The following is excerpted from a presentation made at the Adoption Initiative Conference that was held at St. John’s University in New York, October 2012. The theme of the conference was “Race, Religion, and Rescue in Adoption”, and my presentation was entitled: “Islamophobia and Adoption: Who Are the Civilized?”
Before I could speak about the realm of adoption within Islamic cultures and the current goal of opening up Muslim-majority countries to adoption, I felt it necessary to spell out the economic and political context of adoption, and then the mapping of adoption onto greater exploitative practices of capitalism, neo-liberalism, and globalization. This page reflects this first part; I am hoping to eventually publish this as a paper, and then a greater expansion of the whole in book form.
Update: The paper for this presentation was published in the Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless and can be found at my academia.edu web link.
What are the political, economic, and religio-cultural bases of current adoption practice? What are the reasons for the shift of adoption from these practices into one whose primary focus is family creation? The following list is not chronological or sequential, but instead can be seen as containing historical reference points which project forward to and which are reflected by today’s institution of adoption.
This historical overview, based in a political and economic framework, calls into question the very concept of adoption as it is understood today, by equating its practice, industry, and mediation with that of other economically and politically machinated displacements and dispossessions, namely: slavery, trafficking, gentrification, immigration, land occupation, apartheid, and enforced statelessness.
Removing the normalized personal aspect of adoption—chosen, saved, lucky children; salvationist, beneficent, charitable adopters and institutions—allows for a valid discussion of the industry itself, objectively revealed as an afterthought as concerns adoption as a practice of family creation. In this light, the discussion of adoption maps very closely onto those concerning the above-mentioned infringements upon human rights and dignity, and it is with them that adoption must be categorized.
Adopting “orphans”, the by-product of war
The fostering of children as a beneficent act of a warrior nation after the damage that it inflicts becomes a recurrent trope within American mediated history, and includes World Wars I and II, the mediation of Hiroshima, the Korean and Viet Nam Wars, the “dirty wars” of the Caribbean and Latin America, and currently the direct and proxy “wars against terrorism” in South Asia.
- Such adoption provides a focus on living children as a de-emphasis on those killed during warfare; a shift from “spoils of war” to “our children”.
- This adoption represented a “baby scoop–like” projection in the “saving” of illegitimate children fathered by “fallen” foreign women.
- The adoptions were mediated as propaganda beneficial to the warrior nation (Hiroshima and the “moral adoption” of Norman Cousins, Operation Babylift, Harry Truman’s “Cold War” Hungarian orphan transfer, etc.)
- The levels of “adoption” can be mapped onto a spectrum of distance, ranging from sponsoring a child, to hosting a child for a summer camp or providing for surgery or medical care, to outright adoption; all are premised on the moral, ethical, and ultimately economic intervention of a salvationist entity.
Cases in point
Spain, Hungary, Greece, Germany, Austria; Japan, Philippines, China, Korea [pictured], Viet Nam; Nicaragua, Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti; Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon.
Hiring “orphans”, labor use and indentured servitude
The use of the poor, destitute, migratory, and imprisoned as a cheap labor pool is a primary aspect of capitalism, which seeks to maximize derived profit from a working population. The use of orphans within an industrial/agricultural context provides de facto slave labor; it sees its reflection in child labor as a practice premised on the power differential between adults and children, from the days before the concept of “adolescence” became prevalent.
- Indentured servitude has been historically imposed as a way to provide sustenance especially for the fatherless.
- Exported or migratory indentured servitude was a function of colonial powers and the need for labor in far-flung colonies.
- When local apprenticeship required substantial savings, the unknown future of living abroad became a viable alternative.
- Foreign servitude was a last resort after kinship networks, parish poor relief, or familial estate relief; it targeted the poor, and came after all communal efforts failed.
- In later times the traffic of children would be reversed. Rural exodus to metropolitan areas resulted in appropriation of children from foreign territories [pictured] to work the fields of the mother country.
Cases in point
Anglo-American empires; French foreign departments and territories
The image shown here reveals resistance within the French overseas department of Réunion, whence children were taken to work in Creuse, France. It warns: “Young man/woman: Don’t leave your country! No to BUMIDOM (Office for Migration from the Overseas Departments)”.
Adopting scions/heirs to run companies
Still prevalent within Japanese business society [pictured] and to a lesser degree India, this was a means of providing a family with an heir in order to inherit or else carry on business practices (this is Edgar Allan Poe’s story).
- Here the economic basis of the adoption is readily apparent, and therefore this type of “adoption” is not mediated as much as that which relates to family creation.
- All the same, this disturbingly maps onto American cultural tropes such as “L’il Orphan Annie”.
- The overtly economic aspect of it is, it must be stated, rather refreshing.
Cases in point
Removing “orphans” from their indigenous roots
The economic and political basis of dictatorial indoctrination directed toward the “blank slates” of indigenous children in Anglo-Saxon societies is today evidenced in strikingly similar types of “children-gathering”: the semi-adoption of “summer camps” for the very children victimized by imperial forays into countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia, etc.
