Beyond the Global Cabbage Patch

News Abroad

Karen Dubinsky is Professor of Global Development Studies and History at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. Her latest book is "Babies Without Borders: Adoption and Migration across the Americas," now out in paperback from NYU Press.

Last year, immediately after the earthquake, the world’s media, relief and aid organizations, and not a few would-be adoptive parents, collectively turned their attention to the needs of Haitian children.  Less famously, at the same time, the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard sent cutters, an aircraft carrier and other boats to patrol the waters, ensuring that Haitian adults stayed put.  Coast Guard commander Christopher O’Neil announced that anyone caught leaving the island and heading toward Florida would be returned.  A week later, according to the New York Times, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano urged Haitians to “resist an impulse to leave the island and to come here.”  A few days after that, Laura Silsby and a group of Idaho Baptists Missionaries assumed they could take a van load of Haitian children across the border with no travel or adoption documents; just one very high profile example of how children and adoption moved almost instantly into the public discussion of disaster relief in Haiti.

The U.S. is currently experiencing paroxysms of immigration anxieties, at the same time as remaining the country with the highest international adoption rate in the world.  How do we understand this enthusiastic embrace of the “needy Third World child” with cold shoulder—even cocked rifle—turned towards adults from the same place?  The response to the Haitian earthquake revealed some popular but simplistic ideas about international adoption, which cast adoptive parents as either humanitarian heroes or colonizing baby-snatchers, ignores birth parents, and elevates children as little more than posters for Western goodness; cute and mute.  We are steeped in either feel-good stories of rescue or horrific tales of kidnap, which flatten the disparate and contradictory stories of real life, not to mention help us avoid any discussion of the political and economic forces that produce the iconic needy Third World baby.

One-dimensional notions of adoption as rescue have combined with very specific modern North American definitions of childhood innocence.  This creates a certain wishful “racelessness” when it comes to babies.  “They’re cute when they’re young,” was a comment overheard by a friend of mine as he and his two Vietnamese-born daughters passed an elderly white couple at a swimming pool in their neighbourhood in small-town Ontario.  In its crude simplicity I think it explains very well the enormous political and cultural work done by babies. 

Despite the pictures we see on the news or in adoption agency advertising, the world is not a cabbage patch.  Babies do not sit alone, removed from parents, neighbours, and communities, waiting for Westerners to rescue them.  The adoption system we’ve inherited over the past century, domestic and international, is practiced as a zero-sum game:  I win, you lose.  Loss is always part of the story, not just in the case of scandalous, illegal, baby-snatching adoption.

It’s easy to be blinded by the dazzling pleasures of child rescue not just because of our investment in sentimental notions of children, but also because we think of children as politically neutral.  The separation of children from political citizenship is one of the mainstays of our world.  We guard our children’s political innocence the way earlier generations “protected” women from the sordid messiness of voting and such.  But a long history of child adoption and migration conflicts show us how inseparably children are attached to adult political worlds.  During the Cold War, Cuban child exiles in the U.S., whose immigration was organized by a complex combination of CIA ideologues and humanitarian Catholics, became miniature symbols of anti-Castro resistance.  Foster parents in the U.S. were encouraged to “fight communism one child at a time” by taking in one or two.
Meanwhile, in 1960s Canada, white families with adopted black children also became iconic, for some, of Canada’s multicultural tolerance.  When Canada’s multiracial families—“Canada’s ambassadors for peace” as they were dubbed—were set next to images of U.S. black children victimized by civil rights-era racial violence, Canada’s claim for the moral high ground seemed assured.  And one way contemporary Guatemala has coped with the dubious distinction of being the country with the world’s highest per capita adoption rate has been the periodic outbreak of organ theft rumours.  In the upside-down world of global political economy, the belief that one’s children are worth more dead than alive isn’t such a stretch.

All of these cases illustrate the anxieties and aspirations of adults.  Adult political conflicts, such as the Cold War, civil rights and race politics in the 1960s, wars of empire in 1980s Latin America, to name a few examples, are always fought through and for children.  Fantasies of child rescue are appealing because of our historical symbolic and psychic investment in “childhood.”  But the impulse to find a place beyond conflict is not such a bad thing.  Maybe we could gather up all the warmth and compassion we seem to want to bestow on children, at least for the first few years, and spread this around more evenly towards everyone. 

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