Past Event

Transnational Adoptions: Should We End Them or Reform the Process?

Transnational adoptions have been a part of our social landscape for decades. They became a focus of celebrity culture with high-profile adopters like Angelina Jolie and Madonna. Jolie’s first transnational adoption was in 2002, when she adopted her son, later named Maddox, from Cambodia. She would go on to adopt an Ethiopian baby in 2005 and then a three-year-old Vietnamese boy in 2008. Madonna adopted a boy from Malawi in 2006 and was cleared for another adoption from that country in 2009. Both women’s adoptions have been controversial. The mother of Jolie’s adoptive daughter claimed, in 2007, that she had not voluntarily given up the child. Madonna’s first adoption was controversial from the start, with the Malawian government insisted that she had not met its residency requirements and the child’s father claiming that he had not understood that he had given up his son for permanent adoption. 

While several critics have pointed out that the problems with these specific cases indicate larger structural imbalances of wealth and power between nations, the two women are, for the most part, praised for their apparent willingness to give children born in poverty better lives. Indeed, ever since Americans began adopting Korean children in the 1950s, transnational adoption has been cast as a necessary good that benefits children who might otherwise starve or die from hunger and poverty. But in the 1990s, Korean adoptees began to speak out about the forms of racism they encountered within their adoptive families.  Their speaking out converged with South Korea’s gradual coming to terms with its history of having provided one of the largest populations of adopted children to the industrialized world. So large are the numbers of Korean-born adoptees that they have formed several support groups and organizations across the world. Besides racism, Korean adoptees also discuss the trauma of being dissociated from their native culture and the possibility that many of them were in fact not orphans but taken away from their birth parents. 

The issue of adoptees being taken or even being kidnapped from their birth parents has haunted transnational adoption from the start, especially in poorer countries like Guatemala. The Haitian earthquake of January 2010 resulted in several individuals and organizations flying into Haiti to “rescue” orphaned children many of whom, it turned out, were not in fact orphans but had been separated from their families by the disaster. Yet, as several commentators also pointed out, in an economically unstable country, it has not been uncommon for Haitian families and parents to voluntarily give up their children to orphanages. In April of this year, 7-year-old Artem Saveliev, adopted from Russia by a Tennessee family, was returned to his home country alone on a plane, accompanied only by a letter which stated that he was “mentally unstable, violent, and [had] severe psychopathic behavior.” The case re-ignited a debate about the pros and cons of transnational adoptions, and Russian leaders threatened to suspend international adoptions altogether.

The case for transnational adoptions has been made primarily on the argument that it gives homes to poor children who might otherwise be left starving and/or in lives of poverty. But today, many critics point to what they term a colonialist mentality in the case of transnational adoptions, arguing that they reinforce racial, economic, and political inequalities across the globe. 

What do you think? In the wake of Artem Saveliev case and the Haitian “adoptions” issue, should all transnational adoptions be suspended until there are stricter and more universal guidelines enforced? How do transnational adoptions affect the rate or need for domestic adoptions? Should there be more or less discussion about the issues of race and economics? How do we confront the fact that the high rate of transnational adoptions depends on the high rate of war and poverty across the globe? Should adoptive parents be especially sensitive to questions of race, national origin, and poverty when adopting children? Are good intentions on the part of adoptive parents enough, or should be they be mindful of buying into narratives that establish them as the (often) white rescuers of children of color and/or underprivileged children? Is love all that’s needed to form a family? 

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