In this new 3-part series, Leigh Matthews at the DoGooder Podcast (also the co-founder of Rethink Orphanages), discusses with me the why and how of whether intercountry adoption does good and can it ever be ethical.
Personally I found this interview to be the most in-depth I’ve ever done on this topic. I had no pre-empting of the questions and by the end, I was a little shaken and rattled as I realised some of the content I’d spoken about wasn’t as cohesive as I’d would have liked because nobody had ever asked such intensive questions before. After all these years in speaking, I have usually refined the way I describe and answer questions because in repeatedly speaking on the topic, I get more succinct over time. This time however, my thinking/speaking is raw for a good portion of it and Leigh did a fantastic job of rattling me! She has a natural way of understanding this topic given orphanage tourism is so closely connected.
I can’t wait to hear the next two ladies in this series: Jessica Davis, American adoptive mother who returned her adopted child to her family in Uganda after discovering she had not been a true orphan nor relinquished with a clear understanding of our western legal concept of adoption. Jessica has gone on to found an organisation Kugatta to assist other adoptive families who find themselves in situations like hers. Then Laura Martinez-Mora, a lawyer and Secretary in the Hague Permanent Bureau team, responsible for the intercountry adoption portfolio who provides her professional perspective.
Our views together on this topic will help develop some much needed in-depth conversation about how intercountry adoption occurs today, whether it does more harm than good, and whether it can be ethical.
A post from an adopter on my Facebook page got me thinking about an issue.
Is there an exception to the rule where intercountry adoptions should be allowed?
The woman stated that, “All 13 of my children from China have special needs. Some pretty severe. One thing for sure … no-one in-country stepped up to adopt them.”
I have thought about this issue for along time and believed there should be special provisions and derived a list of these:
Orphans that are in imminent danger and have a high chance of dying, such as a natural disaster or a conflict (examples, Haiti and Vietnam’s Operation Babylift)
Children that are discarded by society and have a poor chance of survival (examples: HAPA children – this is a Native Hawaiian word which literally translates to “part” or “mix”. In Hawaii, the word refers to a mixed ethnic heritage such as half white and Korean. In Korea, such children are ridiculed, tormented and rejected by society).
Children with disabilities. As the adopter described, these children are unlikely to receive health care and such children are normally shunned by society. Sometimes these children would receive barbaric treatment of being beaten, starved and refused medical care.
On the surface, this sounds like a great idea but after much consideration, I found this logic to have some shortfalls. I listened to a podcast called Freaconomics (link in resource list below) on the subject of organ donation. Here you see something valuable that is given to a recipient for free. No money is allowed to be exchanged between the parties to prevent corruptive markets and abuse. Surely, a child is as valuable, or more, than the thousands of organs that are transplanted each year in America. The Freaconomics episode named “Make Me a Match” stated this economic proposition eloquently by saying:
“Matching markets occur where money and prices don’t do all the work. And some of the markets I’ve studied, we don’t let prices do any of the work. I like to think of matching markets as markets where you can’t just choose what you want even if you can afford it — you also have to be chosen. So job markets are like that; getting into college is like that. Those things cost money, but money doesn’t decide who gets into Stanford. Stanford doesn’t raise the tuition until supply equals demand and just enough freshmen want to come to fill the seats.”
Here we see a proven method of exchanging something of great value for nothing. I believe that the system could be implemented to place children into loving homes without corruption. However, adopters, orphanages and third-party agencies focus primarily on the emotional aspects of placement instead of addressing the real issues of corruption. If governments could implement a system where money would not be exchanged to place children – I would be in favor to support such placements immediately. Why would anyone not support such a system? I think one of the biggest issues is adopters themselves!
The issue I see is that not all adopters have altruistic reasons to adopt. Few adopters will ever admit to this. Adopters have preferences in children that they want to adopt and usually prefer lighter skinned babies (on average) over dark-skinned babies. If individuals were purely altruistic, then the race of a child would not matter and there would be no price elasticity based on race. However, we do see higher prices for more desirable children. David Smolin in his article “International Adoption: Saving Orphans or Child Trafficking” clearly pointed out this by stating:
“The perception that children are being implicitly bought and sold within the domestic adoption system is furthered by the common practice of private agencies charging vastly different sums based on the race of the child. Thus, it might cost thirty-thousand dollars to adopt a white infant but only ten-thousand dollars to adopt an African-American infant.”
The current practice may save a few children and nobody can deny this. However, on the flip side, we can all agree that a large number of adoptees are injured along the process. The online site called http://poundpuplegacy.org/ has catalogued over 638 cases of abuse, rape and death of adoptees. This is only a mere fraction of the abuse that occurs to adoptees and it’s the money that drives the demand side of the curve and ultimately the abuse. This lucrative business model, for the most part, continues to separate families and causes suffering and loss for the child that gets adopted. The positive adoptee and several adopters drown out the outspoken voices from the not-so-perfect adoptions. They want to highlight that positive adoptions are possible and largely ignore the issues that are addressed by the opposition. They fail to address that the overwhelming majority of children to be adopted are not children from war torn countries, true orphans or have disabilities. The main drivers for taking children away from families via intercountry adoption, is poverty.
The pro-adoption side fail to address these negative externalities. They never explore what is best for the entire cohort group. In the medical world, this idea is seen through the use of “triage”. This term describes how medical professionals need to behave in situations where they are overwhelmed by large numbers of casualties. Providers are taught to sort patients to do the greatest good for the greatest number. We too, should look at adoption in the same lens. Not only via the lens of adoptees but often the second point in the adoption triad – the original families. They too are often suffering and overlooked in the equation. David Smolin stated this corruption against the original families as:
“The international rules apparently allow aid to be offered only to those birth parents who relinquish their children, rather than requiring aid to birth parents to be unconditional. Thus, the international rules permit patterns of aid that create incentives to relinquish.”
In closing, saving the few who are marginalized, overlooked and forgotten does nothing for the overwhelming majority that are left behind. The system continues to corrupt and it does nothing to pressure the countries to change. Real change comes from external forces that demand change of these countries that are violating the rights of the child by allowing adoption to occur. I know many people disagree with me but to make lasting change we cannot be doing the same things of the past to expect a different result.