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Feminist lens on adoption
Personal story, research frame the issue
Katie Leo
Katie Leo
" Adoption is defined by American ethnocentrism. What 'we' do is right. We have the solution for everything. We can take better care of these children than you can."

-Jennie Anderson

by Katie Leo

Two years ago my husband and I decided, after four years of unsuccessful pregnancy attempts, to consider adopting a child from Korea. In doing so we joined the thousands of couples struggling with infertility who consider this option each year, in addition to fertile couples who choose to adopt, and the hundreds of thousands of couples who have done so since the practice of international adoption began. That number, in fact, includes my parents. I was adopted from Korea at the estimated age of 10 months.

Reproductive justice
As an adult Korean adoptee, I knew first hand how it felt to grow up divorced from the language, culture and people of my birth country. The undeniable question for me involved whether I could reconcile my political beliefs with participation in international adoption. Could I call myself a feminist and social justice advocate and still adopt? I realized that for me, the answer was no.

I am part of a growing number of adult adoptees who view adoption as a feminist issue, part of a continuum of reproductive rights. This perspective extends to the right to raise one's child the same importance as the right to choose whether or not to bear one.

In her book "Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States," feminist historian Rickie Solinger examines adoption through this lens of reproductive rights. She states, "I believe it is crucial to consider the degree to which one woman's possession of reproductive choice may actually depend on or deepen another woman's reproductive vulnerability." In other words, how might an individual woman's right to choose adoption actually exploit another woman's lack of rights?

Jae Ran Kim, a social worker, adoption scholar and author of the blog Harlow's Monkey, is a Korean adoptee. She echoed Solinger's call for a broader consideration of reproductive rights: "Who has access to reproductive choice? We focus so much on abortion as a feminist issue, we haven't talked about a woman's right to parent."

Shannon Gibney, an African-American adoptee, activist and writer, said that many of her colleagues have redefined reproductive rights as "reproductive justice," which has broader implications beyond individualism and invites interrogation of systems of oppression versus privileging the individual. Using this language, Gibney explains, a woman can ask herself, "How can I make the most just decision, given my current historical context?"

Looking at adoption through this lens amounts to a paradigm shift, and I believe it raises crucial questions facing all Americans as we move through the 21st century. How do our choices and actions affect others, including people we do not see and will never know? Do our rights and freedoms impede those of others? And, what can an individual woman live with?

International adoption 101
International adoption, also called intercountry adoption (ICA) or transnational adoption, is generally defined as the global movement of children between countries which began on a mass scale after the Korean War and has been responsible for nearly a half million child migrations, almost one third from Korea. Initially conceived as a form of child rescue for war orphans, adoption from Korea grew into a profitable economic industry that would become the blueprint for international adoption in general.

The United States as a receiving country accounts for almost half of all international adoptions and has since the practice began. Rounding out the top five receivers for the past decade are France, Italy, Canada and Spain. Since international adoption's inception, the predominant sending countries have shifted, with Korea dominating until the 1990s. Although Korea remains a primary source for adopted children, in recent years the prevailing country of origin has been China. Russia, Romania, Ukraine, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru have also been major sources. A quick glance through this list of sending and receiving countries begs certain questions about international adoption. First, who benefits and who loses as a result of this practice? In "Beggars and Choosers," Solinger describes the "new baby consumers" of intercountry adoption as "wealthy choice makers from the United States, Canada, and Western Europe." Second, what economic and/or social conditions in the sending countries have left some women so powerless that they feel they have no choice but to relinquish their children?

While international adoption began in countries devastated by war (often U.S.-supported), it later expanded to include countries where the effects of globalization and state-sanctioned patriarchy have left poor women more vulnerable than ever.

In an interview with Mirah Riben, Solinger stated that "adoption, as a social practice, absolutely depends on the existence of groups of women rendered deeply vulnerable most essentially today because of their poverty." Some critics of intercountry adoption have noted that historically the streams of children have run one way-from the so-called Third World to predominantly white adopters-and likened it to a form of modern colonialism.

