THE BLOG
01/20/2015 07:01 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

The Ethics of International Adoption?

Daniel Hurst Photography via Getty Images

It is a truism of American life that talking about race makes many of us uncomfortable. Less well-acknowledged, though no less true, is that the practice of adoption makes us uncomfortable too. After all, it was standard practice through much of the 20th century that adoptive parents hid the fact from their own children. Writing the cover story in the New York Times magazine section, Maggie Jones brings these two issues together in an essay titled "Her Choice Was No Choice at All."

The article examines the recent and small phenomenon of children adopted from Korea who, now grown, have chosen to re-locate to Korea (South Korea, of course; North Korea does not permit international adoptions and it would take the plot of a Seth Rogen movie to imagine North Korean children moving back there). Mostly, the article features interviews with a handful of these South Korean returnees as they describe what motivated them to leave the United States, and why some of them are now campaigning to end international adoption in South Korea.

I should make a confession: I write this as a member of an adoptive family twice over. My youngest sibling arrived from South Korea in 1975 when I was 9 years old; and my oldest child was born in China. Separating my personal investments from my analytic response is no easy task. Still, what struck me is that the intersection of race and adoption -- which is really at the heart of international adoptions save perhaps for those few children adopted from Eastern Europe -- makes people uncomfortable across the political spectrum and makes them sound an awful lot alike.

Take this statement, for example: "I don't think it's normal adopting a child from another country, from another race..." Sentiments like those might well have come out of the mouth of one of those Southern segregationists terrified at the prospect of miscegenation -- race mixing! -- and they undergirded any number of loathsome laws across the American south, including those that banned interracial marriage. But the quote's author is Kim Stoker, one of the anti-adoption activists profiled in the Times piece.

The idea that Stoker could presume to define a "normal" family has an even more current valence, of course. It is precisely the language being used by those still fighting against same-sex marriage. They've given up trying to portray homosexuality itself as the problem, and have resorted instead to arguing that gay couples can't raise "normal" children in a "normal" family.

Underneath this uneasiness with adoption-as-modern-day-miscegenation is an assumption equally as archaic, discredited and vicious: Biology = culture.

This was the bedrock of 19th century racial pseudo-science, and we all know the noxious results of it. White people, by virtue of their race, were inherently better than non-white people, and the roots of that superiority lay in their whiteness. Anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942) devoted his career to disentangling culture -- the things human groups create and learn and pass on - from the accidents of our genetics. The two issues are decidedly not the same. Being white no more disposes me to read philosophy than being black disposes someone to dance, which is what those 19th century pseudo-scientists argued.

I thought Boas had won the day, but this facile, debunked equation between race and culture seems to have returned. Those who are made uncomfortable by interracial, international adoption insist that being born racially Asian or African inherently makes you Asian or African culturally. Further, adoption opponents continue, raising a child born in one country in another constitutes an act of violence because the child has been deprived of the culture to which they (racially) belong. (I should note here that this is exactly the same rationale that the National Association of Black Social Workers used in their 1972 statement which opposed placing black children in white homes).

These backward-looking attitudes about race and culture are matched in Jones' story by equally troubling attitudes toward pregnant women. Led by some of these Korean returnees, the Korean government passed an amendment to the national adoption law in 2012. Women considering giving their children up for adoption must now receive "counseling," they must wait seven days before relinquishing their baby, and all adoptions must now be registered through the courts.

Substitute the word "abortion" for the word "adoption" and this law sounds remarkably like any number of the restrictive anti-choice laws that have been passed in states around this country. In both cases, the agendas of a set of zealous activists are being imposed on the bodies of pregnant women who, apparently, can't be trusted to make a difficult choice on their own.

I realize full well that all adoptions begin with some fundamentally sorrowful event. A mother dies in childbirth; parents too impoverished to raise another child decide the best alternative is to give their baby up; a baby born out of the local conventions of a "normal" family is, or will be, shunned. All adopted children have to confront that reality as best as they can, and their adoptive parents have to facilitate that process as best as they can. And if these Korean adoptees can make happy, successful lives in Korea -- so much the better.

But it isn't at all clear to me that banning international adoption -- in the name of racial purity and cultural integrity -- solves the problem that as I write this another mother has died in child birth somewhere leaving a child without a family. In fact, according the World Health Organization, 10 million children under the age of 5 die from violence, malnutrition, disease or some combination the three every year. One thousand every hour. International adoption cannot solve this humanitarian crisis, but ending the practice of international adoption will arguably make it just a little bit worse.

There is a throw-away line in Jones' piece that brought me up short. The new anti-adoption law has been successful in reducing the number of children adopted from South Korea, Jones reports, and then she off-handedly notes "since the law was passed, the number of abandoned babies has increased -- though whether that's a direct result is unclear." In an article sub-titled "the ethics of international adoption" that seems remarkably cavalier.

In fact, the results are quite clear elsewhere around the world. According to a 2009 study, after the cessation of international adoption in Vietnam: "Now we have... a 'tide of unwanted newborns' overwhelming health care centers in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in the country."

Those who object to international adoption and are working to end it have failed to tell us just exactly what the better alternative would be. They have not, because they cannot address the ethical questions that come in the form of those abandoned children and their diminished futures.

Steven Conn teaches history at Ohio State University. His most recent book is Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the 20th Century.