With Her Malawi Adoption, Did Madonna Save a Life or Buy a Baby?

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Madonna is so easy to revile that you start to wish she'd make it a little harder. She knows symbolism like a Renaissance painter, and so you wonder whether all her world really is a stage, whether she knew that the whole world would watch her dance in the dusty Malawian village in her crisp white linens with the cosmically cute baby boy strapped to her back; that the press would be there waiting, scribbling, flashing when Baby David arrived with a bodyguard and nanny to join Madonna in her $15 million London home. Did she hope that by courting controversy, the stories that followed would get around to mentioning that Baby David's his life expectancy was in the process of doubling from 40 in Malawi to 78 in Britain? Or that she has donated $3 million to help 900,000 Malawian orphans with food, school, shelter?

Madonna's disciples have their work cut out for them as they set out to defend her. No, the adoption was not illegal, they insist, she had not pulled strings, "bought" a baby; no, he was not just her latest accessory, this was not Western imperialism run amok, she would honor his heritage. Yes, it is true that as Madonna's child he will never have a normal life, but then his life was all too perfectly normal where he came from; a mother dead soon after childbirth, two brothers lost to malaria, a majority of the population living on less than a dollar a day. Are we really so sure we know where compassion ends and colonialism begins? One retired nurse in Northern Malawi was blunt: "We can't afford to look after the thousands of babies that are being orphaned every day," she told the London Independent. "If rich people like Madonna take just one child it will be a major boost for Malawi."

But if you conclude that the present spectacle of celebrities competing over who can do the most for the poor is not such a bad thing, that still leaves one more disturbing piece of the story. David was not an orphan. His father, a potato farmer named Yohane, brought him to the orphanage after losing his wife and two other sons, and was too poor, too broken to take care of David anymore. "They are a lovely couple," Yohane said of Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie. "She asked me many questions. She and her husband seem happy with David. Madonna promised me that as the child grows she will bring him back to visit."

We don't let people sell their kidneys when they are poor. We deplore child labor, fight any temptation to treat children as commodities. But if a father is thrilled that his son gets a better chance, is that his right? Parents have forever sent their children away in hopes of a better life, sent their Moses afloat in a basket down the river to be found, if God smiles, by Pharoah's daughter. Moral instinct tells us that a father's love counts for something; taking a baby away to be raised even in a splendor does violence to the bonds that define who we are. But is that instinct our luxury, our indulgence? If we were trying to raise our precious children in a country where a great many will die before they reach the age of five, would we be so quick to exalt love over survival?

There are surely many millions of children who do not even have what Baby David had, one loving, living parent close by. Their lives are in the hands of fate: the same fate that allowed David to catch Madonna's eye, when the orphanage emailed her pictures, when she came down to play, and decided she wanted to bring him home.