International adoption in the USA

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Adoption is the act of legally placing a child with a parent or parents other than those to whom they were born. An adoption order has the effect of severing parental responsibilities and rights of the original parent(s) and transferring those responsibilities and rights to the adoptive parent(s).

Adoption occurs between related family members and unrelated individuals. Historically, most adoptions occurred within a family, though. The most recent data from the U.S. indicates about half of adoptions are currently between related individuals.[1] Yet, the main reason parents seek to adopt children they are not related to is infertility. Studies show that in 1996 this accounted for 80% of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care.[2] Estimates suggest that 11%-24% of Americans who cannot conceive or carry to term attempt to build a family through adoption, and that the overall rate of ever-married American women who adopt is about 1.4%.[3]

Other reasons people adopt may include wanting to cement a new family following a divorce or death of one parent, ensuring inheritable diseases are not passed on, and dealing with health concerns relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Regardless of the motives behind adoption, recent studies of women who adopt suggest they are most likely to be 40-44 years of age, currently married, have impaired fertility, and childless.[4]

National adoption is a type of adoption in which an individual or couple becomes the legal and permanent parent(s) of a child born in the same country. On the contrary, international adoption, or intercountry adoption, is a type of adoption in which an individual or couple becomes the legal and permanent parents of a child born in another country. In general, prospective adoptive parents must meet the legal adoption requirements of their country of residence and those of the country in which the child was born.

Contemporary adoption practices can be divided into two forms: open and closed. Open adoption allows identifying information to be communicated between adoptive and biological parents and, perhaps, interaction between kin and the adopted person. This is considered to be the progressive practice, which is adopted by countries such as Australia and New Zealand. The practice of closed adoption, the norm for the most of modern history, seals all identifying information, maintaining it as secret and baring disclosure of the adoptive parents', biological kins', and adoptees' identities. However, during the last decades more and more countries have acknowledged the legal right of the adoptee to search for his/her original roots.

The laws of different countries vary in their willingness to allow international adoptions. Some countries, such as China and Korea, have relatively well-established rules and procedures for international adoptions, while other countries expressly forbid it. Some countries, notably many African nations, have extended residency requirements for adoptive parents that in effect rule out most international adoptions.

Nowadays, international adoption has become a common practice. This can occur through both public and private agencies. In some countries, such as Sweden, these adoptions account for the majority of cases. The U.S. example, however, indicates there is wide variation by country since adoptions from abroad account for less than 15% of its cases.[5] The laws of different countries vary in their willingness to allow international adoptions. Recognizing the difficulties and challenges associated with international adoption, and in an effort to protect those involved from the corruption and exploitation which sometimes accompanies it, the Hague Conference on Private International Law developed the Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption, which came into force on 1 May 1995 and has been ratified by 75 countries, to date. Celebrities such as Angelina Jolie who have adopted internationally are thought to have contributed to the popularity of international adoptions.

The aim of this study is to show whether international adoption in the United States is justified, examining the consequences on three levels: for the child, for the family, and for the society in general.


International adoption is gaining ground in our day and time. Couples and individuals tend to look for children to adopt from developing countries, such as China, Thailand, India and may more. There are a plurality of reasons that urge American people to resort to that course of action and are related to the changes effected to the social structure of society at large, the status of women, the financial situation and the changes effected in the mentality of the population.

The social structure of the society and especially demographics in the United States has changed significantly. According to recent statistics[6], the percentage of households headed by single parents is at about 9%, up from 5% in 1970. Out of 12.9 million one-parent families in 2006, 10.4 million were single-mother families and 2.5 million were single-father families. Some other highlights are as follows:

* Average household size in 2006 was 2.57 people, down from 3.14 in 1970.

* Slightly more than one in four households (26%) consisted of a person living alone in 2006, up from 17% in 1970.

* In 2006, 33% of males and 26% of females 15 and older had never married, compared to a respective 28% and 22% in 1970.

In addition, contemporary society in the US faces fertility problems. According to recent data[7], the level of childlessness among women 40 to 44 years old in June 2006 (20%) is twice as high as 30 years ago (10%). Moreover, 45% of the women in the principal childbearing ages of 15 to 44 years were childless.

