What’s Strangling International Adoption?

And is the falloff a good or bad thing?

After Mark Montgomery and Irene Powell adopted a child from Sierra Leone in 2002, the husband-and-wife economists at Grinnell College in Iowa continued to send money to an orphanage there. They were assigned a child to “sponsor” and after a number of years, they received a letter from the boy’s mother addressed to “Mohammad’s American Family.” It read in part: “He’s ready to come to America whenever you can take him.”


“Some critiques of international adoption say that parents who adopt internationally seem to have a savior complex,” the couple write in their new book. “And that instead of feeling like saviors, these parents ought to feel guilty about having made this choice.” Montgomery and Powell confess: “We do feel guilt. But our bad feelings are not about the children we did adopt; they’re about the ones we did not adopt.”

To say that this statement cuts against the prevailing sentiment toward adoption among international policymakers would be an understatement. International adoption has tumbled more than 70 percent since its peak in 2004. Countries like Russia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia have eliminated it almost entirely.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with improved conditions for the many desperate children in these countries. Sickness and death rates among overseas orphans have barely changed. And the collapse has nothing to do with the desire of Westerners to adopt—if anything the later average age of marriage, the rise of gay marriage, and the commitment of religious communities to “orphan care” have only increased the number of families available for these kids.

But international adoption rules are not made with “supply and demand” in mind. The rules are heavily influenced by ideology, by media criticism and hype, and by the interests of bureaucrats and middlemen. So Montgomery and Powell dive into the research to examine what practices would really be in the best interest of children.

One concern asserts the importance of a child retaining a connection to his or her “birth culture.” Sensitivity to this is the reason so many parents of international adoptees bend over backwards to provide language instruction and country-of-origin lessons for their children. Usually, the authors note, “objections to transcultural international adoption are in fact objections to transracial adoption.” However, research cited by the authors shows similar emotional and behavioral outcomes for international adoptees whether their new parents are of the same race or a different race. Montgomery and Powell acknowledge that adopted children can face many struggles including “racial discrimination, identity confusion, possible alienation within their communities.” But they urge readers to put these in perspective. “Those are problems you can only have if you are still alive.”

The other major objection to international adoption involves alleged cases of child trafficking. Stories abound of children being snatched from their parents in China or Guatemala. The authors find that such cases have occurred, but that they are rare, and get an undue amount of media attention.

Many people naturally recoil at the thought of compensating birth parents who put up a baby for adoption. The economist authors, however, argue provocatively that this is not necessarily undesirable or exploitative. Providing either cash or health care or education for a family’s other children can actually give mothers more power in their systems. Currently, the tens of thousands of dollars that American families spend on adoption go almost entirely to lawyers and bureaucrats in poor countries. What if a portion of that went to a mother to improve her position in society?

One of Powell and Montgomery’s most important insights is that international law’s prohibition of any prior contact between adoptive and biological parents or guardians—in contrast to domestic adoptions, where “open adoption” is becoming the norm—creates a powerful incentive to conceal important facts. American parents have sometimes been shocked to find that the children they thought were orphans in fact have living parents who could not care for them. Or that the health or social history of a child is radically different than official explanations. A lack of openness and communication has created a thriving black market, lots of deception, even violence.

Unlike the evangelical parents who are most open to international adoption these days, Montgomery and Powell are secular liberals. They do not feel any religious motivation to take in impoverished kids. So it is remarkable that despite their own lack of religious commitment the authors ultimately settle on a description of international adoption, after much assessment of evidence, as a “blessing for children.” It is, they say, “a blessing born of sadness to be sure, but a blessing nonetheless.”

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