Capsule History of
Adoption law: A history of fictions
Modern Western adoption law was only dreamed up about 150 years ago1; it went global about fifty years ago. As a result, we’re still working out the kinks.
Until 1851, in Western cultures, families exchanged children via the traditional fostering system that many underdeveloped nations still use today. Children might be temporarily or informally sent to other families’ homes for labor, education, or charitable support—but they remained legally and emotionally tied to their first families. Apprentices, housemaids, journeymen, governesses, pages, ladies-in-waiting: somewhere between ages 7 and 21, many children were sent away to live with other families. If a family was in harsher circumstances, children might be temporarily dropped off at “orphanages” for childcare, food, housing, or education while a bio-family tried to get on its feet, but that didn’t mean the children were free for the taking; as late as the 1940s, an American child might live in an “orphanage” during the week, and go home to his working single mother for the weekend.
In 1851, the Massachusetts legislature passed the world’s first law authorizing judges to permanently sever the legal bonds of biological kinship, and to replace those with legal bonds based on something other than blood. Much of society at first refused to accept this new legal fiction. But the new legal approach fit the West’s new philosophies of marriage and family, which were shifting away from ties based on biology and labor, and toward ties created and enforced by choice and affection. In the 150 years since, modern adoption law has spread and been accepted throughout the Western world—so thoroughly that we forget how innovative it is and how hard it is for other cultures to grasp. The idea of permanently and legally severing a child’s biological ties to her birthfamily is all but incomprehensible to some. Brigham Young professor Jini Roby says that when she tried to explain the concept to Marshall Island policymakers, they respectfully tried to tell her she must have it wrong; no one could believe such nonsense.
One century after Massachusetts’s innovation, the West began exporting our adoption model internationally. According to John Seabrook in The New Yorker, in the United States, international adoption:
grew out of orphan-rescue missions in the wake of military conflicts, beginning with the airlift of German and Japanese orphans at the end of the Second World War. Similar rescues followed the Korean War, in 1953, the Bay of Pigs debacle, in 1961, and the Vietnam War, in 1975. These “babylifts” were, in part, political, fueled by a new superpower’s desire both to demonstrate its good will to the rest of the world and to rescue children from Communism, but the press covered them uncritically, as humanitarian mercy missions.2
The wide spread of international adoption began in 1955, when Henry and Bertha Holt, an evangelical couple from rural Oregon, secured a special act of Congress enabling them to adopt Korean “war orphans.” These children of Korean women and American GIs had been stigmatized or abandoned because of their visible ethnic differences and the presumption of infidelity or illegitimacy. The Holts turned their personal experience into a mission, founding the first organization dedicated to large-scale international adoption, Holt International Children’s Services, which still exists today.
Within two decades, as Western birth rates began dropping, rates of international adoption began to climb. That climb increased dramatically after 1992, when China opened its orphanages and let Westerners adopt some of the thousands of daughters abandoned because of a radical and historically unique social experiment: the one-child policy. Currently, the numbers of international adoptions are plummeting from their peak in 2004, when 22,990 children came to the U.S.3 from other countries in adoption, and 45,2884 changed countries around the world. The drop results in part from the fact that China—which since the 1990s has been the world’s biggest source of children for international adoption—has been sending abroad far fewer of its children. And in 2008, Guatemala—formerly a major adoption source for the U.S.— closed its doors to adoption to try to root out systemic corruption.
The drop in international adoption rates is helping to expose a problem that was less visible at adoption’s high tide. Between 1955 (when the Holts launched international adoption) and 2006, adoption transformed from a charitable endeavor to a private industry. There has been a tremendous divergence between the undisputed humanitarian need for child protection and welfare systems in poor, disaster-torn countries like Haiti, on the one hand—and on the other, the motives and methods of private international adoptions. American or Italian or Austrian or Spanish adoption agencies have too often been “finding” children for their consumers by contracting directly with Vietnamese orphanages or Ethiopian maternity homes or Cambodian hospitals or Guatemalan lawyers, unsupervised by their respective governments.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that without oversight, human beings can behave badly—though not always, and not everywhere. Many children do desperately need international adoptions, such as many Chinese girls abandoned because of the combination of China’s one-child policy and the cultural preference for boys or many eastern European and Russian children stuck in institutions, left over from the Soviet era.
Although international adoption horror stories have been documented at length elsewhere (see our webpages dedicated to the subject), it’s useful to look at a few examples.
In the 1980s, a number of Latin American countries were hit by child-buying and kidnapping scandals; in some cases, during civil wars, military forces were killing insurgents and selling their children into international adoption. And in 1989, for instance, after the fall of Nicolai Ceaucesçu, the televised sight of Romanian orphans warehoused in abysmal conditions broke many Western hearts. Thousands flocked to Romania to adopt. Many did take home institutionalized and often developmentally damaged children. Others fell under the sway of entrepreneurial locals who saw money to be made. As has been widely reported,5 by 1991 self-styled Romanian adoption “facilitators” were soliciting children directly from birthfamilies in hospitals, on the street, in poor neighborhoods, even in their homes, sometimes haggling over prices while shocked Westerners stood by. In response, Romania shut its doors to international adoption, reopening for reform, and then closing again when corruption returned—a tragic result for those children who do need new homes.
1 The Adoption History Project
2 “The Last Babylift: Adopting a child in Haiti,” John Seabrook, May 10, 2010.
3 Office of Children's Issues, U.S. Department of State: Total Adoptions to the United States, checked 2/26/2010.
4 Peter Selman, “Intercountry Adoption in the Twenty-First Century,” 2007, Proceedings of the First International Korean Adoption Studies Research Symposium, Seoul, South Korea. Chapter on file with the author.
5 News reports of adoption irregularities: Romania
NOTE: This page from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism website offers documentation of and background about serious irregularities in international adoption. For the systemic analysis of corruption in international adoption, please read “The Lie We Love,” Foreign Policy magazine, Nov./Dec. 2008, and visit our webpages dedicated to international adoption. For ideas about fairer policy solutions, please read “The Baby Business,” Democracy Journal, Summer 2010.
© 2008-2014 Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA, 02454. All rights reserved.
Last page update: February 23, 2011