On April 24, 1993, I legally adopted my daughter in Asuncion, Paraguay. I will never forget that day. I was a complete nervous wreck. Our adoption was being expedited because the first free elections in decades were to be held that spring, following the 35-year rule of the dictator Alfredo Stroessner, who was ousted in a military coup in 1989. There was much uncertainty as to whether the election would even take place, and concern that another military coup might prevent it. Tanks were in the street, and there was a sense that the country might well fall in to a civil war.
Against this background, adopting a baby might have seemed like a small issue. But in fact, all the opposition parties agreed on one thing: they would quickly stop all adoption to the United States, and indeed, in 1995, a law was passed to suspend adoptions from Paraguay until there had been a complete overhaul of adoption procedures.
I will never forget — having always considered myself a progressive person — the night my hotel was surrounded by demonstrators protesting against us for stealing Paraguayan children. I was staying in a hotel whose guests were exclusively United States citizens adopting Paraguayan children. I tried to comfort myself by remembering how scrupulous I had been in working with my Paraguayan lawyer to follow all the rules and procedures that were to govern adoption under the old regime. But of course, the old regime was a dictatorship, and completely corrupt. So how could we really be sure that we had not fallen into a corrupt situation, one in which the children being adopted had not been given up willingly by their families, or at the very worst stolen and trafficked?
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As an adoptive mother, I have had to think about my own responsibilities towards an adopted child from Paraguay, who, by all signs at the time, would not have survived if I had not adopted her. The way I think of it now is that my own action was what the literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called an “enabling violation.” I enabled my daughter’s life by adopting her, but in another sense it was a violation for my daughter, who was uprooted from her home, her language and her country of birth. I may have violated the people of Paraguay by participating in an adoption process that the vast majority of Paraguayans deeply disapproved of and ultimately sought to end. I have of course tried to make sure that my daughter always knew the story, not only of her adoption, but of what I could gather of her birth mother’s decision. But I will never feel at ease until my daughter and I visit her birth mother and hear it directly from her.
There is no easy way in which the adopted child’s imaginary domain can be facilitated, although dual citizenship seems to be a minimum guarantee to adopted children, so that they can return to their country of birth if they so desire. Ultimately, international adoption is profoundly implicated in relations of inequality that cannot be addressed on the basis of one family alone. Perhaps, then, if we at least recognize international adoption as an enabling violation, we can avoid the worst kinds of self-righteous humanitarianism, and find ourselves pointed towards a struggle for a more just world.
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