New Yorker Story on Lost Argentinian Children

Again I’m digressing to write briefly about something rather topical.   There’s a story by Francisco Goldman in the current issue of the New Yorker about using DNA testing to trace the childen stolen from their parents in Argentina.   I’m afraid it is available on-line only if you have a subscription so I cannot link to it.  (I do have a subscription, but I respect the copyright.)

I’ve written about the dirty war in Argentina before.   The New Yorker story includes vivid and harrowing details.   As a part of that war, the military government murdered many opponents, but if they captured pregnant women or infants or young children, they stole the children and placed them with new families–often with families where men had been involved in the murder and torture of the parents.

It is quite horrifying and Argentina has spent a long time coming to grips with it.  DNA testing has allowed some of the surviving grandmothers to locate the stolen children.   That’s the general subject I’ve written about in the past.

But this particular story brings with it a new complication to think about.   The story focuses in part on Marcela and Felipe Noble Herrera.  They are adopted children of roughly the right age.  They were adopted by Ernistina Herrera de Noble, widow of a powerful newspaper owner and herself a powerful person.

One thing I found myself thinking about:   Marcela and Felipe did not wish to undergo DNA testing.    Do they have a right to decline?   If so, why?  If not, why not?  The story considers several reasons why adults who might be children of the disappeared might resist testing.   In general, they have not been allowed to do so, however, and eventually the adult children here were tested as well.  (They do not appear to match any of the families of the disappeared that have been identified.)

I understand there is a lot of complexity here and I’d like to tread carefully.   I generally accept the idea that the voices of those most directly involved need to be heard and at least respected even if not obeyed.    Thus, in a totally other context, those who are donor-conceived want the right to be heard.

Now as is often and perhaps even always the case, there are other voices to be heard as well.  The voices of the grandmothers, for example, in Argentina.  And the voice that speaks for all of us and seeks truth and justice, however elusive those goals may be.

The problem is how to choose among the voices if they do not all seek the same thing.  This brings me back to the question in Argentina:  Do you mandate genetic testing over the wishes of the person whose genes are to be tested?    Perhaps you do so in the name of greater truth and justice?  Or in the name of the rights of the grandmothers?   Or do you decide that the now-adults who were once the children aren’t competent to decide–because their own views have been distorted?   (This last makes me particularly uncomfortable.)

I think the fact the tests came out negative–showing no genetic connection to any of the families of the disappeared–is probably beside the point.   You cannot know the outcome of the testing before you do the test.   For me the greater challenge is to articulate the circumstances under which a person should be subjected to testing over their own objection.   Does the experience of others who have been reluctantly tested but come to embrace the process tell us we should override the objections of others?  Or is that a ground on which people should be persuaded to cooperate.

You can see how unsettled I am about all this and so I’ll just leave it for now.     


8 responses to “New Yorker Story on Lost Argentinian Children

  1. See while I am generally a paranoid person full of conspiracy theory and whatnot I don’t fear dna finger printing for identification purposes. It says who made us and who we made, which should indicate who is responsible for taking care of us and who we are responsible for taking care of. I have held the opinion that every infant born should be tested against the people claiming to be parents so that any errors at the fertility clinic could be nipped in the bud right away and the people whose gametes might have been used against their will could have some say so in the distribution of their offspring they should at least have the opportunity to try and meet their obligations to their own offspring or give them up for adoption to the couple who originally thought the child was theirs. But I know that won’t happen so I’ve had to abandon that pipe dream. I really feel like ultimately its no different than finger prints which they require for any bank account. I don’t see what the big deal is and it could help solve crimes like kidnapping. If they turn out to be related to someone then its their choice to pursue a relationship or not.

    But that is not the way it works. In fairness they should not be forced they have not committed a crime

  2. whats the justification for testing adults against their will?
    parents are responsible for their minor children so thats the only reason I can see a DNA test being ordered. That’s irreleveantn to adults.

