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The big, complicated issues that surround the popular practice of adopting a child from one country and raising it in another were slapping Karen Dubinsky in the face as she cradled her new Guatemalan son in her arms.
It was the spring of 2000. Ms. Dubinsky, a history and global development professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., had travelled to the little Central American nation to pick up six-month-old Jordi.
She also happened to read a terrifying story in a newspaper about a Japanese tourist who had been stoned to death by villagers who thought, wrongly, that he was a kidnapper. This was not the only time anxiety over stolen babies led to bloodletting in Guatemala, once famously branded a "child supermarket" for foreigners.
Contrast that with the reaction once she returned home: "That baby is very lucky," Ms. Dubinsky would hear countless times upon starting her new family life.
The professor recalls the juxtaposition of these starkly different interpretations of international adoption -- kidnap versus rescue -- in her new book, Babies Without Borders, a study of adoption and migration across the Americas. She wants to complicate, not join, this emotional tug of war; to urge observers to consider the intrinsic complexities of the long-standing argument between adults about whether children ought to be put on planes and airlifted out of a difficult situation.
"There is a way in which adoption is easier to grasp if you look at it in miniature, the tiny little telescope of the individual case," Ms. Dubinsky said in a telephone interview from her Kingston home this week. "It's usually pretty easy to figure out, and impossible to argue that something good hasn't occurred to the child. If you broaden the lens a little bit and look at the circumstances of the birth mother, that makes it more complicated. And I'm not talking just about stories of babies ripped out of people's arms, I'm talking about the birth mother who makes the ‘voluntary' decision. We all know that is not an easy decision. Nobody gives their kids away if they don't have to."
Now, take in an even bigger picture, enough to see the racial issues, the national issues and the global political economy that contributes to conditions of wealth and scarcity behind adoption files, Ms. Dubinsky argues, and it becomes increasingly clear that the mobility of children across borders does not fit neatly into simple binaries.
"To me that doesn't mean, ‘OK, shut down adoption', because adoption didn't create the big picture," Ms. Dubinsky said. "But I am saying let's stop looking at [just] the child and celebrating the heroic rescue of the parents. Even if that is true in that circumstance, that is not the only thing that's going on."
Babies Without Borders explores the political and cultural boundaries that may be crossed when a child is not raised by a biological parent.
Using Operation Peter Pan, which saw more than 14,000 Cuban children sent to the United States in the early 1960s amid rumours Fidel Castro was planning on indoctrinating them in the Soviet Union, or worse (there are stories of people fearing children would return as tinned meat), Ms. Dubinsky illustrates the "National Baby" -- a child that bears the hopes of a nation on its shoulders, and also represents its fractured self.
The same issues resurfaced in the story of another National Baby, Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy who was discovered clinging to a dinghy in the waters off the coast of Florida after a perilous journey his mother did not survive. "When international or foreign policy conflicts are fought through and over the bodies of children," Ms. Dubinsky writes, "the enormous but often unacknowledged symbolic power of children ensures that such conflicts will have a very long life."
When it comes to adoption, a baby is often not just a baby. Americans who learned about Operation Peter Pan were encouraged to "fight communism" by caring for the children who fled it, even as some Cubans viewed it as the snatching of a precious resource. Similarly, the radical practice of placing black babies with white Montreal couples for the first time in the late 1950s was loaded with promises of racial reconciliation, even as the sometimes horrific experiences of aboriginal children assimilated into white homes became "monuments of colonialism."
That two mixed-race adoption ventures in Canada could produce wildly different legacies (although also here, there are shades of grey) "suggests that how one imagines children, race and racial hierarchies is more significant than where."
Creating a multi-racial adopted family domestically was a necessary precursor to adopting internationally, says Ms. Dubinsky, and set the stage for a "climate of rescue."
Events like the 1990 Romanian orphanage scandal caused applications to skyrocket, wrote Ms. Dubinksy, and fuelled the "transnational politics of pity." Then came low-interest adoption loans, airlines that featured special rates for adoption travel, "culture camps" that taught adopted children their heritage, and Hollywood mothers with foreign babes. And with adoption agencies bearing such names as Heart to Heart Adoption or Children's Hope, trading in "the vulnerability and cuteness of waiting children, always pictured isolated, alone, devoid of parents, communities and nations, and waiting for rescue," says Ms. Dubinsky, it is little wonder that many parents, and advocates, view international adoption as a humanitarian effort, citing poverty, malnutrition and poor child welfare systems in sending countries.
"The fantasy of the global cabbage patch", she calls it, filled with children who need help. She notes it is glaring that in the international adoption debate the voices that are seldom heard are those of the birth mother and the child. That is starting to change, as Korean adoptees from the 1950s and '60s share their experiences, and others eventually follow suit.
Ms. Dubinsky's own international adoption story is a happy one. She and her partner Susan Belyea were told by social workers that they might encounter difficulties adopting in Canada as a same-sex couple, so she applied to Guatemala and was paired with Jordi. Throughout her research, she dreaded the possibility of discovering that her agency or lawyer was implicated in shady practices. She never did. "I know that no lines of illegality were crossed," she says. She met her son's birth mother, Hilda. She has a photo of the two saying a tearful goodbye. "You'd cry too if you lost me," Jordi told his mom which, she says, accurately summarizes "the emotions and the politics of adoption."
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