Kind Strangers
International adoption is redefining the American family—for the better.

By Peter Conn | Every year, according to the World Health Organization, more than 10 million children under the age of five die from violence, malnutrition, and disease. Most of them live in developing countries, and the number hasn’t budged much in a decade.

In the long run, that hard-to-grasp number—the equivalent in fatalities of 10 September 11ths every day, or a 2004 Asian tsunami each week—is what propels all international humanitarian intervention. Medical assistance, economic development, constitution-making—all these things are driven by the desire to help some of those 10 million children find the stability, health, and homes that will enable them to survive, and perhaps even to flourish. This is the backdrop against which any discussion of another, and mostly successful, intervention—international adoption—should begin.

Adoption is among the oldest and most widespread of human social practices. The Code of Hammurabi addressed adoption rules in the 18th century BCE. In one form or another, for a variety of motives, and with an equally diverse set of outcomes, orphaned and abandoned children have circulated among families throughout human history.

Children have been adopted to constitute or reconstitute families, to provide homes when birth parents could not or would not do so, to replace disinherited or deceased heirs, sometimes to serve as slaves.

In America’s early colonial years, children who lost their parents or were abandoned were frequently taken in by relatives, sometimes by neighbors without legal authorization. In the 18th and 19th centuries, less-fortunate children could find themselves marooned in “poor houses” or orphanages. In 1851, Massachusetts enacted the first modern adoption law, which recognized adoption as a social and legal matter requiring state supervision.

If 1851 was late in the history of adoption, it was early in the history of adoption law. The United Kingdom did not enact legislation regulating adoption until 1926. Some historians have argued that the practice may have seemed more compatible with American cultural assumptions than with those of other countries. Families created by choice rather than biology, that is to say, enact a process that perhaps rhymes with our democratic professions.

The 1851 Massachusetts law was important because it grounded the legitimacy of adoption on the welfare of the child. Ever since, the “best interest of the child” doctrine has guided state, federal, and indeed international law.

Needless to say, the interpretation of that dictum has led to wide variations in judgment. For many years, a blinkered notion of “matching” guided private and public agencies in the management of adoption. Resisting precisely the difference on which adoptive families are based, social workers insisted on placing children with families whom they most closely resembled: not merely in physical appearance—blue eyes with blue eyes, if possible, and certainly white with white—but also with regard to such invisible markers as religion.

Social workers created a category for children they did not hesitate to call “unadoptable,” including children of color, foreign children, and handicapped children. It took a generation of leadership, usually by people outside the professional social work community, among them the novelist Pearl S. Buck, to reform those pernicious notions.

The total number of adoptions finalized in the U.S. rose through the first seven decades of the 20th century, reaching a high point of 175,000 in 1970. Since then, the number of adoptions has declined, to about 120,000 each year, and so too has the ratio of what are called “stranger” adoptions—that is, adoptions between unrelated persons, a category that includes intercountry adoptions. Reflecting changes in marriage, cohabitation, and divorce rates, the majority of domestic adoptions now involve persons with some previous relation; in particular the adoption of stepchildren is now much more common.

The category of adopted children and stepchildren was included for the first time in the 2000 census. The census determined the total children of householders to be 84 million, of whom 2 million—just over 2 percent—were adopted.

In 2000, 18,000 immigrant visas for adoption were issued, up from 7,000 in 1990. According once again to the 2000 census, the total population of children adopted internationally is 260,000, somewhat fewer than one out of every 300 children in the U.S.

Despite the relatively small scale of international adoption, both within the U.S. and within other receiving (mostly European) countries, it clearly represents the most notable shift in adoption practices of the past 50 or so years. International and interracial adoptive families, as the University of Oregon’s Adoption History Project puts it, have “literally made adoption more visible than it was in the past.”

World War II marked the effective beginnings of international adoption. Indeed, international adoption has emerged at the intersection of 20th-century crisis (especially warfare), changing notions of humanitarian intervention, and technologies that have enabled the movement of abandoned children across national boundaries.

The increase in intercountry adoption has led to several pieces of federal legislation, most recently the Child Citizenship Act of 2000, which automatically confers U.S. citizenship on foreign adoptees at the time of adoption.

