The orphanage as site of euthanasia.

I’d like to pick up on the discussion in the item “Adoption as House Arrest” [ link ] where we were discussing whether formerly children might have been “better off” in an orphanage. My adoptive father’s parents and uncles were brought up in orphanages in New York City, and I think this was a core part of his desire to adopt. Because of the beatings they received, my great uncles were never quite “right”, as we used to say in the family.

But expanding on this. I remember how disturbed I was when I was shown the registers of my orphanage here in Beirut going back to 1900, and noticing the repetition of the word written down in beautiful calligraphic penmanship and red ink, superimposed over the announcement of arrival: “Décedé(e)” (deceased). Most of these children were seen as “unadoptable”, given mental or physical handicaps.

This haunted me for months until a fellow adoptee brought to my attention the Butterbox Babies [ link ], the story of minimal care given to children not adopted in a maternity home in Nova Scotia, referred to now, out of historical context, as “murder”.

I consider this to be the Great Unspoken of adoption and of orphanages, namely, the role of the orphanage in terms of social policy directed toward the poor, forced to conform to minimal norms of ethics and morality (“feeding” sugar water to babies), yet functionally bent on literally ridding the population of those unable to “make the Darwinian grade”.

So much of adoption mythology (salvation, being “better off”, ideas of being “lucky” or “chosen”, etc.) revolve around this idea of having survived something so horrible we can’t even bring ourselves to speak about it. I post this without judgment, in the sense of not blaming orphanages or those in control of them, but rather point my finger at an economic, cultural, and political system that might lead up to such a state of affairs.

I’m wondering if this kind of thing is evident in other orphanages in other countries, and how it manifests itself. I’d also propose that the virulent pro-adoption stance of groups such as “Reece’s Rainbow” stems from a kind of unconscious cultural guilt that needs to project onto others what the dominant culture itself historically has always done without so much as blinking an eye, much less a coming to terms with its own actions.

12 thoughts on “The orphanage as site of euthanasia.

  1. In Indian Country (across North America) there were residential boarding schools where children were abducted at gunpoint and assimilated, tortured and some murdered. Completely legal but morally reprehensible. Thank you Daniel for this post.

  2. I dislike most US-made comedies (issues of content aside) because they tend to be too middle-of-the-road. I want my comedy to be as ridiculously board as “Ace Ventura Pet Detective” or as dead-pan as “Airplane”. stuff in-between just seems to be timid. (Because “South Park” is reactionary, it fails to be a comedy in the first place.)

    The problem that strikes me in this discussion of orphanages is that they are too timid and middle-of-the-road as well. They arise out of an ethical impulse (to care for the unwanted, particularly children) but can’t bring themselves to really do the job right (which would be, in one sense, to make them into a permanent, Montessori-like schools, until the children are grown).

    This points to the necessity of abortion on the one hand and the complete abolition of adoption on the other–and by the abolition of adoption, I mean the complete reinvention of what it means to take an “alien” child into your home as your own flesh and blood. If the child-to-be is not going at minimum to get the same fucked-up family life accorded to any blood-relative-born child, then infanticide is a more just social policy than foster care and orphanages. (I have a friend who works in Child Services, and she would no doubt be thoroughly saddened that I would say such an incendiary thing). Of course, we might critique the institution of family generally in this light and question the ethicality of creating children at all. And my position is that adoptees would sell themselves short to demand “family life” as is currently inflicted on blood-related-born children. Marriage equality may be an absolutely essential ethical minimum, but it is still a minimum.

    Hats off to human resilience for those who survived orphanages, foster care, and adoption. The maxim has it you can’t make a purse of a sow’s ear, but that’s exactly what we’re asked to do and, strangely enough, sometimes manage to–like the bumblebee flying, it shouldn’t happen, but it does. It might be White slander, but various aboriginal tribes practiced infanticide for unwanted newborns–as is so often the case with so-called “primitives,” I appreciate their lack of pretense. Orphanages are just such a pretense, which nevertheless does not stop some good people who work in them from also trying (and sometimes succeeding) in making a purse out of a sow’s ear as well.

    The slow, systemic death (the euthanasia) that orphanages affect under this description can only be resisted.

