Ling said...

Adoption is about "saving" children.

Children wouldn't be in the system/orphanages if they didn't need to be saved.

Sunday said...

Adopting one child at a time, especially with the current ethical problems related to international adoption it is not an answer to 3rd world child poverty.

It also galls me that private and international adoption supporters seem to be running a thinly veiled campaign against domestic adoption out of the foster care system. Most children being adopted from other countries are also institutionalized, have been through some form of foster care and are prone to the same kind of issues with loss, grief and abandonment suffered by children in the domestic foster care system. It is smoke and mirrors, designed to give prospective adoptive parents a false sense of security and that some how adopting internationally delivers them a superior product.

sharon said...

I thought Prof Williams' piece was awful -- full of tired stereotypes about adoptive parents and short on facts. I wrote my own blog post about it at

But then, I often have a different perspective than many of your readers.

malinda said...

Sharon, I think it's a little hard to accuse her of stereotyping adoptive parents when an adoption agency/adoptive parent support website is ladeling out the tired old trope that adoption is rescue! She's reacting to it by saying that if rescue is your motive, try something OTHER than adoption.

I couldn't agree with her more.

But as always, thanks for sharing your opinion!

Sharon said...

For the record, that website she quoted sounded terrible too -- we can all agree on that.

choose joy said...

Yuck - the whole "rescue" thing really nauseates me, having been adopted from an orphanage (by Americans living and teaching English in my birth country)and repeatedly told I should be grateful to my amazing parents for rescuing me. My parents NEVER communicated that to me and refuted those remarks publicly...and what do you know, I actually ended up GRATEFUL to them. The new rage in adoption blogs though has me really goaded - "the ordinary hero." That's just over the top...If someone DARE call me that to my face for adopting from foster care I might lose it!

windthrow said...

that website is atrocious...doesnt even get any of the facts right with respect to the adoption process in Ontario

Jessica said...


Thanks for making this good point:

"Most children being adopted from other countries are also institutionalized, have been through some form of foster care and are prone to the same kind of issues with loss, grief and abandonment suffered by children in the domestic foster care system."

True words. Children are resilient, but that's different from being indestructible.