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The Practice of Adoption

Source: The New Yorker, The American Prospect, NPR
The practice of adoption goes back at least as far as Moses, who, the Bible says, was adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt. In ancient Greece and Rome, adoption was commonly used, in the absence of male heirs, to transfer property rights to protégés. International adoption, however, is a more recent development. In the United States, it 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, fuelled 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. International adoption became widely available to ordinary Americans through the efforts of Harry and Bertha Holt, prosperous evangelical Christians from Creswell, Oregon. In a memoir, “The Seed from the East,” Bertha Holt describes a night in 1954, when she and her husband drove fifteen miles to Eugene to hear a travelling minister named Bob Pierce. Pierce showed a documentary called “Other Sheep,” about the unhappy fate of Amerasian children in South Korea, most of them sired by American servicemen and left behind at the end of the war. After the film, he asked the audience, “Is there one person in Eugene who will volunteer to help me?” The Holts couldn’t get that question out of their minds. They decided to adopt eight of the children. Harry flew to Korea to arrange the paperwork in May, 1955, and brought the children back in October. Images of Holt getting out of the plane, surrounded by babies, were published in newspapers and magazines across the country. (Life ran a feature showing the Holt clan at home on the farm in Creswell in its 1955 Christmas issue.) Soon, the Holts were receiving hundreds of letters from other families who wanted to adopt Korean children by proxy. Harry Holt made repeated trips to South Korea, bringing back planeloads of orphans for American families.
David Kim, a young Korean who assisted Holt on some of the early flights, and later became the executive director of Holt International, describes in his book “Who Will Answer . . .” the scene at the airport—the families waiting at the end of the gangway as he and Holt brought children out of the plane and called out the names of the adoptive parents. Something unprecedented in the history of human kinship was occurring—parents were meeting children for the first time who were at once strangers and family—and no one was sure what to expect. Kim was astounded to see women running forward when their names were called, crying, “My baby! My baby!” He wrote, “Each time a child was handed over to his or her new parents, everyone watching clapped and shouted for joy.” Child-welfare professionals were contemptuous of the Holts. At the time, adoption was overseen by social workers trained in the science of “matching” children with families, which was done on the basis of ethnicity, religion, social and educational background, and appearance, in the hope of creating replicas of biological families. The Holts had only love, good intentions, and a higher calling to guide them. Their radical notion—that love could transcend any cultural barrier—was ridiculed within the adoption profession, but it resonated with many Americans, including Pearl Buck, the winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, who had adopted seven children, two of whom were biracial. Although Buck disliked the Holts’ religious views, she defended the couple against the child-welfare establishment, arguing that the science of matching was just a form of entrenched racism and class bias, based on ideas left over from the early-twentieth-century eugenics movement. “The real barrier to adoption of mixed-blood children was not that no one wanted them,” she wrote, “but that adoption practice demanded child and adoptive parents to match.”
Korea was the first of the “sending” nations (a term borrowed from global import-export economics), followed by Vietnam. In April, 1975, in the final days of the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford announced that some two thousand Vietnamese “orphans” would be brought to the U.S. for adoption, in a series of flights that became known in the press as Operation Babylift. In the 2002 documentary “Daughter from Danang,” an American social worker can be seen trying to persuade Vietnamese mothers to hand over their children, saying, “It’s better for everyone.” Some Vietnamese parents later travelled to the U.S., tracked down the families who had adopted their children, and demanded them back.
In the nineteen-eighties, Americans began obtaining children from Latin America, and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, from Romania, Ukraine, and Russia. China began dispatching orphans to the U.S. in the nineteen-nineties and by 2000 was sending five thousand children a year, more than any other nation. Next, Guatemala emerged as a major supplier of adoptive children—four thousand children came to the U.S. in 2006. Some African countries, which had long lacked the legal infrastructure to engage in international adoption, began to do so; Ethiopia, in particular, became a popular option for adoptive families, thanks in part to the child that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt adopted in 2005. In raw numbers, the U.S. is the largest of the receiving countries (although Spain and Norway adopt more children per capita). In 2004, the peak year of international adoptions, 22,884 adopted children from more than ninety nations came to the United States. By the time we decided to adopt, in the spring of 2007, the seed from the East had sprouted a multibillion-dollar industry. There are roughly three thousand international adoption agencies in the U.S., as well as countless adoption lawyers and facilitators through whom one can arrange an independent adoption. The children are, in most cases, no longer casualties of war but “social orphans,” whose parents have abandoned or relinquished them, usually because of poverty, or, in the case of China, because of its one-child-per-family policy.
