Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Adoption Practice

Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Adoption Practice

Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Adoption Practice

Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Love: Race, Class, and Gender in U.S. Adoption Practice


Most Americans assume that shared genes or blood relationships provide the strongest basis for family. What can adoption tell us about this widespread belief and American kinship in general? Blue-Ribbon Babies and Labors of Loveexamines the ways class, gender, and race shape public and private adoption in the United States. Christine Ward Gailey analyzes the controversies surrounding international, public, and transracial adoption, and how the political and economic dynamics that shape adoption policies and practices affect the lives of people in the adoption nexus: adopters, adoptees, birth parents, and agents within and across borders. Interviews with white and African-American adopters, adoption social workers, and adoption lawyers, combined with her long-term participant-observation in adoptive communities, inform her analysis of how adopters' beliefs parallel or diverge from the dominant assumptions about kinship and family. Gailey demonstrates that the ways adoptive parents speak about their children vary across hierarchies of race, class, and gender. She shows that adopters' notions about their children's backgrounds and early experiences, as well as their own "family values," influence child rearing practices. Her extensive interviews with 131 adopters reveal profoundly different practices of kinship in the United States today.

Moving beyond the ideology of "blood is thicker than water," Gailey presents a new way of viewing kinship and family formation, suitable to times of rapid social and cultural change.


Adoption, like motherhood, has always been a woman’s issue.
It is women who give birth, and women have had their birth children
taken from them because of cultural, political or economic forces;
and it is women who sometimes feel they must relinquish their birth
child in order to protect that child. It is women who choose or
agree to take on the work of mothering


Race, class, and gender issues permeate and shape adoption in the United States. Adoption has always concerned race, from the first efforts by white settlers to adopt Native American children to the ongoing controversy surrounding interracial placement of children. It has an abiding location within a class hierarchy that draws children for adoption from the indigent or working-poor. Adoption today is also heavily gendered: women initiate the vast majority of adoptions; the preponderance of adoption social workers are women; and birth mothers are most often the sole parent for their vulnerable children. These hierarchies determine the structural risks facing children, the profiles of prospective adopters, and the institutions that operate foster care and adoption services.


Adoptions in the United States today are arranged through three major mechanisms. Public agencies accounted for 40 percent of all adoptions in 2004. This represents a large increase from the 15.5 percent reported for 1992 (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2004: 1; Stolley, 1993). These so-called public adoptions, or adoptions of children from domestic foster care, generally are accomplished through state agencies or the private agencies con-

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