Similar to this practice is the cultural funding and “brain drain” scholarships from North America and Europe meant to win over “the hearts and minds” of those young people convinced to leave their birth countries. The similarity here is not innocent nor coincidental, and we can see that the displacement and assimilation of immigration and adoption are two different sides of the same imperial coin. The “easily impressionable” are readily given visas for entry.
- The aim of such indoctrination can be seen as a continuation of previous missionary efforts to convert indigenous peoples, in an effort to destroy their culture: “Convert or die”.
- The goal was an eradication of culture, language, history, and memory.
Popular culture emphasizes and glorifies such efforts; recently seen in the movie Australia [pictured], not ironically starring adoption advocates Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.
- Term for this practice: “The Stolen Generation”.
- The current inversion of this practice sees organizations of converted American Indians fighting to end the Indian Child Welfare Act, which was itself set up to protect American Indian culture.
Cases in point
United States, Canada, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Australia
Exporting “orphans” to populate foreign colonies
Primarily used in the population of British colonies, street children were shipped out in an effort populate the lands of the British Empire. “Home Children” [pictured] as a concept goes back to 1869, but has its roots as early as 1619, and the population of the Virginia Colony. The practice was only stopped in the 1970s.
This practice was mimicked locally by the “Orphan Trains” in the United States, for example, which took children from the overpopulated eastern seaboard cities and transferred them to the western United States undergoing “Manifest Destiny”, homesteading, and the establishment of agriculture.
- The notion of institutional care “stunting” children might be seen to have started here.
- This type of trafficking closely mimicked slavery, as children were inspected in a manner similar to slaves on auction blocks. The expression “up for adoption” might very well come from this practice of putting children “up on the block”.
- Children were expected to break completely with their past.
- The private agency responsible for the public good comes into being, shifting the good of the commonweal to private enterprise.
Cases in point
Children’s Friend Society, Children’s Aid Society, The New York Foundling Hospital, Charles Loring Brace
Secreting “orphans” away from their illegitimate origins
The infamous baby-scoop era of the United States and other Anglo-Saxon countries is reflected in this practice whereby the “shame” of a family is hidden and its honor protected by adopting the child of an “illicit” encounter.
- From 1940–1970 upwards of 4 million mothers were forced to relinquish children in the United States, 400,000 in Canada.
- The women who so relinquished were disturbingly referred to as “not-mothers” by psychiatrists, in a pre-cursor to the cultural indifference to original mothers within adoption mythology.
- In its third-world incarnation, emphasis is placed on “protecting the [business] future and reputation” of the father, revealing further the patriarchal economic and political underpinnings of this practice.
Cases in point
United States, Ireland [pictured], Australia, Canada
Using “orphans” to project imperial power
The act of adoption is thus a crucible of the culture’s view of humanity, namely, a seen-as infinite population of “wretched refuse” awaiting salvation from an exceptionalist nation. That adoption so clearly fits into this imperial mythology is witnessed by its exaltation within every part of the empire’s power structure. The legal, governmental, social, cultural, medical, religious, and mediated realms all assume adoption as the status quo, and all adapt themselves to facilitate and justify its predominant use at the expense of all other prevailing notions of legality, common law, rights, morality, and ethics.
- The mediation of orphans after catastrophic events and the desire to adopt them was part of the “middlebrow imagination” that fed off of American exceptionalism.
- This provided a “sentimental” cover to the economic and political predation of a post-colonial Asia.
- It reared its unwelcome head after the earthquake in Japan, a pillar of the global capitalist economy; it resulted in the outright kidnapping of children from Haiti, less able to defend itself against such predation.
- As such, adoption can be seen as an invasive “first step”; the avant-garde of humanitarian imperialism.
- The nationalistic/fascistic sense of being “paternal” to lesser countries was thus echoed in the family structure in which the children of these places were literally “taken in/under the wing” against their will.
- The advocates for this worldview became famous for their mediation of such a view; this remains a primary motivator for adoption today.
Cases in point
Harry Holt, Pearl S. Buck [pictured], Reece’s Rainbow
Socially constructing “orphans” as perfectable citizens
Beyond all of the pseudo- and proto-adoption practices described so far, the ability to purchase children goes back to the early part of last century, and remains the logical conclusion of the mythologized underpinnings of adoption.
Nationalist and fascist nations also saw the adoption of children from undesirable populations as a valid way to increase the amount of “desirable” children in the country, or else as a means to cleanse the country of the politically or economically undesirable.
- The Spence Agency in New York City was part of a growing industry of professional nurseries (derogatorily referred to as “baby farms”) that supplied the well-to-do.
- The recent scandals in Spain and Argentina reflect the practice under fascist regimes that saw Church complicity in providing children to wealthy families.
- The sale of children from Quebec to rich families in New York reveals not an aberration, but simply an informalized aspect of what was being performed “legally”.
- An estimated 20,000 children—12,000 in Norway and 8,000 in Germany—were born through the “Lebensborn” program, or were kidnapped by German soldiers and placed with Nazi families. Again, fascistic governments practice in the open what “democratic” societies need formalize and obfuscate.
Cases in point
Argentina; Spain; Canada; United States; Germany [pictured], Norway, Ukraine.
