Vol. 11 No. 11 (November 2001) pp. 562-566.
IMAGINING ADOPTION: ESSAYS ON LITERATURE AND CULTURE by Marianne Novy (Editor). Ann Arbor: University of
Michigan Press, 2001. 316 pp. Cloth $47.50. ISBN: 0-472-11181-7.
BIRTHMARKS: TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICA by Sandra Patton. New York: New York University
Press, 2000. 220 pp. Cloth $55.00. ISBN: 0-8147-6681-1. Paper $19.95. ISBN: 0-8147-6682-X.
ADOPTION NATION: HOW THE ADOPTION REVOLUTION IS TRANSFORMING AMERICA by Adam Pertman. New York: Basic Books,
2000. 260 pp. Cloth $25.00. ISBN: 0-465-05650-4.
Reviewed by Susan M. Sterett, University of Denver
For many Americans adopting children today, adoption is a conversion experience. Straight couples who have gone
through fertility treatments, gay and lesbian couples and single adults (often women) who once thought childrearing
was not possible for them have all become parents through adoption. Some come to it more reluctantly than others.
Many become outspoken advocates of adoption once they have their children. Loving a child who needs a home feels
like a tremendous gift, and adoptive parents become peculiarly unsympathetic to the middle class American miseries
of fertility medicine (as a friend calls it, "futility medicine") and the search for the right partner
with whom to have a child (On fertility and on gay and lesbian parenting, see Pertman, chaps. 6 and 7.) Adam Pertman,
the author of
ADOPTION NATION, clearly has experienced this conversion. He writes breathlessly of what he calls an adoption revolution
in the United States, illustrating his overview of adoption in the United States today with the story of how he
became father to his two children. With journalistic liveliness, Pertman discusses everything from the increase
in open adoption in the United States, becoming a parent through adoption after infertility, the losses birth parents
accept, the efforts states have made to place special needs children. Marianne Novy has collected essays on adoption
narratives, most in fiction but some are analyses of the narratives of
rights, kinship and race in American political life. Sandra Patton evokes meanings of adoption and race to cross-racial
adoptees. Novy's collection and Patton's study provide more measured discussion of the reflection on family that
adoption invites than Pertman does.
What is the revolution Pertman finds? It is not so clear. Information on the prevalence of adoption is not systematic.
However, if there is a revolution, it is not in the numbers of children adopted. Although Pertman begins with conversations
he has had in which most people have had adoption touch their lives, in the United States the height of stranger
adoption was in the 1970s, not in 2000. The tone of his book is that it is only recently that the practice of adoption
has touched so many lives. That is not true. How we have treated adoption has changed
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from the practices after World War II, and those changes are relevant to those interested in law and politics.
Transformations in adoption in the United States are transformations in the legal context of adoption and the rights
consciousness of adoptees, sometimes enacted into law. Adoption was once an open practice, and much of it was informal,
legally unrecognized until the mid-nineteenth century in the United States. If a family could not care for a child,
it might have a neighbor care. Everyone involved would know the arrangement, and the child would likely continue
to see her birth family, maybe even moving between families. My grandmother went to live and work on a neighboring
farm in the early twentieth century. She remembered that moving meant warm clothes for the first time in her life.
These arrangements left no legal records because there were no legal arrangements. Throughout much of the world
and through much of history, that's what adoption has looked like. It was only one version of the many ways people
could organize care for their children.
Adoption became legal and formal in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century in Western national states,
operating in parallel with the informal ways people could arrange for care of their children. It was not until
after World War II that social workers believed it was best to keep the identity of birth parents secret from adopted
children, and social service agencies sealed records. Over the last twenty years adult adoptees have talked back,
criticizing the practices of secrecy that dominated adoption. Birth mothers have also organized to find the children
they placed and, for some, to argue against adoption at all as an irreparable loss for the birth parent (See, for
example, Judith Modell in Novy; Pertman, pp. 103-128). Many adoptions in the United States are open, where birth
parents and adoptive
parents and the child meet or know who each other are. The regulatory regime now also includes national implementation
of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. It requires states to prevent trafficking in children and to
the extent possible to preserve information about the birth identity of children. (For an overview within these
books, see Novy, pp. 4-8; Pertman, 3-26. On transracial adoption in the United States, see Patton, 1-6. For analysis
of secrecy in adoption in the United States, see Carp 1998.)