Financial pressures and the changes in the traditional stereotypical perceptions about the role of women in the society, force American people to consider marriage at a later age in their lives (40-44), after having established their careers and secured a steady income. In particular, women at this age or older do not want to risk a pregnancy, which may put the mother's life at risk or bear children with physical and/or mental diseases.

This was not the case in previous decades, in which American people were very conservative with regards to accepting young, unmarried mothers in the society. The norm called for a well-built family around the patriarchal symbol, with the woman playing the role of the child-raising parent. Back then, unmarried women who got pregnant had no option other than having an illegal abortion to avoid the consequences of ‘ostracism' from the rest of the societal members. For those women who wanted to keep the child they were bearing, adoption away from home was the only choice once the child was born.

Changes in social norms nowadays have made it possible for unmarried women in the United States and abroad to give birth to their children without the fear of facing all sorts of different sanctions, be it moral or psychological. This significant turn on behalf of the American society to higher tolerance levels has made possible the acceptance of unmarried mothers. Even more so, in the case of young girls giving birth, their parents are willing to adopt the new-born and thus support both psychologically and practically their young daughter.

Tolerance to abortion has also been heightened and although illegal in many states, abortion is a safe resort -with the advancements in medicine- for many women who want to terminate their pregnancy at an early stage. This limits the number of children available for adoption nationally in the U.S.

Added to the above is the fact that women who have a career feel as though adoption will be a better option for them and feel that the nine months of pregnancy could interfere with their job. They may not even want to take that much time out of work to have a baby. This trend is further supported by the fact that in the last decades women have become more financially independent and educated; hence, they are more capable of making ends meet and stand on their feet to run their own households, without having to get married. Still, they want to have the privilege of raising a child and reap the benefits of parenthood. Because a married couple has much higher chances of being allowed to adopt a child, unmarried women resort to international adoption, to overcome their handicap against married couples.

In other cases, people who know that they carry a serious genetic disease may not want to give birth to a child, to avoid the risk of passing the disease over to their offspring.

Still, some families choose to adopt because they believe they will be saving a child who otherwise would not have a caring, loving and supportive family. This is mainly the reason why some people prefer international adoption to national adoption, believing they offer service to the developing world. They usually choose children from developing countries, where the standard of living is very low and they mainly prefer children with no families or relatives, who live in orphanage.

International adoption has garnered the most media attention lately, due to the recent adoption of foreign children by several high-profile celebrities. Nowadays, there are many cases of famous people who choose to adopt. The fact is that famous people generally have the same reasons for adopting children that people who are not famous have.

Adopting children may be one way for famous people to feel like they are helping the world out. There are many examples of celebrities who have adopted several children from abroad[8], such as Sharon Stone, Meg Ryan (from China), Mia Farrow (from Vietnam and Korea), Madonna/Guy Ritchie (from Malawi) and Angelina Jolie/Brad Pitt (from Cambodia, Ethiopia and Vietnam).

Moreover, famous people often have the resources, in terms of finances and/or influence, to go through the adoption process with a minimum amount of stress and strain. While a middle-class family might have to save and struggle to pay for an adoption, the cost of an adoption may be relatively painless to a famous person.

However, in contrast to what has been discussed above, there are some negative aspects of adoption, mainly international adoption. A negative reason for adoption is when people choose to adopt in order to subtract an amount from their tax liability. In the US both those who adopt internationally and domestically can take advantage of the Adoption Tax Credit[9]. The Adoption Tax Credit is a valuable benefit for adopting families since they may take a tax credit for qualifying expenses paid to adopt an eligible child (including a child with special needs). Qualifying expenses include reasonable and necessary adoption fees, court costs, attorney fees, travelling expenses (including amounts spent for meals and lodging while away from home), and other expenses directly related to and for which the principal purpose is the legal adoption of an eligible child.

Another negative issue is when adoption becomes so crucial to a celebrity only to get fame, power and admiration. In such cases, international adoption becomes a trend that may result in a negative impact that could last a child's lifetime.