Myths of the legitimate mother
Conventional language around child relinquishment has often fixed birthmothers in a position that simultaneously acknowledges and negates them. As an example, here is the story I was told about myself when I was a young girl: You were abandoned on the doorstep of an orphanage with a note that read "Please take care of my child." Your mother loved you very much, but since she was probably a prostitute, a very young (probably teenaged) girl, or a single woman, she couldn't take care of you. So, she did the most loving thing a mother could do, she gave you up for adoption so that you could have a better life.

I accepted and retold-indeed, even took pride in-this story for years. This narrative, conveyed by my parents who first heard it from the adoption agency, illustrates the sort of manufactured positioning that Kim describes. It marks my birthmother with a presumed status, and this status ranks her on a social scale, at an inferior placement that highlights her lack of resources and defines her as therefore illegitimate for motherhood. Her economic and social vulnerability is an unquestioned given.

The story further implies certain suppositions about what "a better life" means. In this scenario, "better" clearly means American, but it also suggests wealthier, Caucasian, and most important, not with my birthmother. This notion of "a better life" has permeated adoption narratives since the practice began, often used as justification for its existence.

Who benefits?
But who gets to define what "a better life" means? Colombian-born adoptee advocate Jennie Anderson, executive chair of the Resource Committee of Adopted Adults, pointed out that "adoption is defined by American ethnocentrism. What 'we' do is right. We have the solution for everything. We can take better care of these children than you can."

Over the years the social justice argument for adoption has proved increasingly problematic for many. In her article "Birth Mothers from South Korea Since the Korean War," scholar Hosu Kim states, "Although it often has been understood historically as a humanitarian effort ... I argue the practice of intercountry adoption is a radical example of global inequality played out at the site of actual woman's bodies and often pits two women-the birth mother and the adoptive mother-against each other in a struggle to claim a legitimate motherhood."

Writer and educator Sun Yung Shin, who was adopted from Korea, framed it this way: "How do white women-whether adoptive mothers, social workers, psychologists, nurses or missionaries-serve the needs of the white patriarchy by mobilizing resources (birth mothers, social workers, the children to be adopted)? How does this hive of activity serve the controlling white masculinity?"

Moving forward
As a woman dealing with the pain of my own infertility, I did not want to think through all these questions when I first considered adopting a child. Frankly, I just wanted to be a mother. My decision not to adopt after realizing that adoption was in conflict with my political beliefs is my personal choice. I do not condemn all adoptive parents, my own included, whom I love profoundly. Nor do I condemn adoption across the board. I do think, however, that we need to reframe our discussion of adoption. And though this story is about international adoption, I believe this discussion should include domestic adoption and foster care.

I believe that if the spirit of feminism creates solidarity between women across social, economic and racial barriers, feminists should work to remove the obstacles that render women around the globe so powerless, rather than using their situations as a reason to take their children from them. We should also question adoption language that carries implicit judgments of who makes a legitimate mother. Other issues to address are using children as a commodity, and racial coding of mothers and children. And we should work toward the extension of reproductive rights to include the rights of women to raise their children.

The challenge of our times is to reach across divisive lines and work together. We have learned all too well in recent years how rigid adherence to emotionally charged political stances can damage public discourse and hinder progressive action. I fiercely hope that all invested parties in questions of adoption can strive together toward a just and equitable world for all women.

I recommend that those interested in this topic explore the tremendously rich body of scholarly and creative work by adult adoptees.

Katie Leo is the Scribes for Human Rights Fellow at the University of Minnesota.

Online resources:
AK Connection Minnesota organization for adult Korean adoptees. www.akconnection.com

Resource Committee of Adopted Adults www.childrenshomeadopt.org/rcaa

Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) www.adopteesolidarity.org

Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD) http://afaad.wordpress.com

International Soundex Reunion Registry (ISSR) Aids adoptees and birthparents interested in reuniting. www.issr.net .

