Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Intercountry Adoption: Orphan Rescue or Child Trafficking at Pepperdine University’s Law School

Intercountry Adoption: Orphan Rescue or Child Trafficking at Pepperdine University’s Law School

February 8-9, 2013

The two-day conference was held at a Christian university and reflected its hosts’ religious affiliation throughout. The opinions offered were setup to seem to opposing points of view, but were in reality they ranged from center to right-wing without really posing real challenges to the audience. The audience itself was mostly adoptive parents (who also were adoption professionals) with a small contingent of adoptees, some of whom were also adopters themselves. Other stake-holders who attended or spoke were policy makers from the Department of State and adoption practitioners. Everyone claimed to be concerned with the welfare of orphan children, but with differing ideas about how best to help them. That was the starting point. Natural families were not present nor represented.

It began with Elizabeth Bartholet against David Smolin in a plenary with the same title as the conference, “Orphan Rescue or Child Trafficking?” Despite her claim that she was the oppressed radical in the room during the first plenary session, Bartholet advocated for the most conventional and popular position: adoption saves poor orphans who are destined to languish unloved in institutions for their entire lives unless more married American heterosexual couples adopt them. Therefore, she argued, the system should be opened and liberated from regulation so more children could be saved. All the problems one hears about intercountry adoption, from loss of culture to scandals like the Artyom case, are really unimportant and happen so rarely (but are unfairly highlighted in the media) that they should not be allowed to stop ICA. Smolin, who presented first, argued that ICA is a system which must be reformed and preserved by regulation, transparency, and checks to cure it of the corruption, child-laundering, and exploitation due to the huge profits involved. As it is currently practiced, ICA is unsustainable, he argued. He also pointed out that some human rights are violated-- such as natural families’ rights to make decisions for their children. Finally he gently tried to point out that cultural arrogance can motivate people with good intentions to act unethically. Bartholet tried to paint Smolin as anti-adoption and part of the dominant voice in ICA, although he clearly is in favor of the practice, and is virtually the only prominent voice calling for more stringent regulation.

I wished a truly opposing voice were also heard in this debate. The real opposite of Bartholet’s mainstream view is not Smolin’s but that families are entitled to remain intact with a shared fate, regardless of the desires of outsiders, and despite their motives. I hoped that someone would point out that not only is ICA unsustainable in its current form, but also an unsustainable form of child welfare. Throughout the conference there were references to orphans, abandoned children, and poor/neglected/unwanted kids who needed families or whose parents “chose” adoption. No one talked about the role that colonialism, racism, capitalism, and (American-sanctioned) genocide has had in creating orphans and children living in dire circumstances, and what could be done to address these fundamental causes of children in need of families. Not one mention was made in the first presentation or in any of the sessions about how to prevent unwanted pregnancies through contraception or abortion, or how the US defunded family planning programs throughout the Global South during the Bush administration at the urging of right-wing Christians. Although Smolin hinted at women’s rights, the word “feminist” was not uttered.

And what about those families that children need? Those families better be two-parent heterosexual, legally married families. Grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, adult siblings, none of them count as families. Children are regarded as orphans if one parent is unpresent (not dead, just not around). Although one panelist, Jenna Cook, bravely pointed out that her parents are a couple who are both women, the assumption was that only a conventional nuclear family was legitimate in all the other presentations. This was made very clear by Whitney Reitz who works on Capitol Hill. She told a story which was meant to pull on the heartstrings: A 16 year-old mother had “chosen” adoption for her son, but he was "trapped" in Guatemala because its ICA program was closed after rampant corruption was finally unignorable. Why did no one point out that the argument that the interest in child welfare ought to extend to the mother of the pre-adoptee as well as the boy? Is she not entitled to a blissful life in the USA as much as her son? After all, she's also still a child. As Sara Darrow points out, though, only small children and babies are desirable imports to the US (or Canada), not their older racialized families. No, the reality is that the concern for child welfare is an excuse to separate young children and babies from their families, raise them as Christians, and make them into Americans. That boy's mother would not be truly American; she would be an immigrant. And because adopted children are supposed to be considered the natural issue of their parents, they are not to be treated as immigrants. 

The fact that the adopted children have a personal and national history is irrelevant. The session regarding adoptees' documented US citizenship traced the reasoning behind the Child Citizenship Act authored by adopter Mclane Layton. Although some adoptees, including American Indian Natives like Leland Morril, aka Leland Kirk, pointed out adoptees' connections to their first families and how such logic is harmful, the proposed amendment to the CCA of 2000 is based on the jus saguinis argument. Although the majority of the conference was debating (or not debating in Whitney's case, which went completely unchallenged) philosophical points of view, this was one breakout session that could have concrete consequences. The other was also about citizenship rights and adoption, but of those rights as they pertain to children prior to adoption.  

Jennifer Kwon Dobbs presented on recognizing the citizenship of children, or rather not recognizing it in order to facilitate adoption. The North Korean Orphan Refugee Act ostensibly helps 'stateless' children of mixed Chinese and Korean descent living in Jilin Province, China. The justification for the Act is that these children are stateless and unprotected while in fact they are Chinese citizens. The NKORA is a legislative tool to make more children adoptable by not recognizing the citizenship that children have as sufficient or legitimate. The nature of citizenship was also examined by Kathleen Bergquist who drew the same parallels I have between DREAMers and intercountry adoptees, especially concerning the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. (It was good to see my thoughts and reasoning validated by Dr. Bergquist!) 

 Drs. Kwon and Bergquists' presentations were the last I attended. I skipped many of the other sessions since they just didn't appeal to me. After sitting through one particularly bad presentation, "Meeting Biological Family," that was presented like Christian testimony about coming to Jesus that proclaimed the righteousness of adoption, I could not stomach "How Religion Informs Adoption Law: A Christian Perspective" and "The Christian Intercountry Adoption Movement."  However, because Bert Ballard, a friend and adoptee who I respect spoke on "A Christian Perspective", I did listen to his critique of the adoption institution's relationship with Christians.He offered a good list of questions that they ought to ask themselves. I tuned out his predecessor on the program though, and watched Louis C.K. instead. It was a good decision on my part. 

Almost anything can be justified by Christianity or religion in general. Mix in adoption, and I have little patience. In fact, after seeing where the conference was, I bought a tshirt to wear just for the occasion. It reads, "Secular Humanism: Saving the World from Religion." While skipping out on the most emetic sessions, I wore it proudly around the strange Twilight Zone of Pepperdine U. It's a world in which students don't congregate to smoke cigarettes, there are no undergraduate hippies or punks, and everyone looks like they've just stepped out of a J. Crew or Benetton catalog. I can imagine these squeaky clean kids going on mission trips to Uganda to volunteer at orphanages and later adopting a dozen of them to "save" the orphans, discussing with each other their calling by Jesus, and growing up to be one of the people attending a future conference, asking the same non-questions.