Trading in Babies

By So Yung Kim Conductive Magazine
August/September 2009

Opening Salvo

I was raised to view everything in terms of how much money something costs. We never wasted food; we never even threw away a rubber band or a paper clip. We wore homemade clothes to make every dollar stretch. These were the values my adoptive family taught me.

A few things my mother always reminded me of: I was chosen, they paid a lot of money to the adoption agency to bring me here plus the price of my airplane ticket, and my life in Korea would have been one of poverty and deprivation.

A few things society always reminded me of: Adoption is a good outcome; severing all ties to birth parents is naturally good; poverty was the main “push” factor in my adoption; my white parents’ desire for children, and their ability to assert that desire in the form of dollars, was the main “pull” factor.

The secret, however, was that the push and pull came from the same side — the side of wealth and capitalism and ruling classes that save on social welfare spending by trading their social castaways on a vast and vibrant market.

Surrounding the adoption industry is a protective cocoon intricately spun by agency PR machines, humanitarian aid organizations, and governments that provide tax subsidies for families adopting children. For example, the United States offers adoption tax credits of up to $12,150 per domestic or internationally adopted child, and several individual states provide additional credits or deductions to offset adoption expenses. On the international market, adoption travel and tourism agencies promote a seamless shopping experience for wealthy Westerners seeking healthy foreign infants. They maximize profits by offering pre-adoption, adoption, and post-adoption homeland or heritage trips. One agency even claims to “specialize in international adoption, humanitarian, and missionary travel”.

Concealing Power, Condoning Abuse

When adoptees speak out about the human rights abuses that come with human trafficking, the adoption industry turns its back. This is the very system that paints itself as the savior of children, the one that claims to know and fulfill the best interests of the child, and the one that acts as final judge of who is and is not fit to be a parent. It cannot even tolerate adoptees testifying against it. We are dismissed as being crazy, complainers, angry, bitter, and a small minority. We are told it is a shame that, for us, things just didn’t work out, but it is not the fault of the system. We once again become receptacles for a system of shame.

Adoption is now considered to be so natural, normal, and inherently good that to think outside of the system is considered a form of insanity. Point out the power dynamic of an industry and an economy that depends on the buying and selling of human beings; refuse to stay within the framework of a social work analysis of adjustment and the cost-effectiveness of adoption versus foster or other institutional care; see the placement of children of color in White adoptive households as an extension of the colonization of people of color; speak out about the psychological, emotional, and spiritual costs of permanently severing and displacing children of color from their birth families and countries. These are the surest ways of being labeled crazy by the system that supposedly saved you.

Recovering Our Losses

Perhaps the worst numbing effect of the industry is in our inability to imagine life without it. In my experience, transracial international adoption is one of the most thorough and brutal forms of forced assimilation. I fight every day to think and live outside of the limitations the adoption system has trained me to view as logical. The adoption industry presents itself as the only solution to the problem of “unwanted children.” I find myself trying to come up with The Alternative that will trump the industry, as if a simple, one-size-fits-all solution could address complex social problems.

Taking the money out of the adoption industry requires a radical change in the way people think about the value of human life. “Unwanted” is a euphemism applied to children and their families who are too poor and have too few social supports. The making of money as a prerequisite for parenthood in a society that privileges the White heterosexual individual is a key component of the continued disenfranchisement of the least powerful. Our efforts to change this system have to be as complex and far-reaching as the market itself.

Progressive activists in every field, in every part of the world, can have an impact on the adoption industry, and work toward its eventual abolition. Currently, TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Republic of Korea) and GOA’L (Global Overseas Adoptees’) are doing amazing work in South Korea to hold the government accountable for the huge numbers of children exported for adoption since the Korean War, as well as educate the public and gain rights for adoptees. Coalition building between adoptees and other progressive people of color, anti-poverty, and queer activists would ensure that transracial and international adoption issues are built into their racial, economic, and social justice platforms. Arguing that adoption is something which is not natural but a social construct may appear radical, but few would disagree that a marketplace full of children should not be part of life as we know it.


So Yung Kim is a queer Korean adoptee living in Oakland, California. She is co-founder of Transracial Abductees, an organization dedicated to exposing the racism in the adoption industry and empowering adoptees of color. She recently completed her first short film, Homeschool, which explores themes of forced assimilation and resistance in her adoption experience. So Yung blogs at Outlandish Remarks on Wordpress.


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