‘Twas well after midnight when I came across some morsels of advice from the Ontario-based website familyadoptionplan.com. Under the listed advantages of international adoption is the proposition that "it allows adoptive parents to be matched with children that share their ethnic heritage…. It also allows socially conscious couples to bring a child into a much more advantageous and privileged living situation than would be possible in the child’s country of birth."

Contrast that with the site’s description of domestic adoption: "One major drawback is that there is no guarantee that the child you want will end up being placed with you. Public adoption agencies serve the interests of the child, not the parents, and will always place the child in the situation they feel is best for him or her…. You must also accept that many children waiting to be placed…come from difficult backgrounds and may have been emotionally, psychologically, physically or sexually abused. Developmental delays and medical conditions…[are] a risk you have to assume as a prospective parent of a domestically adopted child."

I spend a good bit of my professional life studying the ethics of adoption, and familyadoptionplan.com is hardly alone in its assumptions. There are at least 18.5 million children worldwide who have lost both parents, and their plight is largely shaped by North American parenting preferences. From the rushed airlifts of Vietnamese, Korean and Haitian babies (some who later turn out not to be orphans at all), to the rage for Chinese girls, to Madonna’s splendiferous beneficence—popular culture too often interprets international adoption through the lens of a "first world rescues third world innocents" narrative. What’s missing from this tidy plot is sensitivity to the social disruptions that render so many children homeless to begin with. Here are some thoughts about how to rechannel this mythology.

First, it would be helpful not to disaggregate international adoption from domestic (American) adoption. For example, there is a misperception that there’s a "baby shortage" in the United States. This is true only if one modifies the term to mean "healthy white newborns." There are tens of thousands of adoptable domestic children of color. The silence about their plight allows many to imagine (a) that American adoption practices are irreproachably race-neutral; (b) that all children in the developed world are better off than anyplace else in the world (when, in fact, we have just about the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialized nation); and (c) that our culture of adoption is unassailably moral.

The plight of homeless children in war-torn or poverty-stricken places is surely heartbreaking. And relatively speaking, children in the industrialized West are many times better off than the average child in Sierra Leone. But let’s not confuse "helping" global crises with the individual decision to adopt a child. We have an international crisis of child protection; but that’s not something that adoption alone, or even primarily, can fix. It’s just not a great idea to adopt a child because you want to end war or cure world hunger. Maybe you should work for an NGO instead or help plow a field. Such efforts are often undervalued, but they contribute significantly to the betterment of dispossessed children.

To posit adoption as "rescue" from turmoil risks inflecting the personal family dynamic with missionary smugness in a way no child should be asked to endure. For example, if you adopt your nephew and raise that child with the message that you are Mother Teresa for having taken him in and that he’s ever so lucky to have been rescued from sluttish "Aunt Sally"… Well, it’s got to be hard for a kid not to feel ambivalent about the part of himself that is born of Aunt Sally. Similarly, in many international and interracial adoptions, kids are raised to look down on their origins and "feel lucky"—to their documented distress.

Furthermore, adoption has become a form of trafficking in and of itself. The exchange of money, though facilitated by public policy, is particularly evident in the private adoption context. This commodification allows too many to think it is appropriate to "return" adopted children when problems arise, like so many damaged goods.

One can also observe here a fluctuating eugenic value system. If China values boys over girls, Americans choose girls over boys, no matter where they’re from. Color-ism and fad figure prominently in this perverse ranking, with prospective parents seeking kids from Eastern Europe, Africa and South Asia according to cultural images about who is more "like" whom, who is "born smart," who is prettier, who "exotic." But Angelina Jolie’s influence notwithstanding, the day-to-day discomfort we have talking about race and ethnicity ultimately leads to the conclusion that a healthy domestic black child must be harder to live with than a catatonic child from a Romanian orphanage.

Finally, the issue of international adoption needs to be examined alongside the developing market for assisted reproduction. More women are seeking in vitro fertilization or are using surrogates (often dark-skinned surrogates in the third world). Assisted reproduction is a well-funded industry that thrives on the idea that family is biological, or that women who are "desperate" to have children can do so only through "their own" eggs or, even better, "designer eggs."

In truth there is a "wealth," not a shortage, of children who need homes. Yet we seem to be narrowly rebiologizing "family" precisely at a moment when we should embrace our common humanity. Without a basic assumption that all the world’s children are "our own," we’ll never get past that unspoken sense of exoticism and boundary that fuels consumerism and neglect in the social sphere—or solipsism and disappointment in the personal.