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Transnational Adoption Pt. 1: Economic discourse

Recently I wrote a paper on the practice of transnational adoption and family formation. Since it was my first foray into writing about this topic, my paper focused primarily on what transnational adoption looks like and why it has become so prevalent over the past 60 years. Basically, I wanted to figure out my own position on this issue and whether it is a practice to be lauded or disparaged (side note: I am currently leaning toward neither of these extremes). Although the approach I took left many aspects unexamined, it did provide me with a preliminary understanding of the history of and some of the basic structural issues involved in the cultivation of transnational adoption. While this certainly left me with opinions about many aspects of adoption between countries, there is still more learning and sorting through the info in my brains that needs to be done before taking any kind of definitive stance on the issue. Sooooo….that’s what this is, I guess…It’s my attempt at working through what I’ve learned so far and hopefully learning some more in the process.

1. Transnational adoption as a system of supply and demand

Many researchers seem to frame transnational adoption in these economic terms. The idea behind it is that there was a supply of children in need of homes in what are known as ‘sending’ countries, thus creating a demand in what have traditionally been seen as ‘receiving’ countries (that’s over simplifying it, obvs.; there’s way more to it than that. For example, different governments have had a hand in creating both the supply and demand of potential adoptees, a topic that will be discussed in a later post.) This may not sound problematic at first. I mean, it seems like children who need homes are getting them, and that should be a good, right? Short answer…kind of! One of the problems with this system is that as the demand increases in receiving countries (again, reasons to be discussed in a later post) it puts pressure, in a sense, on sending countries to continue providing adoptable children. Thus, rather than encouraging (or helping) these countries to improve their economy (so that parents can afford to take care of their children), providing women with education (which reduces fertility), or providing access to and accurate information about birth control, helpful measures are ignored in order to placate the receiving countries’ desire for overseas children. In other words, while it may be possible to prevent the unfortunate situations that culminate in a multitude of children in need of good homes, this is not the approach taken because it doesn’t jibe with the demand for transnational adoptees in receiving countries.

This may seem like a rather bleak view of transnational adoption, and it is, in a sense. But it points to the ways in which children (especially children from developing nations) are commodified by affluent (usually Western) nations. This is evident not only in the way transnational adoption is talked about in terms of supply and demand but also in the way countries are labelled as ‘receiving’ or ‘sending’. The creation of this commodification is made pretty frickin’ clear in one of the interviews I read wherein an adoptive mother stated, “there can be nothing better in life than being told you own, I mean that you have become a mother”. Whoops! Freudian slip? Of course, this doesn’t mean that this woman doesn’t love her child or that she thinks of her child as property, but it does point to the commodification process that gets instilled in people through this economic discourse.

The other problem I have with the terms ‘receiving’ and ‘sending’ countries is that they don’t allow for the intricacies of the transnational adoption process. For example, the US is the largest receiving country in the world; however, it is also one of the largest sending countries for Canada (also a major receiving country). But due to its prominent position on the world stage and it’s status as an affluent, developed nation, it is really only thought of as a receiving country. This is important to note when looking at how sending nations are Othered and thought of as less capable by receiving countries. This terminology becomes even more condescending when looking at some of the reasons the supply of children in need of adoption is so high in sending nations…but that’s a topic for a later time.

In the next…um…episode? I’ll discuss a bit more of the history surrounding transnational adoption and the US’s hand in creating both the supply of and demand for transnational adoptees and how this move was (surprise!) kinda self-serving.