Can Buy Me Love?

As an Indian American, the adoption of my daughter from India has been a defining experience in our family’s life. It has brought deep joys and hopes—and a simultaneous sense of sorrow, not only on her behalf, but for our underlying complicity in a world that makes adoptions necessary.

Long before we adopted, I sensed that adopting a child was one of the most ennobling acts humans undertake in their personal and public lives. Nothing seems more important than giving life a chance. However, in my exposure to international adoptions in the U.S., I realized that this presumably sacred and primal tie between adult and child was subject to the same corruptions to which other social relations are vulnerable.

The international availability of children lays bare the axes of power in the forms of choice, entitlement, class, and racial privileges located in the global North and West—and those of the powerlessness stemming from massive economic disadvantage, inhospitable cultural and political environments for women, and the effects of human rights abuses from foreign and civil wars in the global South and East.

It is against this backdrop that international adoption takes place. The number of international adoptions in the U.S. rose from 7,093 in 1990 to 22,728 in 2005. More children are adopted into the United States than into any other nation. This dynamic reinforces patterns of dependence and obscures more complex global relations. The “Third World” stands as a ready reference to mean poverty, squalor, human abuse, and hopelessness. The child is seen as the one in need and the parents are the rescuers. “Saving” a child out of this milieu becomes automatically understood as a sacrificial act. The First World becomes a one-way destination point for children from the global South. There is little effort to understand or affect the local conditions that move people to relinquish their children.

I have been struck by the utmost sincerity and earnestness of parents of international adoptees, but too often they personalize and privatize their choice. They set out to study Spanish or cook Korean food, even as they work hard to mainstream their children. Indeed, “rescuing” a human being is a laudable act, but we must be clear-eyed about the context in which we engage in such action. In the global nexus of power relations, Third World societies stand by as a cafeteria—with its produce and people—for satisfying First World needs. It is time to ask hard questions: What is the connection between the availability of children for our adoption and our trade policies that drive their parents into poverty? How do arms sales to the Third World or drug pricing policies create populations of orphans?

IT IS DIFFICULT to acknowledge that these children provide for some of our deepest human needs at great cost to themselves. The bodies of both the adopted child and parents bear the text of devastating disparities between two worlds. The parents, by sheer membership in Western society, manifest racial, cultural, and national privileges. International adoption assures complete severance from the child’s native family. The avoidance of any claims from birth parents allows for the total displacement of the child, giving her a “global persona.”

Adoptive parents often underestimate the racialized nature of their transaction, especially with the adoption of children who don’t resemble them. Many adoption agencies advertise the prospects of forming a “multicultural family”—placing the cultural value of the parents over the effect on the child. Grand visions of “multicultural” families are further complicated by the influx of Asian and Russian children into the U.S. while African-American children are adopted into Canada and Europe because the U.S. cannot provide a home for them.

Here are some considerations for anyone contemplating adopting a child from abroad: International adoption may exploit family poverty and gender oppression in the global South and East. The interruption of a child’s identification with her racial, ethnic, or national group will have consequences. Many children are made available through abduction, sale, or trafficking. Prevailing trends in international adoption and the construction of the “global child” besmirches an ancient and beautiful response of human beings to protect and provide for the smallest among us.

Ivy George is a professor of sociology at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.

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