Governments in the mid 20th century viewed Aboriginal people as “child-like creatures in constant need of the paternal care of the government. With guidance, they would gradually abandon their superstitious beliefs and barbaric behaviour and adopt civilization”. —E. B. Titley
Throughout the 1850s, the annual reports of the Children’s Aid Society described its clients as “[falling] short of being fully human … ascribing a feral or beastly nature to the poor”. —Bruce Bellingham
“[They are] ‘street Arabs’ from the ‘dangerous classes’ ” —Charles Loring Brace describing foundling children in New York City.
“It can be viewed as the ultimate in the kind of exploitation inherent in every adoption, namely the taking by the rich and powerful of the children born to the poor and powerless.” —Elizabeth Bartholet
It was necessary to correct a history that was mythologized and which did not reflect the actual experiences of certain groups of people— indigenous people and women. This colonial aspect of the history intersects with the changing roles of women and alteration in popular conceptions of race. —Lisa Slomon Moll
In reviewing the economic, political, and cultural incentives that undergird adoption as a practice, and examining the needs of globalizing capitalism that these map onto, we fundamentally shift the debate concerning adoption away from the usual arguments that center on family building. Furthermore, we expand this notion of family from a strict binary to a spectrum of caregivers; from a nuclear family to a community; this reflects more closely the family structures of source over procuring class.
The main obstacle to adoption reform remains adoptive parents who likewise believe in the mythologies ascribing them free will, ultimate agency, and supreme control of the family unit. Breaking through this mythology reveals them to be willing or unwilling pawns in an imperial project that is challenged more and more by the countries and populations whence the children temporarily in their care originate.
The secondary obstacle to adoption reform is found in adoptees who have bought into the class status afforded them by their adoption. Even among those who might preach a reformist viewpoint, the mere fact of holding on to such a class status remains an unresolvable discrepancy; an unlivable “knife’s edge” between two worlds separated not only by geography and race (often) but also by class. We might call this simply drinking a different flavor of Kool-Aid.
And so there is a choice to make here for those with the actual will and power to change things: Continue this masquerade, or join with grassroots efforts calling for justice from below. The arguments we make cannot assume that those with the ability and voice to make them are the only ones who matter in this equation; we need move beyond our “Facebook Reality”. A huge percentage of those who make up the population of those “touched” by adoption have no access to this discussion, and thus no [recognized] Voice allowed them.
All the same, their historical resistance to adoption can no longer be ignored. This call to arms requires us to join hands with them. Not just with the class/race-similar, such as in the case of Baby Victoria, but with those outside of our “comfort zones”: the Guatemalan mother fighting for her child in Missouri; the mothers in Central America suing to repatriate their kidnapped children; the Russian mothers devastated by the murder of their children Stateside; the women who make up the underclass of this society preyed upon by so-called religious and evangelical organizations.
For we are not really just talking about adoption, but also about the various displacements and dispossessions of which adoption unfortunately forms just one category. Breaking with one’s class identity thus reveals the world of those who similarly, for economic and political reasons, have been removed from their place, dispossessed from their family, and who are equally left longing for Return. The time has come to seek and find Home, for one and for all.
Bibliography/references for this presentation
Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives
Après l’empire; Gallimard; Emmanuel Todd
Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination; Christina Klein
Empires of Capital; Ellen Meiksins Wood
International Adoption Diane Marre and Laura Briggs
Racisme: entre exclusion sociale et peur identitaire; Alternatives Sud
Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare; Dorothy Roberts
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade; Ann Fessler
The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State; Frederick Engels
France’s lost children fight back; Hugh Schofield, BBC. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/1818995.stm
Stolen Children: Investigating Forced Removal of Babies & Infants; Chris Crowstaff, Thomspon Reuters Foundation. http://www.trust.org/item/?map=stolen-children-investigating-forced-removal-of-babies-infants
“Fatherless and Friendless: Factors Influencing the Flow of English Emigrant Servants”; Farley Grubb, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 52, No. 1 (Mar., 1992), pp. 85-108
“Little Wanderers: A Socio-Historical Study of the Nineteenth Century Origins of Child Fostering and Adoption Reform, Based on Early Records of the New York Children’s Aid Society.” Bellingham, Bruce (1984) Ph.D. diss., Dept. of Sociology, Univ. of Pennsylvania.
“A Narrow Vision: Duncan Campbell Scott and the Administration of Indian Affairs in Canada.” Titley, E. B. (1992) Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
“Adoptive Expectations: Rising Sons in Japanese Family Firms”; Vikas Mehrotra, Randall Morck, Jungwook Shim, Yupana Wiwattanakantang; 2011 http://www.nber.org/papers/w16874
“Native Children and the Child Welfare System”, Patrick Johnson
“Western Colonization as Disease: Native Adoption & Cultural Genocide”; Wesley Crichlow
“The Paradoxical Rationalization of Adoption”; Ellen Herman, Journal of Social History, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Winter, 2002), pp. 339-385
“Intercountry Adoption as a Migratory Practice”; Kirsten Lovelock, International Migration Review
The Orphan Trains, PBS
Adopted or Abducted; Dan Rather Reports
Gone To A Good Home; ABC, Australia