Friday, September 06, 2013

The Liberal Roots of the Modern Adoption Movement

Two of our Fleasbiting bloggers--David and Desiree Smolin--were asked to write one of the three "cover stories" for the second issue of a new online magazine, "Gazillion Voices."  (We'll soon be posting more about Gazillion Voices--an effort we enthusiastically support--in another blog post)

Our finished liberalism and adoption piece is titled, "The Liberal Roots of the Modern Adoption Movement."

Here are the first few paragraphs.  (To read the rest of the essay, please click on the link at the end.  It will take you to Gazillion Voices.)

Please leave any comments you might have either here or at the end of the article in Gazillion Voices.


by David Smolin and Desiree Smolin


            Gazillion Voices provided us with the assignment of writing something about liberalism and adoption. We accepted the assignment largely because we agree with the purposes of Gazillion Voices to provide a platform for “adoptees and their allies” and to provide topics and content that will “reframe and reshape the conversation about adoption.” We like to think that we are among the allies! Nonetheless, the topic is awkward for us for several reasons. First, as long-term critics of adoption systems, we have tried to appeal to legal rules or broadly shared values, rather than to a narrow set of values that appeal primarily only to a specific group. The primary exception, our work on the evangelical Christian adoption movement, involves us as evangelicals critiquing evangelicals, using the religious beliefs we share with that group as a common basis for communication. Second, while we would characterize ourselves as political moderates, it would be more accurate to say that most of our adult lives have been spent in difficult spaces between political and other contesting groups. Unfortunately, in addressing the subject of liberalism and adoption we are stepping into new territory likely to make even more people unhappy with us. 

            Adoptees, of course, like all people,  run the spectrum of political, cultural, and religious perspectives. Nonetheless, much activist adoptee discourse critiquing various aspects of adoption has employed popular or scholarly language that is progressive, liberal, or “left” in rhetoric, reference, and tone. Added to this tendency has been the new wave of largely progressive critique of the recent evangelical Christian adoption movement. Further, activists addressing the long history and current circumstance of Korean adoptions are often reacting against elements of American and Korean culture and practice that are variously religious, conservative, and traditionalist. All of this can give  the impression that disputes over adoption, or specific aspects like transracial or intercountry adoption, are primarily left-right disputes.

            We argue, to the contrary, that the modern adoption movement has become embedded in all major streams of American culture. (In referring to the “modern adoption movement,” we are focusing on the popularization and expansion of adoption in the post-World War II era, including both intercountry adoption and domestic adoption.) Indeed, liberal and progressive thought is at the center of the modern adoption movement. Thus, any attempt to “reframe and reshape the conversation about adoption,” as Gazillion Voices and many others seek to do, must address the liberal roots of the modern adoption movement. We further challenge activist “adoptees and allies” who identify themselves as progressive, liberal, or left politically, to take the lead in critiquing the role of their own self-identified cultural/political/religious paradigms in the modern adoption movement. Adoption discourse that merely reinforces religious, political, or cultural identities and prejudices will become swallowed up in the broader fragmentation of cultural and religious values, and will do little to actually reform adoption.  


Politics, religion, and culture have become embedded in intertwined identifies defined in opposition to stereotyped images of enemy others. One such polarization is between secular liberals and evangelical Christians, who  so often  vilify one another. Yet, as to adoption, secular liberals and evangelical Christians fundamentally agree and, indeed, have agreed for years. This agreement is sometimes hidden by differences in vocabulary and justifications, with each side using rhetoric that the other may sometimes find repugnant. The agreement across this polarized divide is a part of a broader American consensus on adoption, from which each group draws. Americans share a common understanding of what adoption is, a common belief in the “facts” of adoption, a common view of themselves and the “other” in relation to adoption, and a common undifferentiated belief in adoption as the best solution to many child welfare problems. This American understanding reflects a naive blindness to the roles of self-interest in adoption, a disinterest in the power/privilege/gender inequality/class/wealth-differentials that drive and have always driven adoption, as we understand it, and a common ignorance of the history of the institution of adoption.