The Baby Market

International adoptions can be ugly affairs. But want something badly enough...

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Today I was thinking how similar an iPad is to a Guatemalan baby.

   

  • Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth by Erin Siegal. 317 pages. Cathexis Press. $14.95.

Stay with me here. There is no shortage of information about what it takes to manufacture an iPad. You can read about conflict minerals that are funding civil wars and atrocities, or hear about the inhumane working conditions at the plants that manufacture Apple products. Workers have, one after another, killed themselves at work. Then there is the scar the iPad will leave on the world once you’ve discarded it, which you will, for a shinier, prettier, and faster version. Chemicals will leak into the soil. Probably not our soil, of course. Those old iPads will be shipped to poorer countries, most likely. The iPad may make your life a little bit better, but it’s making the world a little worse.

None of this is news. The information is freely available. And yet we buy the iPad anyway: partly because we figure that one less iPad in the world is not going to make much of a difference (it’s not like there is an anti-Apple global movement); partly because we think we’re entitled to one if we can afford it; and partly because we have been told for so long that everything we do, consume, or enjoy is either (or simultaneously) destroying the world or giving us cancer. It has become so easy to ignore such reports. One just wants to put blueberries on cereal, not think about the migrant workers that harvested them and those workers’ awful living conditions, or about the pesticides sprayed on the berries that are probably killing baby birds right this second. Life is not a quick list of pros and cons: It’s an impossible calculation you’re asked to do whenever you enter a store or put something in your mouth. It’s no wonder so many of us sweep away concerns and simply buy the things we want.

And we can, easily, switch over into “La la la I can’t hear you!” mode. It’s a weird quirk in our human brains, this ability to refuse to connect future damage to our current choices. A blindingly massive blind spot in our rational thought. Want can outstrip any moral considerations in a second, and at this point, maybe it has to if we’re to get through the day.

There are women and families in Erin Siegal’s Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth that treat babies an awful lot like iPads. Siegal started the project as a photojournalist. She wanted to take photos of happy adopted babies with their happy American families. But after a little research, she came across news stories in the Los Angeles Times about child-trafficking rings, and a report in the Miami Herald saying “child robbery is extraordinarily commonplace.” What started as a human-interest story quickly turned into an investigation of the kidnapping and attempted adoption of a 2-year-old Guatemalan girl named Fernanda.

Information on the corrupt side of international adoption has certainly not been scarce. UNICEF has produced reports. Television news magazines have broadcast feature stories. Mothers have spoken out to say that their children have been kidnapped, or that they were told at the hospital that their child was stillborn or had died during birth. In 1998, Guatemala’s Ministerio Público found that 180 women were not actually related to the children they were trying to relinquish into the adoption process, and the next year it was discovered that one woman had relinquished 33 children, all of whom she claimed were her biological children and all of whom were adopted by parents in the United States. It’s still not clear whose children they were.

In 2000, a United Nations Human Rights Commission report found that in Guatemala:

What started out as genuine efforts to place children in dire need of homes turned into lucrative business deals. The information provided… suggests that Guatemala has the weakest adoption laws in Central America. Trafficking of children is not even typified as a crime under the law. It is reported that a stiffer penalty is imposed for the theft of a car than for the theft of a child.

The American demand for adoptable babies is so great that some residents of poorer nations see this as an opportunity. Babies become commodities. While there are children in need, and overcrowded orphanages, and children suffering in neglect and poverty, there are also scams and kidnappings and blackmail and murder. And yet those reports did not see a drop in the demand for children from Guatemala. In 2006, a baby born in Guatemala had a one in 100 chance of being adopted into the U.S. According to Siegal, when Guatemala announced the country was temporarily closing itself off from international adoption, it saw a spike in requests and new adoption applications as American families — and it was almost entirely American families driving this market — rushed to obtain babies before it was too late.

You can, if you want to, shop for an adoptable child via the Web on sites like precious.org. It’s a little like looking at electronics. Or maybe apartment listings. You get a photo, some personal statistics, a few lines about the child’s personality and desirability. You can do searches based on your specific wants: gender, age, place of origin. Siegal notes, “Special-needs children were available ‘on request’ and were discounted.” Children from Africa seem particularly hot right now. Precious.org does not seem to offer much information about Africa’s adoption situation, or how it guards the system against fraud, but with a few Google searches you can find out that African nations such as Somalia have not joined the Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, meaning its system is not as subject to oversight as countries that have.

But that’s the danger of turning every desired object into a product and every living breathing person into a consumer. Those ancient maternal drives can be warped when the goal has a price tag rather than a biological impulse. In 1994, the international adoption scene began to be referred to as a “service industry” in official embassy language. Siegal profiles one American woman named Betsy Emmanuel who unknowingly tried to adopt a child who had been kidnapped. She had been told the mother was a prostitute and that the child deserved a better future in the States. (In fact, the woman was an office worker, a cleaner, and a cook.) When that woman came forward with her story, other American women excoriated her. Carrie McFarland, another woman using the same adoption agency, wrote to Betsy after she went public in an effort to reunite the child and rightful mother: “Adopting is my ONLY chance at having a daughter. [This] has the end result of jeopardizing the 150 cases in process with CCI — my case included!” An investigation would mean the adoptions of many of these women could be put on hold. Or, perhaps their adopted children could be revealed to be stolen children. Many of the women who wrote to Betsy seemed to prefer not to know, with one family refusing to participate in a voluntary DNA test to see if their daughter is a girl reported to have been kidnapped in Guatemala.

Much of the pressure to de-regulate the adoption industry, decreasing the little oversight it currently has, comes from American families who organize letter writing and fax campaigns to the Guatemalan embassy and to American politicians, according to cables that came from the embassy. And looking through online forums and adoption websites, many of them implicated in Siegal’s book for at least looking the other way, have responded to the book and its list of crimes with a plaintive, “We didn’t know!” (usually swiftly followed by reminders of how many neglected and adoptable children there are in the world). How much they knew is a good question, but one that’s difficult to level at another person when there is so much willful not-knowing in most of our daily lives.

Last year, monologist Mike Daisey (a self-confessed Apple aficionado) debuted his latest show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” Intrigued by random photographs taken inside the plant in Shenzhen, China where Apple products are manufactured, he traveled to China to talk to the people who make the technology he loves so much. On his first day, he meets 12-year-old girls who work at the plant. They tell him that when inspectors come to check the ages of the workers, the supervisors simply pull the girls from the line. Apple can, thereby, claim its plants are not engaging in child labor.

Mike Daisey asks:

Do you really think Apple doesn’t know? In a company obsessed with the details, with the aluminum being milled just so, with the glass being fitted perfectly into the case, do you really think it’s credible that they don’t know? Or are they just doing what we are all doing? Do they just see what they want to see?

20 January 2012

Jessa Crispin is editor and founder of Bookslut.com. She currently resides in Chicago.

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