Issue 11.3 | Summer 2013 / Guest edited by Rachel C. Lee

Biopolitics of Adoption

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DNA and Criminalization

The neoliberal era has been a period of mass incarceration and securitization in the United States and Guatemala—indeed, across and beyond the Americas. Transnational private prison and security companies like Wackenhut operated in the United States, Mexico, and Central America to provide services in the aftermath of the massive criminalization of the everyday activities of the poor. (Wackenhut is now G4S, following its mergers with British and Danish companies.) In the United States, this meant most conspicuously arresting and jailing huge numbers of people for the possession of even small amounts of drugs, policies that are most often cited as responsible for the fact that the United States incarcerates a larger percentage of its citizens than any other nation—and probably the greatest anywhere, ever. In Latin America and beyond, there has been a crackdown on core survival activities, including the work of ambulantes, street vendors, who are now run off the street or forced to pay for licenses, or risk the confiscation of their wares, violence, and imprisonment—and the licenses may well be unaffordable (it is worth noting that the Arab Spring uprisings began when a street vendor who was being harassed about a license in Tunisia set himself on fire.) There are also special penalties for parents—in the United States, there was the strange hypercriminalization of cocaine use by pregnant women; the refusal of passports to men whose child support is in arrears; the paternity tests that make even men in prison the targets of child support enforcement. In Latin America, there have been laws mandating that people produce birth certificates on demand for the children they care for, criminalizing the informal circulation of children.

Adoption, too, has fallen under the surveillance net of security and criminalization, although not in the ways that human rights advocates in Guatemala sought. Beginning in the late 1990s, in an attempt to answer critics of the adoption system there, the United States and other embassies began to require DNA tests of mothers who were relinquishing children into adoptions; in 2007, the United States started demanding two tests (a tacit admission that one could be faked). One of the things that allowed adoptions from Guatemala to continue to the United States after a number of major adopting nations (Spain, Canada, the Netherlands) closed their doors to Guatemala after the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption entered into force, was the considerable advocacy efforts of adoptive parents.[18] In fact, the State Department delayed the implementation of the Hague Convention in the United States until 2008 in part to keep adoption from Guatemala available.[19] For adoptive parents, the DNA tests were very persuasive, central to the belief that the adoption system did not include the vigorous victimization of poor people, from the coercion of single mothers to kidnapping and even murder, despite the evidence of thousands upon thousands of articles in the Guatemalan press, international human rights reports, and even discussion in the US press. US embassy officials, less steeped in CSI media culture, perhaps, or simply privy to more information, understood that the DNA tests could not provide a bulwark against the massive coercion and violence that riddled adoption from Guatemala; it was all a show for adoptive parents.[20]

There was plenty of counter-evidence that adoption was full of human rights abuses—for those who were willing to hear it. In the mid-1990s, articles in major US newspapers like The New York Times and Miami Herald began telling the story of how children in Guatemala were kidnapped, sent to what Guatemalans called “fattening houses” and US agencies called foster homes, and disappeared into perfectly legal US adoptions.[21] Even earlier, in 1992, Guatemalan American writer Francisco Goldman detailed the same procedure in his novel, The Long Night of the White Chickens.[22] Throughout the decade of the nineties, domestic and regional NGOs and human rights groups argued that children were being disappeared and kidnapped for adoption, and other rumors had it that sex workers were being paid to get pregnant for an intercountry adoption “market.”[23] Furthermore, riots, vigilante actions, and even lynchings of those accused of involvement in adoptions took place in the highlands, and some of these events were reported in the international press.[24] In 2000, international organizations with no less gravitas than the United Nations and UNICEF issued reports denouncing kidnappings, murder, and abuse in adoption from Guatemala.[25] While no one suggested that all children adopted from Guatemala had entered the system in nefarious ways, it was clear to even a causal observer than some people who seemed to be in a position to know believed that there was widespread abuse in adoption.

As evidence mounted over the decades that adoption from Guatemala was riddled with corruption, kidnapping, and coercion, adoptive parents groups in the United States—most visibly around the online forum GuatAdopt—vigorously denounced all these reports and mocked or condemned those who made them as having ulterior motives. Something other than simple denial was at work here, however, because a case involving a mother named Ana Escobar forced them to change their minds, and some of the same people responded with real shock and grief. In 2007, Escobar recognized her baby girl with a US couple after she had been kidnapped; by 2008, she had joined Sobreviventes. Following numerous Sobreviventes demonstrations and a mothers’ hunger strike for kidnapped children, Escobar established her relationship to her daughter, Esther, through a DNA test, proving that the two prior DNA tests submitted to the US embassy had been falsified. After 2008, US adopters began to speak with regret about what they had failed to understand; one, writing in Mother Jones, titled her article, “Did I Steal my Daughter?”[26] In December 2012, Jessica O’Dwyer, the author of a Guatemalan adoption memoir, argued in a New York Times blog that prior to 2007, she had no way of knowing there was coercion and kidnapping in Guatemalan adoption, and insisted that she was deceived by the US State Department—the piece is entitled “An Adoptive Parent Won’t Take the Blame.”[27]

