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Adoption Matters:
Philosophical and Feminist Essays
Edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt
Cornell University Press
2005, $22.95 (paper)

Sally Haslanger recalls with delight the day her daughter Zina, feeling tired and grumpy, asked, “Mommy, can you do my hair?”

It’s a common refrain from daughters to mothers, but for Haslanger, it was music to her ears. A white parent who adopted two African-American children as infants, Haslanger had put considerable time and effort into learning how to do her daughter’s hair. “I thought, ‘Yes! We have crossed that line from it being a fight to a game to a real source of comfort,’” she says.

Haslanger, a professor of philosophy at MIT, recently co-edited Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays, a collection of essays that explore the complex and wide-ranging philosophical issues surrounding adoption. The idea for the collection came about after both Haslanger and her co-editor, Charlotte Witt, also an adoptive parent, struggled to find theoretical literature about adoption during their personal searches. While there was plenty of literature written by social workers for social workers or “how to adopt” books, “there wasn’t very much written in a more philosophical vein,” says Haslanger.

The essays in Adoption Matters examine a wide range of issues, from the questions of racial and cultural identity in transracial and international adoptions, to the ethical concerns of open adoptions (in which the birth family stays in contact with the adopted child), to the portrayal of adoption in children’s literature. Although many of the essays are written in a scholarly manner, Haslanger says the book is intended not only for academics, but also for “adoptive parents who have questions about the justice of current approaches to adoptions.”

Haslanger’s study of adoption issues began with her personal decision to adopt. “I found that writing and thinking about adoption became quite natural, given that I was so engrossed in it in my day-to-day life, trying to learn about the issues and make thoughtful decisions about how to be an adoptive parent.”

One such issue is the contentious question of the importance and meaning of racial identity. “Should we have racial identities, or should we resist having a racial identity at all?” she says. Some proponents of transracial adoption see it as a way to break down assumptions about racial identities. But Haslanger doesn’t agree. “It’s important to give people the resources to try and deal with that oppression.”

After adopting their children, she and her husband became active in the African-American community, mainly through their involvement with the St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge. “It’s important to me that my children feel comfortable in black communities, and that they feel comfortable being black, so that they aren’t dealing with racism from a position of ignorance or without the resources they might need, or the community or support they might need,” she says. – By Mara E. Vatz SM ‘04

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