Academic journal article Family Relations

Genetic "Mysteries" and International Adoption: The Cultural Impact of Biomedical Technologies on the Adoptive Family Experience

Academic journal article Family Relations

Genetic "Mysteries" and International Adoption: The Cultural Impact of Biomedical Technologies on the Adoptive Family Experience

Article excerpt

Genetic "Mysteries" and International Adoption: The Cultural Impact of Biomedical Technologies on the Adoptive Family Experience*

This paper argues that the increasing medicalization and geneticization of North American society may be influencing how and why adoptive families think-and worry-about their children's birthparents, their children's `health risks', and about their own role as parents in genetic terms. It further discusses why these processes may be causing adoptive parents unnecessary anxieties. It suggests that family professionals and social workers should be aware of the effects of these socio-cultural processes and of the real limitations of genetic techniques to predict, diagnose, and cure disease in order to better respond to prospective adoptive parents' need for support and information.

Key Words: genetic technologies, international adoption, medical histories, medicalization, North America, parental anxiety.

To what extent has the social bias against adoptive parenting taken a medical bent? Adoptive parents are aware that they may never know anything about the birthparents of their internationally adopted children. Nevertheless, they often imagine what these individuals might be like. Their imaginings, however, are not limited to thoughts about birthparents as individuals only. Adoptive parents also think of the day when their children might want to find their birthparents. They also contemplate unknown medical histories and ponder the potentials of DNA matchings in futuristic birthparent `searches'. It is obvious that parents want their children to be healthy. But these issues commonly arise even among parents of perfectly healthy children. Why are such biomedical yearnings becoming prevalent?

Medical researchers to date have focused on the health problems and health-related issues surrounding internationally adopted children (Sills Mitchell & Jenista, 1997a, 1997b). Yet the medical issues that concern adoptive parents in North America go beyond dilemmas of health and illness. Their concerns enter into the realm of the medical abstract, comprised of unknown futures and unknown health risks. It is the cultural environment that influences the biomedical imaginings of adoptive parents. Particularly, the medicalization and geneticization of North American society have added new dimensions to these biomedical imaginings. These two related processes together have helped direct cultural practice and values toward a dependence on and acceptance of the authority and discursive messages of biomedicine and new genetic technologies. Family professionals and social workers should be aware of these processes and their social effects in order to better respond to prospective adoptive parents' need for support and information. The increasing sophistication of genetic technologies may conceptually empower adoptive parents when they think of how these technologies can be used in the future to predict, detect, and cure disease or find an unnamed birthparent. However, the medical discourses surrounding new genetic technologies seem to be overemphasizing the medical and conceptual power of genetic connectedness. This may contribute to unnecessary anxieties. With these discourses in mind, I discuss how adoptive families are beginning to think-and worry-about their children's birthparents, of their children's `health risks', and about their own role as parents in genetic terms.

Methodologies

The interview and Internet material discussed in this paper represent some of the preliminary findings of a larger research project, for which I was a primary research assistant and interviewer, entitled "`Birth-Culture': Race and Culture Today." The "birth-culture" concept, as a term, broadly refers to the culture of the birthfamily/birthplace of an adopted child. However, `birth-culture' is also a term that has arisen at the intersection of many other forms of discourse. It seems to assume a fundamental link between the facts of biological birth and cultural heritage (see Edelsward, 2000). …

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