Just as “overpopulation” made sense to people as an explanation for poverty because they had been schooled to think that way through the broad, national-population-level discourses of eugenics, so too, I want to suggest, the structures of denial about violence and malfeasance in the adoption system in Guatemala in the United States were generated by the DNA tests. DNA tests produced a powerful scientific and legal object—the paper with results—that provided a bulwark against the claims of thousands of mothers’ testimony in newspaper articles, in human rights reports, and even in court. Kevin Kreutner, a moderator of, later wrote of why he initially disbelieved Escobar and Sobreviventes. “At the time, we had never seen evidence of a kidnapped child actually being adopted. We knew attempts had been made, but we wrongly believed that the Embassy approved doctor offices doing DNA samples were secure.”[28] In fairness, it has to be said that this is not true. As I suggested above, considerable evidence of kidnapped children being adopted had been offered and discussed in the press and on the site. Activists for adoption reform explained again and again how easy it was to falsify a DNA test, sometimes in court, where lawyers sought many times to get a kidnapped child back. It was not difficult to either dupe a mother into providing a blood sample—by offering to help someone at the public hospital to get medical treatment for her child, for example, and saying that a blood sample from her was necessary, or simply bribing or threatening a doctor into producing the necessary documentation. In a nation where more people’s first language is an indigenous one than Spanish, and many indigenous women in particular do not speak Spanish, the “official” language; where individuals may live a distance requiring a many-days-long walk to a bus that could take them to a police station or a court; and where the police and courts were widely believed to be involved in the adoption business; it just was not that difficult to disappear children. As the price of an adoption rose from US$15,000 to $30,000 in Guatemala from 1997 to 2007, there was considerable incentive to engage in violence or fraud to make an adoption happen.[29] Together with a weak legal framework that made adoption simple, and the striking powerlessness of impoverished people and even advocacy organizations as the authors of the genocide of the 1980s stayed in power, a DNA test seemed like a poor bulwark indeed against fraud and violence.

My point here is not that O’Dwyer or Kreutner or similarly situated folk are people who engaged in some kind of moral failing, or that their denial made them bad people. Did it have negative consequences for Guatemalan mothers who lost children? Certainly. Furthermore, it undergirded what I would call a structure of US empire, the deep affective commitment to having unfettered access to things that belong to other nations and people, including, in this case, their children—a point O’Dwyer implicitly acknowledges by comparing her innocence while being involved in a Guatemalan adoption to that of an American soldier fighting in Vietnam. O’Dwyer argues that she, like the hypothetical soldier, only understood afterward that she had participated in an immoral event (in her book two years earlier, she had exulted in beating an adoption agency that acted in a very suspicious manner, offering a child, taking a check from O’Dwyer, and disappearing).[30] But while we might fault the conclusions they drew, I don’t want to single them out, except to the extent that they offer insight into decisions that might otherwise be hard to understand. Kreutner and O’Dwyer engaged in their moral agonizing in public, and do not deserve any special condemnation for admitting to what many, many others concluded in private about the “cleanness” of Guatemalan adoption. Rather, I am interested in what the structures of feeling are that produce empire and violence out of our best attempts to do right—in this case, through the deeply intimate practices of family, love, and the generous inclination to raise children thought to not have a family. Conversations about adoption often turn viciously personal, and that is not my intention.

In fact, let me interject my own story awkwardly here, and say that I understand clearly what it means to be guided down certain paths of reasoning as a result of the voices which are most intelligible to us. I inherited from a queer community a conversation that was deeply suspicious of transnational adoption as an imperial practice, and so chose to adopt from US foster care, believing against all reason that abusive practices in that system had been conclusively addressed. Although even with the clarity of hindsight today, I might still conclude that in her particular case, my daughter was better off growing up away from her birth family, I have also watched over the years as she grieved their loss, and am certain that being wrenched away from them contributed to her profound struggles with PTSD. Because of her grief, I have become far more attentive to how mothers lose children, and I certainly no longer believe that the US foster care system is untroubled by abusive practices. Its invisibility to me at the time I adopted had to do with narratives about children “languishing” in foster care—a discourse I now see was racist, as most of the foster families it rendered invisible were black, brown, and/or working-class—and my social segregation from those who lost children to foster care, which became unsustainable for me after my daughter came to us. So, I myself am implicated in the same myopia that I am criticizing, and this is the source of both my urgency and what I hope is open-handedness in doing it.