Also, a negative aspect of international adoption relates to a tendency of the rich and famous to bypass the law. Celebrities sometimes are bending the rules and pushing the boundaries to bring babies to their own countries. They do not always respect the laws of the third countries and do not follow the procedures as ordinary people usually do.

Two cases of famous people that have been discussed a lot are the cases of Madonna and Angelina Jolie. Angelina Jolie acts as a very good example. She has adopted following the proper procedures, she has shown great sensitivity and interest in such issues and has been Goodwill Ambassador for the UN Refugee Agency. On the other hand, Madonna has not followed all the proper procedures according to the Malawian Law, and there have been legal disputes over whether her adoption was totally legal or not. Her practice was condemned by many humanitarian organisations and agencies that deal with international adoptions (ISS Headquarters in Geneva expressed their disapproval for the way the procedure was carried out).

In summary, the discussion in this part of the essay has focused on the rationale behind international adoption. Evidently, there is a trend towards international adoption, which is attributed to the increasing demand for adoption in the U.S. It appears that many people turn to international adoption because the supply of national children for adoption is lower than demand. Also, the rising number of single mothers in America - as well as in the rest of the western world- has turned international adoption into an attractive alternative to national adoption, with its legal complexities and the preference for married couples.


Every child has a right to grow in healthy surroundings. Adoption, either national or international, came into effect so that children can live in a loving environment.

Adoption involves three parties, the child (adoptee), the family (adoptive parents) and the home country of the child (birth parents). It is evident that adoption alters traditional family structure and functioning. Thus positive and negative aspects of international adoption emerge for each one of these parties.

Positive aspects

For the adoptee

United States citizens started adopting children from other countries in substantial numbers after World War II and many of the children adopted were war orphans. “Moreover, over the last twenty years, desperate poverty and social upheaval have been critical factors in the adoption of children from Latin America, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and China.”[10]

So there are numerous positive aspects for the orphan and poor children worldwide. Research shows that children do best when raised in a supportive, caring family. The most important is that international adoption provides a family for the orphan children worldwide.

Also, nowadays, many high society individuals are adopting children from underdeveloped nations. This, besides a good home to live, provides the children with a secure future. Living with a rich family, children can have not only a decent living but also good educational opportunities that they would never have had in their birth country. In addition, most children who need new homes are older than five, sick, disabled, or somehow traumatised. So they have more opportunities for a better life if adopted by a prosperous and caring family.

Statistical data derived from parents, teachers and children themselves show that the vast majority of the adopted children demonstrate satisfactory adjustment. More specifically, adopted children felt strongly attached to their adoptive families. This can be explained in part by the fact that the American society is highly multi-cultural, reducing thus the time for adjustment of a new member originating from a foreign country. Evidently, adjustment is even easier for an adopted international child at the age of five, which is quite malleable and open to stimuli from a different culture.

For the adoptive parents

Most adults, when they get married plan to have children. Few of these individuals expect ahead of time that there will be difficulties in conceiving a child. Yet, approximately, one in six couples in the U.S. will experience a fertility problem.[11] When this happens, most couples seek a medical solution. Nearly 50% of them will be eventually able to have a child biologically.[12] The remaining couples must decide whether to remain childless or to seek parenthood through adoption.

There are so many children overseas who need a good home and people who wish to adopt internationally have a better chance of obtaining a child this way. Thus they are able to choose the country in which to adopt the child from and giving a home and providing a loving atmosphere for a child who really needs one. Also, many parents who have their own children are going for adoption today. This is definitely a positive scenario, and according to statistical data derived from interviews, adoptive parents expressed considerable satisfaction in their roles.

For the birth parents

The biological parents are forced to give away their children, usually because they are very poor, and they cannot provide a stable home and the necessary for living. Giving their child for adoption makes them happy that their child gets a family, a secure life and a future. Even though the process of separation from their children is painful, they realise that this is a far better solution than not being able to provide their children with a safe, healthy and promising future. On occasions when the mother is very young and has little if no experience to raise a child, adoption is also a better option than entrusting the fate of a newborn on an inexperienced mother, who may be living in the slums of an impoverished nation.