Over the years, both a legal and an underground economy have sprung up around international adoption. The dividing line between an ethical adoption and a baby-buying scam generally falls on the issue of whether the birth mother has been coerced into giving up her child. It’s one thing to pay a licensed adoption agency to pursue your adoption within legal channels; it’s another thing to pay a poor woman for her baby. But this distinction has proved difficult to maintain. A nation opens its borders; adoptions proliferate; corruption creeps in; there is a scandal; the borders close. This happened recently in Guatemala, which effectively closed its borders in 2008. (DNA evidence later showed that in one case an adopted child had been kidnapped from the birth mother.) Baby buying has also suspended adoptions from Romania, Bulgaria, and Cambodia. Even Vietnam, long a mainstay in international adoption, closed in 2008, amid allegations of corruption.
In recent years, many families have embarked on international adoptions not for humanitarian or religious reasons but out of a more utilitarian calculus of supply and demand. Since the seventies, the supply of healthy infants available through domestic adoption has contracted sharply. Birth control, legal abortion, assisted reproduction, and the fading stigma of single motherhood have drastically reduced the number of infants given up for adoption in the U.S. In 1970, a hundred and seventy-five thousand newborns were adopted; by 2002, that number had dropped to under seven thousand. Most of the fifty thousand domestic U.S. adoptions each year are of older children in foster care. In the era of “open adoption,” which has prevailed in domestic adoptions since the nineteen-eighties, the birth mothers, rather than social workers, decide who should adopt their children. Adoptive parents create profiles, with pictures, personal statements, and winning tidbits about themselves. If, like us, you’re older (we were both pushing fifty when we entered the process), or if you are single or a gay couple, you worry that your profile might not stack up well against all the younger, more conventional families on the Internet sites. In international adoption, the agencies generally choose who gets which children, and that relieves the adoptive families of the burden of selling themselves. Also, domestic birth mothers often change their minds about giving up their children. That doesn’t happen as much in international adoptions. Read More.
But we know now that that's not entirely true that love transcends all, or that all these families have to give is love. A whole generation of adoptees have grown up to found organizations like Transracial Abductees, and we know that, domestically, the rate of black boys being adopted is so low that it takes much lower adoption fees to get families interested. It's not that we should be entirely against interracial or transnational adoption. It's that we have to acknowledge the problems that go along with it. Seabrook talks about women who are coerced into giving up their children with money, or are forced to out of poverty so desperate that they have to give up their children just to care for them. But those aren't the only icky influences. Residents of rich nations, especially America, have a hero complex, and that especially comes into play with children from developing countries. There are stereotypes at play, and trends, all of which essentialize and exoticize the children coming into this country from elsewhere. Read More.
Seabrook describes on Fresh Air how countries decided to open their borders to prospective adoptive parents. "Often what would happen would be countries would open up. There would be a rash of adoptions. There would be corruption. Then they would close," he says. "And then there would be a shortage of children and then another country would open up. So it was all a kind of 'catch as catch can' operation, without any sort of systematic overreaching or control. And actually is, to this day, sort of a higgledly-piggledy kind of thing." Seabrook writes that international adoption has now turned into a multibillion-dollar industry with little oversight. "There are at least 3,500 adoption agencies in the U.S. There are also lots of adoption attorneys," he says. "You have a choice: You can go with an agency, or you can hire a lawyer who will do your adoption. And that lawyer has contacts — usually in one country in particular — and works through what's called a facilitator. We didn't want to go the latter route because there are a lot more opportunities for corruption [and] shady practices [and] bribery — and particularly when you're adopting from a poor country, you really want to do everything you can to avoid any coercion of the birth mother." Read More.