To return to the abuses of the Guatemalan adoption system, DNA testing became common in the United States and Latin America in the mid-1980s through three different kinds of things—paternity testing, forensic anthropology designed to identify the victims of human rights abuses, and the criminal justice system. This genealogy situates Guatemalan mothers in ironic ways. They are strikingly unlike the single mothers in the United States whom the poverty bureaucracy and the courts might “help” by requiring their former partners and lovers to submit to a DNA test to establish paternity—because no one in this scenario was going to help Guatemalan mothers support their children; the only purpose of the embassy’s DNA tests was to establish that these were their children in order to take them away (requiring them to establish maternity so it could declare their children “orphans” for visa purposes). The criminological discourse positions relinquishing mothers as criminals. In the most common cases, where mothers were actually relinquishing their babies, asking them to agree to a DNA test was almost as invasive as the transvaginal ultrasound that antiabortion conservatives in the United States demanded of women seeking an abortion, although it was, at least, less awful than the relinquishment interviews the embassy was requiring in the late 1990s, which essentially demanded grief and tears as evidence of maternity.[31] The DNA test in Guatemala was caught in the same house of mirrors that it was in the criminal justice system in the United States; while most people treated it as absolutely incontrovertible evidence, outside of crime shows on television, the actual use of DNA tests is shot through with errors, corrupt labs, planted evidence, and false confessions.[32] The power of DNA to seem truer than any other kind of evidence is well documented in the US criminal justice system, where defense attorneys and even prosecutors complain about the “CSI effect.” In court, they say, jurors impute a kind of infallibility to forensic evidence, and imagine that in its absence, a person cannot possibly be guilty. In fact, the effect of the popularization of this kind of forensic testing is understood to be so corrosive that when juries are being impanelled, potential jurors are sometimes excluded if they watch CSI or similar shows.[33] Finally, the use of DNA in forensic anthropology highlighted the essential weakness of human rights discourse in Guatemala. In the 1980s, as the mass graves of the Cold-War-era civil wars across Latin America began to be unearthed, human rights advocates in Guatemala, as elsewhere, succeeded in being allowed to take DNA samples to begin to map what happened to los desaparecidos, the disappeared. In Argentina and El Salvador, groups of mothers of disappeared children have succeeded in different ways in developing DNA databanks to try to find where children might have been adopted to—inside and outside the country. Thus far, no such efforts have succeeded in Guatemala, the nation where the largest number of children were disappeared and adopted during the armed internal conflict.


My argument, then, is this: we have moved away from a biopolitical regime organized around population control, born in eugenics, and enacted in sterilization and the incitement of the desire to use birth control to have a small, modern family. This regime was worked out in Puerto Rico, and while it has not entirely gone away, it is far from dominant or hegemonic. In its place, we find an ideology in which the imagination of who can be helped has become vastly reduced—no longer communities or societies, but single, individual children who might be airlifted and dropped into a US or European nuclear family as an adoptee. It is not my argument that adoption is a bad thing, or that it might not be the best alternative in a bad situation. But it is my belief that adoption is always downstream from tragedy, from war, criminalization, or political economic contexts that have so torn the social fabric that informal networks cannot care for displaced children. Furthermore, coercion and terror and child disappearances are part of the political context of adoption, just as coerced sterilization is part of the backdrop against which large numbers of women began using birth control to plan smaller families. Eugenics has been replaced by geneticization; concerns about the “quality” of a nation’s population, as evidenced in and worked out in relationship to worries about the quantity of children, particularly in poor families, has given way to the criminalization of the poor and their monitoring via DNA.

As I argue in Somebody’s Children, Guatemala is only one among many stories we could tell about adoption and child removal—a list that would necessarily include the colonization of native peoples in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and the ensuing child removal and boarding schools; and slavery and its aftermath in the United States, from chain gangs, sharecropping, and landlessness to punitive welfare regimes during the Civil Rights movement and, subsequently, through the crack epidemic, welfare reform, and mass incarceration.

