The Madonna adoption circus

Human rights organizations will help decide whether the Material Girl can adopt a Malawian boy.

Topics: Adoption, Broadsheet, Love and Sex,

Madonna’s adoption opened a new international circus tent yesterday with the courts ruling in favor of 67 Malawian human rights organizations’ application to help decide whether the middle-aged Material Girl and her filmmaker husband are fit to adopt David, the 1-year-old boy she met while visiting a Malawian orphanage and brought home with her to London.

Madonna’s decision to mother a child from one of the world’s poorest countries, where an estimated 1 million children out of a nation of 12 million have been orphaned, has evolved into one of those stories where everyone has an opinion — from Princeton’s radical utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer to 8-year-olds in England.

The Malawian human rights organizations maintain that they are not against Madonna’s adoption per se; they think the government didn’t follow its own rules vis-`-vis Malawian laws that ban nonresident adoptions. But their objections to Madonna skirting due process has unleashed a larger controversy about the celebrity ex machina — rich white stars like Angelina Jolie swooping down to save poor dark children. This in turn has triggered a broader debate about all international adoptions. Is it ever right to whisk children away from their country and culture, instead of, say, giving their family (or some local family) the resources to raise the children in their native lands? Do international adoptions via orphanages inadvertently create baby markets where orphanage staff sell children and local parents are fooled into leaving their children only to have them disappear?

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Objecting to the idea of Madonna with a stolen African child is understandable. The history of misguided do-gooding by the white, wealthy and powerful has such an intractable history that it’s easy to just want to take the high ground and demand all charitable acts be vetted for selflessness. In some countries, orphanage systems have arguably done more harm than good. After the Romanian government closed its horrific orphanages, banned international adoption and created a foster care system and policies to keep children with their parents, the source of adoptable children also seemed to dry up. But in a place like Malawi, where there may not be enough healthy Malawian adults to adopt 1 million orphans, treating Madonna like she’s a baby robber is ludicrous. It’s asking that we preserve the culture of these malnourished, desperately poor orphans at all costs — even if it costs them their lives.

No one disagrees that it would be better to work to alleviate the poverty that gives rise to orphanages around the world. Through her project Raising Malawi, Madonna is collaborating with the Millennium Promise, an organization seeking to end extreme poverty one village at a time.

I know I’ll be slammed for this, but if you’re not some sort of wacko lactivating comic mom and you believe in adoption at all, it’s difficult to draw the line and say that because of race or geography or culture one baby is an appropriate candidate for adoption and another is not. I fear if all international adoption were banned there would be fewer people interested in the plight of these children. Besides, it’s unreasonable to think that laws can transform the impulse to adopt a child into a desire for pure philanthropic action.

No matter what Caitlin Flanagan will tell you, mother love (or father love for that matter) isn’t a wellspring of eternal goodness. It’s an enlarging of our circle of selfishness to include someone else. But if that someone else is a child who might well have died, I can’t help feeling that the act of adoption across borders offers a constant reminder that love and luck are terribly arbitrary. If other children could have been your own, why not take care of them too?

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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