  3. When I bring this topic up, I often find myself voicing disbelief before I even get to the premise I’m presenting, it’s so horrid a concept. And then you read a headline such as “Mass grave of up to 800 dead babies exposed in County Galway”, from an article such as this one:

    According to a report in the Irish Mail on Sunday, a mass grave has been located beside a former home for unmarried mothers and babies in County Galway. The grave is believed to contain the bodies of up to eight hundred babies, buried on the former grounds of the institution known locally as “The Home” in Tuam, north of Galway city, between 1925 and 1961.

    And I don’t think there is really much more that can be said on the subject.

    • What exactly is horrific here? Elevated infant morality rates? (If there’s infanticide here, it’s the infanticide of neglect not murder.) I’m sure Afghanistan (worst infant mortality in the world, last I checked) is more than keeping pace (I know you’re not trying to create a rivalry of numbers). Is it that it happened in the Occidental (civilised?) world? 800 over 36 years = 23 per year. We can multiply that by the number of similar homes at the time. Also, after 1960, the infant mortality rate in the US and Ireland is roughly the same (and Ireland currently does better than us, as do 33 other countries.

      From the article, there’s this: “Many of the children who survived in the mothers and babies homes were later forcibly adopted, most often to the USA. Between 1945 and 1965 more than 2,200 Irish infants were forcibly adopted, an average of 110 children every year, or more than two a week. ” That’s nearly five times the mortality rate.

      Which brings me, really, to my real point. White anthropologists sometimes report with disgust on early infanticide by different tribal peoples. The drier-eyed commentators note the straightforward calculus done by mothers, who recognise (1) another mouth to feed is prohibitive or (2) the quality of life for the infant may suffer because of resource shortages or (3) both, or (4) something else.

      It’s an open question whether “better dead than adopted” holds water. It shifts the grief (if any) to the mother who lost her child to death than dispossession (which outsources or subsidises the grief to the child as well).

      • The “horrid concept” is that of any society or culture manifesting a place of “charity” and “beneficence” to mask class-based genocide. I don’t deny it happens historically and invariably, but I still find the concept deeply and viscerally disturbing. The war in Afghanistan was designed to kill, and although it might present itself as a “liberating” project with “collateral damage”, I don’t see the same inversion, for reasons having to do with a differentiation between aggressor and victim. The 2006 July War on Lebanon killed 500+ children, a third of the total number of victims, and again, there is no inversion here. Irish society using an institution founded in faith to treat human beings as invalid entities according to that faith is, to me, horrifying. I am not presenting this case as one “supreme” over others; I am simply referring to this contradiction and inversion.

      • Daniel: I’m not following your use of “inversion”. What do you mean?

        As for, “Irish society using an institution founded in faith to treat human beings as invalid entities according to that faith is, to me, horrifying”–that I agree with entirely. The 800 seemed (to me) the emphasis.

      • Not really, except perhaps in comparison with other similar crimes (I haven’t for example counted the number of “deceased” at my orphanage). Like you are saying, per annum, it’s not much in the big picture. I think there is something about a common grave of 800 that is deeply disturbing though, in the sense that criminals return to the same place and recreate the same crime without any apparent sense of remorse….if that makes sense. Here the dimension of time seems to telescope in on itself….

      • I apologise if the tone of my response seems overly callous. That’s not the intention.

      • I wouldn’t say there is any problem in the tone; there might be one of projection and reach. I am never fond of having to defend myself concerning things I didn’t say….I don’t deny that historically speaking infanticide occurred. And both the Bible and the Qur’an make reference to the repugnance of such a practice. Which brings us to this church-based charity burying children in unmarked graves, which according to the Church’s own tenets, is in and of itself a “horrific act” with great political and religious import, above and beyond their neglect and death at the hands of church workers. Within this context is something horrific; not something that is “more” or “less” than other horrific acts we might mention.

  4. It’s…stunning. Some of us are considered abject because we come from the “enemy/outsider classes”. Some of us are considered abject because we come from within the dominant class, but we don’t quite “make the grade”. I’m so sorry.

Adoptees, what do you think? We welcome your replies!

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