The Politics of Adoption

By Shelley Sperry, National Geographic staff

International adoption (also known as intercountry adoption) is the adoption of a child who’s a citizen of one country by a parent or parents who are citizens of a different country. In the United States, an adoption is considered a private legal matter between the adoptive parents and the government of the child’s home country, but international politics and treaties also play a significant role. In 2006, in the U.S. alone, parents adopted more than 20,000 children from overseas.

Historically, adoption across national and cultural lines has served many purposes, including replenishing families after wartime losses and cementing political alliances. But today most governments, social welfare professionals, and parents agree that the fundamental purpose of adoption is to serve the best interests of children by providing loving, permanent homes.

There’s still some disagreement about whether international adoption should be promoted broadly or only as a last resort, because some scholars and child advocates believe that removing children from their birth cultures is traumatic for the children and harmful to their homelands, no matter how nurturing their new families may be. International adoption is also sometimes viewed as the exploitation of poor, developing countries’ human resources by wealthier, developed nations. Despite the efforts of advocacy organizations—such as the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, which warns against viewing children as commodities—notions about a “market” for children in developed nations and a “supply” in developing nations inevitably creep into press reports on the topic. Each country involved in the process creates its own criteria for evaluating both children and prospective parents; these criteria are based on internal political and social pressures that change—often dramatically—over time, creating an ebb and flow in the number of children available for adoption from year to year.

Opponents of international adoption, including UNICEF, suggest that the money and effort spent on giving homes to a few children would be better spent on improving conditions in the children’s native countries. The idea is that reducing poverty and disease would reduce the number of orphans. In most cases the children available for international adoption are in institutions or temporary foster care, without the possibility of domestic adoption in the near future. Even people who oppose international adoption in principle tend to agree that it’s preferable to a life spent in an orphanage.


Sperry, Shelley. “The Politics of Adoption.” National Geographic (January 2008).

Dillon, Sarah. “Making Legal Regimes for Intercountry Adoption Reflect Human Rights Principles: Transforming the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child With the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption.” Boston University Law Journal (2003), 179-257.

Perry, Twila L. “Transracial Adoption and Gentrification: An Essay on Race, Power, Family, and Community.” Third World Law Journal (2006).

Smolin, David M. “Intercountry Adoption as Child Trafficking.” Valparaiso University Law Review (2004).

Van Leeuwen, Michelle. “The Politics of Adoptions Across Borders: Whose Interests Are Served?” Pacific Rim Law and Policy Journal (January 1999), 189-218.

Other Resources
Child Welfare Information Gateway: Intercountry Adoption
Maintained by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Housing and Human Services, this site serves as a gateway to a variety of information about international adoption, especially information produced by the U.S. government. It includes a 2006 publication called “Intercountry Adoption: Where Do I Start?”, which provides easy-to-understand explanations of the process and a list of resources for prospective parents.

Joint Council on International Children’s Services
One of the best overall sources of general information, updates about adoption from particular countries, and news.

National Council for Adoption
Covers both domestic and international adoption issues and serves as a gateway to a variety of other organizations involved in adoption policy.

Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard University is a leading advocate for international adoption and children’s human rights. Useful pieces on her home page include: “International Adoption.” In Children and Youth in Adoption, Orphanages, and Foster Care, ed. Lori Askelund. Greenwood Publishing, 2005; “International Adoption: The Child’s Story,” adapted from a speech delivered at Georgia State University Law School, March 29, 2007; and “International Adoption: Thoughts on the Human Rights Issues.” Buffalo Human Rights Law Review. (August 2007), 151-203.

Emphasizes the need to keep children with birth parents or in their own communities whenever possible and the need for safeguards against corruption, child trafficking, and other abuses in the adoption system.
Statement on Intercountry Adoption

“UNICEF says ‘No’ to Intercountry Adoption”

A collection of blogs—varying greatly in quality and reliability—related to international adoption.

Adopted: The Movie
Scheduled for release in 2008, this film considers adoption from two different angles, telling the story of U.S. family going through the process of adopting a child from China, and the story of an adult Korean-born woman struggling with identity issues in the U.S. Interviews with experts are interspersed throughout. The film’s website offers many video clips, a blog, and other information.

Tapestry Adoption: clips from a workshop on international adoption

Mini-documentary by a student in the UK about intercountry adoption

U.S. Government’s Role

More children adopted internationally find homes in the U.S. than in any other country. The number peaked in 2004, at almost 23,000, but has been declining slightly each year since, with just over 19,000 children adopted in 2007.

Although adoption is considered a private legal matter in the U.S., the federal government, particularly the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security (the Citizenship and Immigration Services division), are involved in certifying the child’s immigration status. Prospective parents must submit a petition before traveling to pick up their child, and after meeting requirements such as a medical examination, they receive a special visa allowing the child to enter this country.

