Today I’m giving my impressions and initial thoughts on a history book on a topic thoroughly ingrained in me: adoption. The book is called The Market In Babies: Stories of Australian Adoption by Marian Quartly, Shurlee Swain and Denise Cuthbert (Monash University Publishing, 2013). The book is the result of an Australia Research Council grant project to investigate the history of adoption in Australia. It’s a slender volume, but nevertheless it is a very good book and I would recommend it to anyone.
Why do I like it? Firstly, and I never thought I’d say this, I found the scholarly and thoughtful tone a great relief. Having done a PhD in history myself and struggled with the ‘scholarly voice’, I often find academic writing to be frustrating. In this case, I was very grateful for the measured nature of the words. The subject of adoption incites a wide range of emotions, and that can be exhausting. I fully expected to be on the proverbial emotional roller coaster with reading this, and it was wonderful to be able to read something and be engaged and not overwhelmed.
Secondly, just because they strike an excellent balance with their choice of language doesn’t mean that the authors have shied away from the issues. Their main title is evidence of that. Adoption has usually been a flow of babies from poorer, disadvantaged or discriminated against unmarried women towards wealthier, more socially advantaged married women. This book clearly deals with the assumptions about gender, class and wealth that have been main drivers of the practice of adoption.
It covers the main phases of change in adoption practice, which is usually marked by changes in legislation. Nineteenth century adoptions were usually privately arranged and informal, until the state moved to make regulations in the latter part of that century. Since then, a successive wave of legislation appeared every few decades, each time giving favour to the rights of the adopting parents. This began to change in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The introduction of financial support by the Whitlam government in 1973 (three years after I was born) is perhaps the strongest marker of this change. The ‘supply’ of babies for the market dropped dramatically, proving that the main barrier to women keeping their babies was economic, not moral. From this point, the discussion turns to practices of intercountry adoptions and the emerging practice of intercountry surrogacy, again highlighting issues of class and wealth.
As I said, it’s a slim volume. This means there’s not that much attention on the children. It’s mostly about the competing sets of parents. Its always been about the parents. The rhetoric of adoption has been ‘in the best interests of the child’, but in my view that’s largely all its been: rhetoric. The authors finish with a question. Does it matter where a baby comes from? Speaking from the point of view of a baby who is living the answer of ‘no, it doesn’t matter’ I’d like to say that yes, it absolutely matters, and the person it matters the most to is the baby. The voiceless baby, subject of all those competing projections of adults.