Adopted children come to the U.S. from scores of countries, but two nations have sent more than others. Some 57,000—or about 22 percent of all foreign-born adopted children—have come from Korea; and 28 percent of those under the age of six have come from China.

More girls than boys are adopted, in large part because the majority of children available are girls. The availability of girls has some of its sources in Asia’s ferocious discrimination against girls and women, and China’s one-child policy has of course been a particularly important driver of the imbalance. China’s own 2000 census found 117 boys for every 100 girls under five years old, a shocking number that has apparently caught the nervous attention of the Chinese leadership. Gender discrimination has led to demographic catastrophe. The World Health Organization has estimated that as many as 100 million women are “missing” from the continent’s population because of a combination of selective abortion, differential child-rearing practices, and even female infanticide.

Adoption has always posed a challenge to conventional assumptions about legitimacy, family integrity, inheritance, and identity. International adoption raises those challenges with particular urgency. Such adoptions are emblematically connected to some of the most recurrent themes of the modern experience: abandonment, displacement, homelessness, and exile.

National and ethnic mixing compounds the stigma associated with adoption. That’s why, in spite of the relatively small numbers, international adoption generates such lively debate. Some of the opposition to it retraces the discredited preoccupation with “matching” that wrote children into and out of adoptability throughout much of the 20th century.

We know that the so-called traditional or nuclear family—two parents of the same race, one of each sex, married and living together with one or more birth children—does not describe the American reality. Nonetheless, adoptive families, and especially mixed-race families, can still provoke confusion. In an odd alliance, both cultural conservatives, with their reverence for conventional norms, and postcolonial theorists, who fetishize ethnic identity, find mixed-race adoptive families subversive.

All adoptions entail disruption, loss, and mourning. At the same time, a long list of empirical studies has demonstrated that adoption offers a substantially better outcome for abandoned children than the two alternatives that tend to predominate: orphanages and the street. I have visited orphanages in several Asian countries; no child should be denied the opportunity to escape such institutions.

Ignoring these facts on the ground, one critic of international adoption, Twila Perry, at Rutgers University, has asked: “Could it be argued that, rather than transferring the children of the poor to the economically better-off people in other countries, there should be a transfer of wealth from rich countries to poor ones.” A statement like this has no connection to the politics of the world in which poor children live. Worse, it holds them hostage to a posturing ideology. Given the scale of the crisis for children, and the efficacy of adoption as a strategy of intervention when family preservation is impossible or unsafe for children, social policies should encourage an increase in the practice.

The debates that roil scholarly journals echo on the street, as many interracial families know through interactions with well-meaning strangers. “What an attractive little girl. And how many of your own children do you have?” people say. Or, “How many natural children?” Animated by amiable curiosity, such questions reflect the deep-seated conviction that adoptive families are not quite right—and intercountry adoptive families are even more suspect.

I propose that we reverse that understanding. Beyond its instrumental utility as a humanitarian intervention, international adoption exemplifies the possibility of reorienting the definition of families away from monolithic ethnic and biological models. Families really do come in all shapes and flavors. In addition, multiethnic adoptive families are sites of constant instruction: They offer routine access to cultural knowledge and experiences that lie outside the usual domestic interactions.

My daughter Jennifer arrived more than 30 years ago from Korea. Just over two years old and weighing only 19 pounds when she joined us, Jennifer quickly gained both pounds and facility in English. One night at dinner, when she was three, she suddenly announced: “Koreans don’t eat broccoli.”

It turns out they don’t eat asparagus or Brussels sprouts, either, though they do eat hot dogs and chocolate ice cream.

Who knew?


Peter Conn is professor of English and director emeritus of Pearl S. Buck International. He wrote about a trip to Asia for PSBI in the Gazette’s Sept|Oct 1999 issue.


FIRST PERSON: Essays

Notes from the Undergrad “Yin Yin will always be a part of me”
Alumni Voices Grad-school confidential
Elsewhere “You’re kind of messy, aren’t you?”
Expert Opinion International adoption works

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