Adoption is not a politics or a practice that touches a large number of people. In the United States, even taking into account the relatively new practice of transnational adoption, the small number of stranger adoptions has been shrinking steadily since 1970. But it is an institution that looms large as a way of imagining communities, globalization, and the world. It tells us a lot about neoliberal forms of dispossession and accumulation, in which great masses of working-class people are understood to be so wretched and atomized that it is possible to imagine that their babies are just available to be picked up for those who wish to understand adoption as a practice involving “orphans.” Alternately, it means that alongside all the other kinds of material insecurity that characterize the lives of the majority of the world, they must also understand that their legal rights to their children are weak and vulnerable. Or, alternatively, in the ever-more-stressed middle-class white household of the United States or Europe, where women’s wages have become crucial in the context of stagnant real wages since 1970, education and getting a foothold in a career mean spending most of one’s reproductive years with little space for pregnancy and childrearing. Increasingly delayed age at first child—now almost 30 years among US white women as a group—means rising rates of structural infertility, with reproductive technology and adoption as the last resort for those who are flippantly and dismissively accused of wanting to “have it all.” Family is the place where we live our economic situation. Foucault argued that the invention of the concept of the population and the science of demography made a new kind of biopolitics possible.[34] Now, I want to notice how a new and more intensified concept of the orphan has shifted our biopolitical regime yet again, from population policy to the individual.

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  1. Alan Zarembo, “A Place to Call Home: The Anger, Tears and Frustrating Runarounds of a Guatamalan Adoption Case,” Newsweek, 15 July 2002: 25. [Return to text]
  2. Lynette Clemetson, “Adoptions from Guatemala Face an Uncertain Future,” The New York Times, 16 May 2007. [Return to text]
  3. Erin’s Segal’s book, The U.S. Embassy Cables: Adoption Fraud in Guatemala, 1987-2010 (Cathexis Press, 2011), documents in great detail that US embassy officials understood quite well the extent of adoption fraud. [Return to text]
  4. William Booth, “Babies Are Disappearing, Ugly Rumors Abound, and a Tourist’s Life Is at Stake,” Washington Post, 17 May 1994; Jan McGirk,and Sara Olkin, “Baby-selling Is a Major Business in Guatemala,” n.d.; Tim Johnson, “Rumors, Rage, Xenophobia in Guatemala,” Miami Herald, 4 June 2000. [Return to text]
  5. Francisco Goldman, The Long Night of White Chickens (New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1992). [Return to text]
  6. Olga López Ovando, “Casa Alianza y PGN Denuncian Ilegalidad En Adopción De Niños,”Prensa Libre/Archivo De Recortajes CIRMA/31.4 Niñez, 12 Sept. 1997; Karina Avilés, “Desde Guatemala, Red Internacional De Tráfico De Niños,” La Jornada, 22 Sept.1997; Karina Avilés, “Impunes, Tratantes De Niños En Guatemala,” La Jornada, 23 Sept. 1997. [Return to text]
  7. Booth 1994; McGirk and Olkin n.d. [Return to text]
  8. Ofelia Calcetas-Santos, RIGHTS OF THE CHILD: Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, Addendum 2 (New York: United Nations, 2000); Instituto Latinoamericano para la Educación y comunicación and UNICEF, Adoption and the Rights of the Child in Guatemala, (2000). [Return to text]
  9. Elizabeth Larsen, “Did I Steal My Daughter?” Mother Jones, 2007. Available at [Return to text]
  10. Jessica O’Dwyer, “An Adoptive Parent Won’t Take the Blame,” Motherlode Blog, 10 Dec. 2012, accessed February 9, 2013, [Return to text]
  11. Kevin Kreutner, “On Finding Fernanda and More,” GuatAdopt, 7 Dec. 2011. [Return to text]
  12. Laura Briggs, Interview with Hector Dionicio, Attorney, Casa Alianza (Mixco, Guatemala, 2005). [Return to text]
  13. Jessica O’Dwyer, Mamalita: An Adoption Memoir, (Berkeley, CA: Seal Press, 2010). [Return to text]
  14. For an agonizing sense of the interviews with relinquishing mothers that the US embassy was conducting in 1997, see one reproduced in full in Pat Goudvis, Goodbye Baby (2005). New Day Films. 22D Hollywood Avenue, Hohokus, NJ 07423, [Return to text]
  15. See Roberts 2012: 261-286. [Return to text]
  16. Simon A. Cole and Rachel Dioso-Villa, “Media, Justice, and the Law: Article: Investigating the ‘CSI Effect’: Media and Litigation Crisis in Criminal Law,” Stanford Law Review 61.1335 (2009); Dennis J. Stevens, Media and Criminal Justice: The CSI Effect, (Sudbury: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, 2009). [Return to text]
  17. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage Books, 1990): 36-51. [Return to text]