The Adoption Controversy, Part 1

 By Ellen Herman for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on September 21, 2009

Even casual observers of adoption can see that children are subject to supply and demand. Why else would affluent prospective parents be willing to pay incredible amounts of money for healthy newborns, whether from the county next door or from a country on the other side of the world? Why else would states, struggling to find permanent homes for children who have grown up in foster care, offer subsidies and other monetary incentives to adopt children with “special needs”?

The adoption market has been around for a long time, and so has our discomfort with it. Slavery, indentured servitude, and child labor are just a few of the historical legacies that echo in today’s debates about adoption alongside humanitarianism and the desire to rescue those members of our society who are considered at once most innocent and most vulnerable to exploitation.

Feminists have long been divided over adoption, reflecting this larger dilemma. If adoption exemplifies voluntary kinship—and it does—it stands to reason that adoption would be attractive for women, who have historically been defined and confined by their consignment to mandatory motherhood. On the other hand, if adoption is premised on gross inequalities that result in the transfer of children from poorer parents, communities, and countries to richer ones—and it is—how can feminists ever defend it as a model of family formation?

Doubts about whether women can make ethical choices either to surrender or adopt make sense.

One reason that adoption matters is that it throws degrees of freedom and unfreedom into sharp relief. It offers a vantage point onto a social world in which creative choices and possibilities for some women and children intersect with their systematic absence for others. This is why adoption stories are simultaneously tragic and joyful and why adoptees and their families are so often considered both lucky and likely to be damaged. Adoption as a family form is considerably rarer and more atypical today than it was in 1970, the statistical high point of modern adoption. Yet it continues to carry the burden of controversies over identity, belonging, and equality that touch us all.

For more on adoption history, see The Adoption History Project . The Project is a digital public-history resource, profiling the people, organizations, and studies that have shaped modern American adoption in theory and practice. It includes hundreds of images and primary documents on such topics as the orphan trains; infertility; sealed records; eugenics; baby farming; telling a child that he or she has been adopted; and transracial, international, and special-needs adoptions.

Ellen Herman teaches in the Department of History at the University of Oregon. Her most recent book is Kinship by Design: A History of Adoption in the Modern United States. She created and maintains The Adoption History Project .

Read the review of Ellen Herman's Kinship by Design in WRB 's September/October 2009 issue.


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