Check out Jae Ran Kim's blog at harlowmonkey.typepad.com

Reading list
Outsiders Within edited by Jane Jeong Trenka, Julia Chinyere Oparah and Sun Yung Shin. A collection of essays, research, poetry and artwork by transracial adoptees.

The Language of Blood by Jane Jeong Trenka. Memoir by an adult Korean adoptee who grew up in white, rural Minnesota.

Transnational Adoption by Sara Dorow. An adoption academic's look at American adoptive parents of Chinese-born children combines sociology and empirical data.

Beggars and Choosers by Rickie Solinger. Feminist historian, examines adoption through this lens of reproductive rights.

Write to us
Has adoption affected your life? Tell us what you think. We want to hear your voice. Email editor@womenspress.com.

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Reader Comments

Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Article comment by: Barbara Vaughan

"Conventional language around child relinquishment has often fixed birthmothers in a position that simultaneously acknowledges and negates them."

I agree with this statement about the power of "conventional language," but it is unfortunate that this article, this very sentence, uses a term which was created and promoted by the adoption industry for the sole purpose of objectifying women as being incubators. The term "birthmother" means a non-mother, someone whose only purpose in her child's life is to be an incubator, a set of reproductive organs, with her motherhood removed after the reproductive act and transferred to the woman who has adopted, who then becomes -- in industry parliance - the "mother," the "parent."

It is unfortunate that this article, which is very well written about issues of justice and exploitation, refers to natural mothers by a term that was imposed on them by this very system of exploitation. Language counts, and the language we use to reduce women to a set of reproductive organs -- whose motherhood (and hence emotional connection to their child) ends when the cord is cut -- sets the stage for the systemic exploitation of mothers that this article talks about.

In this way, this article objectifies mothers of adoption loss in the same manner it criticizes the industry for. I would like to ask the author to reconsider the use of demeaning language (industry-created 'birth-terms') in an otherwise excellent article.

Posted: Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Article comment by: Jane Edwards

Excellent article. We need to work together to help families stay together.

Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Article comment by: Elizabeth Chacich

As an adoptive mother of two Korean daughters, I second Debbie Campbell's comment, which was:
"My first thought And while we make one more thing politically charged, children who just want a home can live in orphanages, or in foster homes indefinatly? How about this - adopt children, give them loving homes and work to make the changes in the laws, language, and practice of adoption that are very rightly questioned in this article. We mothers are known for doing more than one thing at a time, so let's multitask to give mothers the support to mother and children the right to a home and family now and not when all is right and just in the politics of our worlds. "

I agree with a lot of what is in the article, but please consider the children who, for whatever reason, have been given up and need homes, wherever they come from.

Posted: Wednesday, August 11, 2010
Article comment by: Joni Chacich

Well stated Katie! As an adult Korean adoptee, I never really looked at adoption from a class feminist perspective. Yet, it makes sense in that it seems a country can paint a picture of a poor helpless woman who is ideally giving up her child for a better life in America. I think most adult adopted Koreans had the same story handed down to them: Dropped off at an orphanage or police station swaddled in a basket with a note left inside. However, most of us adult adopted Koreans are aware that South Korea is a pretty wealthy country. I think we're just left to wonder when women will finally take hold of their rights. Maybe that's up to us adult adopted Koreans...??

Posted: Saturday, April 17, 2010
Article comment by: Emilia Murphy

I really fail to see the "colonialist" factor in most adoptions taking place today. Three of the principal adoption source countries - Korea, China and Russia - have never been colonies of any Western power, and some of the adopting countries, such as Canada, have never been colonial powers (well, in Canada's case we couldn't be a colonizer because we were a colony of Britain for so long). Nor is it always a simple matter of poor countries handing over their children to rich ones. Korea is classified as a high-income country. Children are available for adoption there not because of poverty per se but because of the tremendous social discrimination against single mothers. So I think both the pro- and anti-adoptionists have their valid points, but painting international adoption as a "colonialist" practice doesn't give the whole picture.

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