This paper focuses on one of the ‘child-trafficking scandals’ that occurred in Brazil in the 1990s. Ethnographic research was carried out between 2000 and 2001 within a movement of poor families formed in São Paulo to put pressure on the authorities to review the
legal procedures that had led to their children being placed for national and international adoption. Fieldwork was supplemented by other data, including reports by legislative bodies, articles in the press, and case files involving the termination of parental rights. This paper explores views
on international adoption among members of the Brazilian elites such as judges, agents in the field of child protection and journalists, in the context of old but persistent neo-Malthusian ideas. Although the Brazilian birth rate is now below the replacement level, it is still common to blame
‘irresponsible’ reproduction among the urban poor for violence in large cities. Drawing a parallel with the routine sterilization of women that prevailed for decades and was encouraged by Brazilian physicians, the paper examines how, in a ‘struggle against poverty’,
judicial agents took it upon themselves to enforce ‘birth control’ through adoption, bypassing family consent and the law in the process. The paper concludes by arguing that discrimination against poor families who are viewed as disorganized, immoral and irresponsible – characteristics
frequently associated with criminality by a sector of the elites – has contributed to the view that lower-class families do not have the right to bear children, or to keep them.