- Babies without Borders: Adoption and Migration across the Americas by Karen Dubinsky, and: The Traffic in Babies: Cross-Border Adoption and Baby-Selling between the United States and Canada 1930–1972 by Karen A. Balcom
In recent years, scholars have looked not only at how “family” is redefined by child adoption, but at how the practice shapes and is shaped by public concerns extending beyond the domestic sphere. Two new books examine how the movement of children within and across national borders has become a project in state building itself.
In Babies without Borders, Karen Dubinsky argues that concerns about the transfer of children reveal deeply rooted anxieties about nationhood. As she notes, debates about adoption tend to be framed in terms of either kidnap or rescue. Dubinsky, however, demonstrates the limits of that framing: “Kidnap and rescue speak to certain truths but they are incomplete, partial and abstract. . . The intense emotional attachments between and adults and children in our world are too complicated to fit into simple binaries . . . Ultimately, the . . . problem [with these narratives] is that they . . . simply bear too heavy a cultural burden” (pp. 20–21).
The first of the three contexts in which she explores this “cultural burdening” is Cuba. On the heels of the Cuban revolution, many Cubans believed rumors that the revolutionary government planned to “nationalize” children—rumors fueled largely by stories broadcast on CIA-funded Radio Swan. Scores of parents sent their children to the United States in the early years of Castro’s reign—via Operation Peter Pan—hoping to “save” them from a communist [End Page 185] future. Starkly opposing narratives emerged on either side of the Straits of Florida: what Cubans saw as wholesale kidnapping, Americans saw as a noble sacrifice by parents protecting their children. Dubinsky then places that story in dialogue with the drama of Elian Gonzalez, whose return to his Cuban father after his mother drowned while crossing from Havana to Miami drew international attention in 2000. The public debate around Elian echoed the dispute over Operation Peter Pan: while Elian’s father was clearly entitled to custody of his son, in Cuba, the story was cast as imperialist kidnap, while sixty miles away, Cuban Americans decried “abandoning” Elian to Castro’s evil clutches. In both cases, the stories were far more complex than those suggested by the kidnap/ rescue narratives that emerged, as these “national” children became symbolic of the countries themselves.
Dubinsky then examines the limits of rescue/kidnap discourses in transracial (or “hybrid”) adoption disputes, comparing the adoptions of black and biracial children in Montreal to those of Aboriginal and Metis children in western Canada. In the late 1950s, Montreal’s Open Door Society championed transracial adoption; “the ‘we adopted a Negro’ narrative,” according to Dubinsky, “became a quintessential feel-good story of the times,” not incidentally allowing Canada to position itself as a land of “racial tolerance and liberalism” by comparison to the United States (pp. 66–67). Adopting parents saw themselves as rescuing children, but ambiguity infused the practice: biracial rather than black children were favored for adoption, and black communities in Canada were ambivalent about the project. Moreover, the project supported—indeed, redeemed—the white women who surrendered infants while largely ignoring the needs of black women. Aboriginal children on the other hand, experienced “the ragged edges of adoption” (p. 88). First Nations people saw the disappearance of children as part of an ongoing project in annihilation, while adopters framed their actions as a rescue project freighted with risk: “Individual horror stories, of Native kids ‘gone wrong,’ abused, addicted and ‘acting out’ circulat[ed] widely,” leading to dismal adoption failures (p. 79). As Dubinsky explains, however, narratives of “cultural genocide or humanitarian rescue” blot out a more complicated picture of both needy children and families and ill-prepared adoptive families (p...