The abolition of secrecy, the worldwide movement for rights (Modell in Novy), and the explicitness of adoption
when families are cross-racial have set the context for an expansion of public discussion about adoption, including
scholarship and popular commentary as well as fictional treatments. The widespread visibility of adoption as a
result of public discussion rather than secrecy and, in middle class urban centers throughout the country, as a
result of intercountry adoption, might be Pertman's revolution. People with access to the media adopt, like Pertman,
and they write and support media coverage, particularly countering the horror stories the news magazine shows find
so attractive. In 1949 the adoption film was OUR VERY OWN, in which a teenager accidentally discovers she was adopted.
In 1997 Mike Leigh's SECRETS AND LIES explored class in the story of a British black woman finds the records of
her placement and meets her birth mother and her extended family, all white. They are not that far apart: Hortense,
the adoptee in SECRETS AND LIES, sneaks access to her records. Legal changes have made
secrecy less possible and less justifiable have also facilitated the explosion of attention to adoption in academia.
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Adoption has become a fertile place for imagining divisions and how we cross them, though adoption stories are
as old as Moses.
As Marianne Novy notes in the introduction to the collection of essays IMAGINING ADOPTION, "Adoption often
implicates in each other's lives people from groups usually widely separated-frequently by economics, sometimes
by ethnicity, and increasingly by nation of birth" (p. 3). Bringing together people who were widely separated
invites thinking through how people envision belonging somewhere. In adoption, people MAKE what we most often think
of as natural: families. We move children around. We become a family through the daily routine of feeding a child,
reading to him, putting him to bed and fighting with him. We could have made a family with any child, though any
child and any adult(s) would have made it differently. Of course, families always become families through daily
care, but adoption makes that much more obvious (See Julie Beribitsky in Novy). Envisioning adoption through building
connections puts adoptees and birth parents at center stage, not the conversion experiences of adoptive parents.
Imagining includes working through national problems concerning race and class. In SECRETS AND LIES a family finds
common ground across class differences; revealing adoption in the family precipitates a noisy reconciliation. The
Canadian Margaret Laurence and the Americans Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver use adoption to explore racial
reconciliation, each wondering what building families across racial boundaries can say about racial boundaries
within a society. Essays in Novy by Paris De Soto, Jill R. Deans and Kristina Fagan explore these themes. In the
United States, under the Indian Child Welfare Act Native American tribes determine who can adopt their children;
social workers' unwillingness to follow this practice initially has sometimes led to children changing homes after
courts determine legal rights. Kristina Fagan's essay on Barbara Kingsolver's novels argues that Kingsolver uses
family to condense race in the United States in an artificial but very satisfying resolution to an adoption controversy
between a white and Native American family. Kingsolver tries to show us that we can blend cultures and love without
resorting to legal rights.
The placement of African American children has raised bitter controversy in the United States as well. Being poor
and black does not make it easy to raise a child; some critics have argued that placing black children with white
parents has substituted for decent education and employment practices for struggling adults. Do we only value African
Americans when it suits white purposes? Black social workers have criticized the placement of black children in
white families, arguing that it has
implied the obliteration of black cultures. Americans of all races have taken different sides in this bitter debate.
Social scientists' attempts to answer concerns have focused on measures of adjustment of black children placed
in white homes. Critics argue that broad measures do not capture the nuances of experience. Congress intervened
with the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEDA) in 1994, amending it in 1996, in an attempt to make it difficult for
placement workers to take race into account (For overviews, see Patton, 20-27; 136-167).
Sandra Patton enters the fray with her empathetic study of meanings of cross-racial adoption to adoptees (On transnational
and transracial adoption, see also Castenada and Satz in Novy). She provides a well-stated overview of the controversy
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cross-racial adoption. She also places method at the center of her book; rather than claiming distance, Patton
tells her interview subjects that she is an adoptee, though she is not part of a multi-racial family. She uses
that to establish common ground from which to explore the difficulties of identity and race in the United States
(Patton, pp. 6-10). She designs her work to differ from the studies supporters of cross-racial adoption have mustered,
ones that demonstrate that cross-racial adoptees have no greater adjustment difficulties or lower achievement than
other children. Patton is instead interested in the meaning of race to people who have grown up in distinctly mixed
circumstances. She finds that adoptees sometimes experience their ethnicity as something fluid: as one biracial
woman put it,
"[E]ven now nobody ever thinks I'm Black..so in the winter when I'm much lighter, you know, I'm taken either
for Jewish or French or Hispanic. I'm taken for East Indian a lot.. [O]nce I passed out of adolescence and I felt
more of a whole person, just in general, then it became something I could play with" (p. 76). Experiencing
race, though, is not only what one makes of it. For some such fluidity was impossible; what white parents made
of race also shaped the consciousness of race for adoptees One read her daughter Little Black Sambo, complete with
accents; others taught their children critically about racism in the United States. The world outside the family
also shaped racial consciousness, evident in the quotation above. All adoptees experienced racialization as a social
rather than a biological fact, made through upbringing, appearance and the social meanings ascribed by communities.