  3. Well K I think that the justification is an extension of allowing people to be responsible for their own offspring and if they were kidnapped and raised by others the parents may never rest until they know that their children are ok and if it is their grandchild or niece or nephew or cousin the seek because the child’s parent is dead I think it is out of a duty to that parent to make sure the job of protecting the child from harm is completed in their absence after death as a sign of respect. I think a parent whose child is stolen deserves that information even if many years have passed. That is the justification whether or not you can make people comply when not everyone has to take a dna test for id purposes, I don’t think it would be fair

  4. Julie,

    I had/still have reservations but my logical mind says they did what was needed to be done.

    I am of the mind that with circumstances such as Argentina’s Dirty War and the admitted taking of the “rebels” children and killing their parents and then giving the babies to the “army families” that a crime has been committed and in my mind a crime against humanity and a war crime. With sufficient evidence that a crime may have occurred dna evidence can be obtained. That happens every day in criminal law. I do not think it matters whether or not it is a baby being tested or an adult being tested to provide evidence of wrong doing by the criminal – I do understand the concept that the ones being tested are not the criminals but I don’t think they have a right to refuse in this case.

    Why people feel uncomfortable when it comes to adoption I think is what each person needs to explore for themself. Is it because your bias is that adoption = good and therefore the uneasy feeling?

    • I don’t think my uneasiness flows from what you suggest. Adoption in the circumstances here isn’t good. It does seem to me that transparency–about who is adopted, about when they are adopted, about who they are adopted from–is one of the best ways to try to ensure that adoptions that do occur are warranted. Lots of the problems in international adoption, for instance, seem to me to flow from lack of transparency.

      I think what makes me uneasy is more tied to how we treat people when they tell their own stories, articulate their own needs. It seems right to me, for instance, to listen to what adult adoptees say about their own experiences and to try to respect and learn from that. Ditto those who identify as donor conceived. (I’m not saying you always do what a person wants necessarily, you’ll notice.) So I think one ought to approach the adult adoptees here the same way. They don’t want to be tested–they’re pretty clear about that. What does it mean to accord that desire respect? What do we learn from it? And if we test anyway, then it is because there are other needs that override theirs. Are those the needs of the grandmothers? Of the society? These are the things I’m wondering about. And I’m wondering about what they will mean in other contexts, where they will take us.

  5. Julie – but what if that child now an adult is thought to have been an infant kidnapped shortly after birth and to solve the crime a dna test is the only measure. Did that not happen in NJ/NY (?) (made national headlines for weeks where the lack of a birth certificate started the story to unravel just a couple of years ago) – where originally the baby was stolen from hospital? Pretty sure they did the test – what would they have done if the child now adult hadn’t wanted the test? Would they have simply closed the case or would they have compelled her to have it done to prosecute the offender? Does it make a difference because the child now adult is what prompted the case or does the fact that a crime was committed take precedence? (I know I am not speaking well this morning – hopefully by now you can follow my brain)…

    I do understand and applaud listening to others stories and concerns – we aren’t in disagreement there – I just am curious regarding what takes precedence the choice of the victim or the prosecution of the criminal. In other criminal cases where say the spouse has declined to prosecute in DV cases they still prosecute and compel witness testimony.

    (typos and word issues apologies)

    • Right–one of the things about DNA is that it can tell us about the past. It can tell us about kidnapped children and babies switched at birth. I think you can articulate a couple of interests out of that–one might be the societal interest in prosecuting crimes. A second might be the interest in knowing history, even if there are no crimes involved. (I’m thinking about the accidentally switched babies.) There’s yet another interest (which I find intriguing) which is the interests of other individuals–like the grandmothers.

      Once you have competing interests you have to figure out how to weight them/choose among them. So for instance, I might say that the interest in knowing the past isn’t sufficient to outweigh the specific interests of individuals if they don’t want to be tested but that the interest of society in prosecuting past crimes is suffucient. (I am not saying that I have thought this through–just offering it to try to clarify what I mean.)

      There are actually other contexts where the rights of crime victims to control the prosecution of crime come up–domestic violence prosecutions, for instance, sometimes proceed over the objections of the alleged victim. All of which is to say there is a lot going on here. And that is really most of what I meant–that we ought not to see think that the expressed desire of the children not to be tested is the end of the story but that we need to figure out how to listen, etc. at the same time. It may well be that the balance here was struck correctly.

    • killer point! You convinced me

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