Deborah Orr: I hold no brief for Madonna. But she's been hard done by
She got away with it once, though not without controversy. But Madonna's second attempt to adopt a child from Malawi has been turned down, because she has not been a resident in the country for 18 months. The star's first adoption, of David Banda, went ahead because the residency requirement was waived. But the rules are not being relaxed in the case of this second child, Mercy James.
There's no Mercy for Madonna as court blocks adoption
The rule is in place to discourage the trafficking of children, although clearly Madonna's fame, bitterly cited as the magic quality that allowed her to bend the rules before, is also a cast-iron guarantee that she has no intention of exploiting a child or passing one on to an exploitative third party. There is just no possibility of the whereabouts or treatment of Mercy James becoming murky under Madonna's care.
Yet high-profile overseas adoptions do have some very vexatious consequences. The British charity Save the Children made a statement in opposition to Madonna's latest attempted adoption. The organisation claims that "international adoption can actually exacerbate the problem it hopes to solve. The very existence of orphanages encourages poor parents to abandon children in the hope that they will have a better life".
In a country where there are already more than two million orphans – in Africa children tend to be classed as orphans if the mother is dead but the father is alive – anything that might encourage more children to be abandoned by their extended families and placed in institutional care is viewed as worrying. What might possibly be good for a single child, the argument goes, might be a dead end for others.
Save the Children argues that "the best place for a child is in his or her family in their home community". On the face of it, this seems like good common sense. The charity also suggests that "international adoption and the orphanages that often provide the children to adoptive parents from overseas can divert money that could be better spent keeping families together and preventing children from having to be taken away from their parents in the first place".
Yet Mercy James has not been taken away from her parents. They are both dead. She does have relatives who are in touch with her, and who have expressed distress at the idea of her being removed from the country. But the child, nevertheless, had been in an orphanage for at least two years. Her extended family clearly feels itself unable to care for the three-year-old child full-time.
The orphanage she first met Mercy James at is one that Madonna donates a great deal of money to. Yet, applying Save the Children's logic, this is the wrong thing for the singer to do as well. A well-financed and glitzily supported orphanage, one is invited to conclude, must be a further temptation for struggling extended families.
I hold no great brief for Madonna. Actually, I think she's a bit mad to mount an adoption bid straight after a highly publicised divorce. I find reports that she "has her heart set on Mercy", as if Mercy is a lovely mansion in Connecticut, to be queasily disturbing. But it also seems that whether in the domestic or the international arena, adoption policy tends to deal in impossibly idealistic absolutes, rather than comparative benefit.
Save the Children's own policy, whereby families are supported in keeping their children, must surely have some perverse incentives built into it. In comparatively wealthy Britain, there is much complaint that people are encouraged to have children when they are in no position to support them adequately, and that there is also too much effort made to "keep them in their family in their home community".
The poor condition of a minority of children's upbringing suggests that there is indeed cause for concern in that direction. Yet a major charity is in effect campaigning for this approach to be championed among more vulnerable populations also.
The promotion of contraception is fraught with difficulty. Yet it still seems astounding that the decades in which technology provided humans with the ability to control their fertility have seen a population explosion so huge that it threatens the survival of the human race. Perhaps Madonna might use her fame, her wealth and her fondness for children to better effect if she instead helped to publicise the benefits of careful family planning in the West, and in the developing world.