The State Department collects and provides detailed, up-to-date information about how adoption procedures work in other countries, oversees U.S. agencies to make sure they comply with Hague Convention regulations, issues warnings to prospective parents when dangerous or abusive situations such as extortion arise, and frequently revises information about visa requirements on its website. However, the State Department does not act as a legal representative for U.S. citizens involved in adoption cases.


U.S. State Department: International Adoption
Includes a link to a booklet offering a comprehensive explanation of international adoption.

Other State Department sites include:
Intercountry Adoption News

Country-specific Information

Adoption Information

Orphan Visa Statistics

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: Intercountry Adoption
A one-stop source that links to legal information, visa information, and plenty of general information. Here you can easily find updates about specific requirements related to each country.


Adoption is an ancient practice. The Old Testament prophet Moses, born into a Hebrew family and left in a basket on the banks of the Nile River, underwent intercultural, if not international, adoption by an Egyptian mother. But thousands of years passed before adoption assumed its current legal form.

The first U.S. adoption legislation was passed in the 1850s. Although adoptions from overseas occasionally took place in the early 20th century, international adoption began in earnest after World War II, when Americans—led by military families stationed in war-torn Europe and Asia—were moved to help children orphaned by the war. A 1948 displaced-persons law aimed at European orphans allowed 3,000 children to immigrate to the U.S. but did not require that they be adopted—just that they be cared for and supported by American sponsors.

In the early and mid-20th century “matching” an adopted child’s race, religion, and ethnicity to those of the prospective parents was considered essential to a successful adoption, and adoption across racial lines was virtually never allowed. Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck, herself an adoptive mother, was part of a growing crusade in the late 1940s and 1950s to end discrimination against nonwhite children in the social welfare system. In 1949 Buck founded her own adoption agency—called Welcome House—to help place nonwhite and biracial children in the U.S., then in 1956 expanded its scope to international adoption. At the same time, the South Korean government opened the possibility of international adoption for children orphaned by the war or fathered out of wedlock by American servicemen and abandoned to orphanages.

This first big wave of children adopted from South Korea helped break down long-held prejudices against adoption across racial and ethnic lines. Popular magazines of the era, including Life and Reader’s Digest, featured stories about American families who were inspired by religious and humanitarian impulses to adopt orphaned children overseas, further shifting public opinion. The Doss family of California adopted 11 children from places as diverse as the Philippines, India, Mexico, and Bali. The Holt family of Oregon adopted eight Korean orphans and eventually started their own adoption agency to help others do the same.

Although a growing number of countries opened to international adoption in the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea remained the primary country of origin for 30 years, from the 1960s until 1995. The end of the Cold War and events in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, and China began shifting the balance in the 1990s. News reports of horrific conditions in orphanages reached the West after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, causing a dramatic spike in adoptions from Romania in 1991. With warming relationships between the U.S. and both Russia and China, those countries—along with Guatemala—became the main sources of adopted children by the mid-1990s and into the 21st century.


Askelund, Lori, ed. Children and Youth in Adoption, Orphanages, and Foster Care: A Historical Handbook and Guide. Greenwood Press, 2006.

Briggs, Laura. “Mother, Child, Race, Nation: The Visual Iconography of Rescue and the Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption.” Gender & History (2003), 179-200.

Buck, Pearl S. Children for Adoption. Random House, 1964.

Buck, Pearl S. “Should White Parents Adopt Brown Babies?” Ebony (June 1958), 26-30.

Buck, Pearl S. “Welcome House.” Reader's Digest (July 1958), 47-50.

Carlson, Richard R. "Transnational Adoption of Children." Tulsa Law Journal 23 (Spring 1988), 317-77.

Carp, E. Wayne, ed. Adoption in America: Historical Perspectives. University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Lovelock, Kirsten. “Intercountry Adoption as a Migratory Practice: A Comparative Analysis of Intercountry Adoption and Immigration Policy and Practice in the United States, Canada and New Zealand in the Post WWII Period.” International Migration Review (Fall 2000), 907-949.

Melosh, Barbara. Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Trenka, Jane Jeong, Julia Chinyere Oparah, and SunYung Shin, eds. Outsiders Within: Racial Crossings and Adoption Politics. South End Press, 2006.

Other Resources

Adoption History Project
Designed by Dr. Ellen Herman of the University of Oregon, the project covers the broad spectrum of adoption history, with several sections related to international adoption. Among the most interesting items are excerpts from historical documents, including the impressions of a man who watched Harry Holt arrive in Portland, Oregon, in 1958 with 107 Korean orphans for adoption, as well as reports related to “Operation Babylift,” a plan to bring Vietnamese orphans to the U. S. in the closing days of the Vietnam War.

Adoption Institute: International Adoption
Slightly out-of-date, but provides useful graphics and statistics about the history of international adoption in the U.S.

Deann Borshay Liem, who made First Person Plural, a film about her experiences as a child adopted from Korea, has compiled a short history of international adoption, with special sections on Korea and China. )
The PBS site for the film includes additional interviews and resources.

Last updated: December 2007