The ways in which children move not just within but between societies receives attention in several papers. Whereas in Micronesia international adoptions have made little impact on traditional practices this is not the case in parts of Latin America.
Fonseca shows how Western standards and practices, combined with an international ‘market’ in adoptable children, has led to many parents who thought they were using orphanages as a form of temporary foster care losing their children to international adoption. Where cultural misunderstandings can be exploited, and there is money to be made, there will be people willing to take advantage of the situation.
Esben Leifsen working in Ecuador, documents the willingness of a Spanish state-sponsored adoption agency (which has a monopoly on international adoptions in that part of Spain) to condone illegal means of obtaining children.
The motivation may be to speed up an inherently corrupt process, in which children become the pawns of officials who use their position to extract payments, but can also come dangerously close to creating a market in babies whose parents have not given full or adequate consent. Indeed the means by which infants have to be legally and socially ‘commodified’, that is separated from their previous status before being given a new one is not necessarily in the best interests of any of the parties involved.
Adoption agencies may perpetuate the ‘myth of the orphan’ and present their services as a solution to Third World poverty, and adoptive parents, through ignorance or a willingness to collude, may fail to ask sufficiently searching questions concerning the adoption process.
It is not possible to do justice to the complexity of laws and attitudes concerning international adoption in receiving countries, located mainly in Western Europe and North America. However, to complete our argument, and perhaps indicate a few possibilities for future research, we wish to evoke three lines of discourse presently being developed in these countries.
The first discourse presents international adoption as a way of saving children from Third World misery and violence, and is particularly common in popular news media. Critics hold that it is an example of how those that possess the upper hand, rather than recognize inequality as a fundamental element of the adoption process, activate mechanisms which translate the process into moral terms. The rhetoric on intercountry adoption which revolves consistently around ‘huge numbers’ of ‘homeless’ or ‘abandoned’ children, indirectly asserts the birth parents’ irresponsibility, absence of moral fiber (inability to ‘plan’ their family), or lack of sexual constraint. Not only does this sort of argument generally ignore the existence of the many frustrated people in sending countries who have been turned away by local adoption agencies, it summarily dismisses the alternative of placing children in local foster families. In a similar vein, the idea that because of their financial security affluent couples make better parents (having ‘so much to offer a child’) is implicit in countless European and North American texts.
Although no adoption agency, public or private, would explicitly give voice to such consumer logic, the qualities they require of a worthy adoptive parent usually include superior financial solvency. Whereas the ‘Salvationists’ consider birth parents and sending countries to be of secondary interest, those who engage in this second discourse see themselves as actively involved in a reciprocal exchange with ‘child donors’.
Acutely aware of the financial disparities which provoke the North-South flow of children, these Norwegian parents band together to send money to orphanages in the country from which they received their adopted offspring, thus establishing what they consider to be a ‘long-distance fostering relationship’. The fosterage arrangement is seen as opening the circle of protagonists, providing for an indirect return, delayed in time, to those institutions perceived as the donor agents.
While there are evident merits to this approach, one cannot but wonder at the ease with which birth parents, flesh-and-blood people, are substituted in the adoptive families’ imagination by the mediating agents or agencies, or even by a folkloric image of the child’s birth country.
A third discourse on adoption is centered precisely on the spiny question of the coexistence of two different sets of relatives. Researchers in this line remind us that, at least in North America, the notion of a restricted conjugal household is so entrenched in the people’s minds, that the very idea of sharing represents a fundamental violation of parenthood. They also contend that it is exactly the average American’s belief in the overriding appeal of blood relationships that leads people to fear the continued presence of birth parents in their child’s existence.
This fear was largely responsible for the consolidation, during the 1960s, of certain legal institutions: the child’s pre-adoption biography was hidden, the court and adoption workers were guardians of this ‘secret’, and a radical distinction arose between adoptive and foster families.