A Sealed and Secret Kinship: The Culture of Policies and Practices in American Adoption

A Sealed and Secret Kinship: The Culture of Policies and Practices in American Adoption

A Sealed and Secret Kinship: The Culture of Policies and Practices in American Adoption

A Sealed and Secret Kinship: The Culture of Policies and Practices in American Adoption

Synopsis

Adoption has long been a controversial subject in the United States as well as in other western countries, but never more so than in the past three decades. Why that is and how public attention affects the decisions made by those who arrange, legalize, and experience adoptive kinship constitutes the subject of this book. Adoption, the author argues, touches on major preoccupations we all have: who we are; why we are what we are; the balance of "nature" and "culture" in self-definition; the conflict between individual rights and social order.

The problematic nature of adoption in western societies is effectively contrasted by the author with cultures in many other parts of the world in which children are exchanged frequently, openly, and happily. There is no stigma, often even a high value, placed on being the adopted child in a family. This comparative perspective brings into sharp relief American, and by implication other western, policies that reflect a very different notion of kinship and family. Adoption thus reveals itself as one of the keys to western ideas about human nature, the person, rights, privacy, and family relationships.

Judith S. Modell is Professor of Anthropology, History and Art at Carnegie Mellon University. She is currently the director of the Center for the Arts in Society at the school.

Excerpt

Spotlight on adoption

Not so long ago veiled in secrecy and closed records, American adoption is now dramatically out. Out of locked file cabinets, out of the immediate family, out of the domain of social work, adoption struts boldly across the stage of American culture. Adoption is out in another way as well. Today the subject draws engaged attention not only from participants, experts, and journalists but also from scholars in an array of disciplines.

Spread across daily newspapers, stories of “reunions,” of two mothers “sharing one child,” and of “infants from abroad” show how thoroughly adoption tantalizes the American public these days. The stories also indicate the depth of change in adoption—the groundswell that profoundly alters the look of an age-old custom of “transferring” children. As recently as spring 2000, the state of Oregon unlocked previously sealed records, granting adult adoptees access to an original birth certificate. The leader of the movement for reform, an adoptee who had found her birthmother, posed for a New York Times photographer, confident that she had brought justice to the adoptees in . . .

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