Adopt a Conscience

The politics of dignity prevent us from ‘saving’ the third world one child at a time

Madonna’s recent troubles began when she filed papers to adopt a Malawian boy, David Banda, as her son. She was then accused by the international community of using her celebrity status to side-step Malawi’s laws. The birth father subsequently made and retracted statements of consent to a gleeful media, and a great many international figures have spoken on the topic.

Behind the hype—whether justified or not—is an important theme: respect for the peoples of the Global South and their institutions. There are certainly variations in individual cases, but in general, international adoption seems to undercut the dignity of many of the world’s peoples.

The United States issued 22,728 immigrant visas to children in 2005 according to the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. My home, Guatemala, is near the top of the donor list having lost close to 3,800 children to the Untied States that same year.

There seems to be a tendency to oversimplify the issue to economic arguments about supply and demand. Northern countries want babies and attempt to get them from the countries that can supply them. What springs up is a market, raising the issue of a profit-driven baby industry.

That’s a reasonable argument, but it’s not the whole truth. Since there are over 120,000 children in the U.S. foster care system awaiting permanent homes according to the Associated Press, economics alone cannot account for the demand to adopt from abroad.

In Madonna’s recent defense of her decision on the Oprah Winfrey Show, she portrays herself as a kind of savior, appealing to the inherent nobility of her actions. David “had survived malaria and tuberculosis, and no one from his extended family had visited him since the time he arrived,” she said. “So from my perspective, there was no one looking after David’s welfare.” She then proceeded to blame the negative coverage on an irresponsible media, which was doing a “great disservice to all the orphans of Africa, period.”

People should realize the arrogance of this reasoning and the problems with it. International adoption, instead of being seen as the primarily self-interested act that it is, has become a way for people to assuage their guilt for a system of radical global inequality and extreme poverty.

Acknowledging the present state of the globe forces the realization that even if every “first world” family were to adopt an underprivileged baby, the children of the Global South would still not be saved. There are too many of them in need. The real solution—and here the moral and the economic solutions happily coincide—is to give these children a dignified way to live in their own countries and homes. If well-meaning families truly love these children enough to give them a better life, then they should work for the betterment of the Global South instead. We need ideas, skills, and wealth, in that order.

It doesn’t feel good that whenever I get on a plane out of Guatemala, I see one or two families taking a baby to the United States. Sure, under the best circumstances, the children are gaining a good home, a higher standard of living, and a better education, but all this comes at the expense of a country’s dignity.

Foreign-adopted kids lose their culture, but they also lose more than that. Culture can be studied—perhaps even learned—but the loss of pride and dignity can never be undone. There is nothing more humiliating than the inability to care for one’s own children. Dignity is the most important virtue for the health of a people with a common identity.

Kyle A. de Beausset ’08, a Crimson editorial editor, is an environmental science and public policy concentrator in Leverett House.