In providing such a subtle understanding of race, Patton's study of adoption brings to life the concept of racial
formation (Fogg-Davis forthcoming).
Adopting from foster care often receives state financial support, and Congress tried to facilitate adoption from
foster care with MEPA alongside other changes in public policy. Adoption of newborns requires fees. Adam Pertman
argues that the primary problem in adoption in the United States today is the corrupting influence of money in
an exchange that should involve love and need (see e.g., ch. 8). Because he is providing a journalistic narrative,
he is less concerned with analyzing why money might be so important. Where we allow legally sanctioned stranger
adoptions, money or some other way of allocating goods under scarcity and limited knowledge is intrinsic. People
who want to adopt need ways of finding children. Adoption agencies and adoption lawyers provide that service. We
for services. Why would it be a surprise that an agency or a lawyer would try to help the process along by paying
birth parents for children, or paying people who will kidnap them? Stranger adoption where agents receive fees
will invites or resembles trafficking in children. Adoptions in Latin America have at times become more difficult
out of concern that Americans take home babies for parts, and as I write putative adoptive parents are unable to
leave Cambodia with their children because the government is concerned about trafficking. China demands a substantial
donation to the orphanage, made in hard currency, before anyone from another country adopts a child.
Richard Posner (1987) has most famously argued that because trafficking in children sometimes almost currently
describes adoption in the United States, we ought to allow birth mothers to get paid for their work, since they
are the only ones who currently cannot. (For an excellent response to Posner considering the public stake in adoption,
see Cohen 1987. Posner has
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assumed that payments would induce very poor women to place children rather than gain state support through TANF.
Not only are these not the most likely women to place children, we would truly be drafting the bodies of the young,
poor and fertile to substitute for the well-off and aging.) Yet we have every reason not to want to traffic in
children. A market implies that a good can go to those who can pay for it, often with minimal legal regulation:
people under 21 cannot buy liquor. Once one purchases liquor, one can dispose of it as s/he chooses, subject to
regulations concerning dangerous things one can do with liquor. In the 1987 incarnation of his argument, Posner
acknowledged the importance of some regulation, but he did not reconcile it with his market-based approach. We
have collective reason
to wish to ensure that children find good care, more difficult to do if we treat traffic in children as a private
market exchange. In the United States, birth fathers can have some say in what happens to children. Children are
not the birth mother's to place. Furthermore, it invites kidnapping of children to the extent agents are better
plugged into the international adoption network than birth parents are. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption
requires signatory countries to implement standards governing the fees that people can make, and prohibiting trafficking
in children. The Hague Convention also recognizes the claims of identity rights
of adoptees, asking sending countries that sign the treaty to retain information on children placed for adoption.
Adoption allows investigation of racial formation, of kinship, of nation and of transnational regulation and its
implementation. I have barely touched on the issues that have been of interest to popular audiences in the West,
as well as to anthropologists, historians and literary critics. Political scientists could have distinctive contributions
in research--adoption invokes transformations in legal consciousness and the meaning of court decisions among the
people who interpret them. In addition, the issues are ones that undergraduates could care about, making it a useful
site for teaching. Adoption deserves serious historical analysis linking children,
birth parents and adoptive kin to the international and national regimes in which they circulate. Americans have
made Adam Pertman's book popular; surely academics can do more of the careful work Sandra Patton and the writers
in Marianne Novy's collection of essays have provided.
Carp, E. Wayne. 1998 FAMILY MATTERS: SECRECY AND DISCLOSURE IN THE HISTORY OF ADOPTION. Cambridge: Harvard University
Cohen, Jane Maslow . 1987. "Adoption and Market Theory: Posnerism, Pluralism, Pessimism." BOSTON UNIVERSITY
LAW REVIEW 67: 105-175.
Fogg-Davis, Hawley. Forthcoming. THE ETHICS OF TRANSRACIAL ADOPTION Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Posner, Richard 1987. "Adoption and Market Theory: The Regulation of the Market in Adoption" BOSTON UNIVERSITY
LAW REVIEW 67: 59-72.
Copyright 2001 by the author, Susan M. Sterett.