For the society of the birth parents

International adoption brings significant new resources into countries to improve orphanage conditions and help build welfare programs for the future. Still, societies are deprived of their younger members in cases where the adoptee goes to another country.

Celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie have provided many millions of dollars for such efforts. In addition, celebrity adoptions, through the publicity that they have, remind us that the world is really full of poor families who need assistance.

Negative aspects

For the adoptee

The child's removal from its birth country would mean the loss of the child's original language and culture, making the children's promised return in later life a difficult event.

International adoption often, but not always, involves trans-racial placement. Opponents of trans-racial adoption suggest that placement of children outside their own racial group will undermine the development of positive racial identity, ultimately leading to “cultural genocide”.[13]

According to research, adopted children may experience the loss of birth parents and extended birth family; loss of status; loss of ethnic, racial, and genealogical connections, loss of feelings of stability in the adoptive family, and loss of identity.[14] For some children, adoption is associated with feelings of confusion, sadness, anger, embarrassment, and shame. When children begin to understand the meaning and implications of adoption, around five to seven years of age, emergence of sensitivity to adoption related stigma and loss occurs. Some children appraise being adopted in negative ways and have great adjustment problems. In reality, the younger the children the more sensitive they are to adoption issues.

For the adoptive parents

Among the many tasks experienced by parents are those associated with coping with infertility and the transition to adoptive parenthood, discussing adoption with their child, creating a family environment that supports the child's exploration of adoption issues, helping their child cope with loss, supporting a positive self-image and identity in their child in relation to adoption, and in some cases, as the adoptee moves into adolescence and adulthood, supporting their child's plans to search for birth family. Although not necessarily a negative implication of adoption, it is a great challenge for the adoptive parents, especially when they have adopted a child from abroad. For this child, the pursuit of answers to questions about his origins, cultural differences, ethnic background and the like is a long journey that many a times has an unclear destination.

The decision to adopt a child is not an easy choice. Profound stress, typically associated with infertility, often results in both short-term and long-term psychological problems, including heightened feelings of anxiety, guilt, shame, anger, and depression; diminished self-esteem and marital difficulties.[15]

On the birth parents

The child is genetically connected with the birthparents and this connection is lost with adoption. As a result, birthparents suffer from a loss of their role as parents, which makes them feel irresponsible and incapable of upbringing their child. Sometimes birthparents are under great pressure and are enforced to give their child to adoption against their will. Sometimes they worry about the future of their child, and they wonder if they will ever see it again. They may feel anger with themselves, with the society, even with the adoptive parents. And the most important issue is that they will have to deal with this for the rest of their lives.

To conclude, adoption brings a radical change to the life of a child. Adoption is therefore justified in cases only where it works to the best of the child and provides the child with genuine shelter. Adoption in a foreign country should be an option only when and if there is no viable alternative in the child's country of origin[16]. It should be also mentioned that Unicef calls regularly for restrictions limiting international adoption to at best last-resort status.


Adoption has played a major role in the news during the last few years. Public reaction is both positive and negative. Adoption critics focused on the issue of exploitation since adoption often involves the transfer of children from less to more privileged people, or from black to white families. However, international adoption does not always cause injustice. It should be taken under consideration that there are many orphan children in poor countries or families that are not in a good situation to raise a child.

In the case of international adoption, all alternative solutions for orphan children in poor countries should be considered. These children have no home and family and they are suffering neglected in various institutions. Holding poor children in inadequate institutions rather than giving them good permanent homes, does not mean that they will be happier. If a family in their country could offer them home, love and affection, this solution would be preferred. If not, international adoption clearly represents an extraordinarily positive option for them. Otherwise, homeless children around the world will probably live or die in inadequate institutions or on the streets. The U.S. is a suitable new home for internationally adopted children since a large part of the population who want to adopt a child are well-off and can offer a good and caring family. Since the number of national children for adoption is less than the demand for adoptions, international adoption is the next best alternative. From this end, international adoption in the U.S. is justified. Yet, we should not overlook the negative impact of international adoption discussed in the previous section and the implications it may have on the child, the original parents and the country of birth. Ideally, it would be better to provide a home in the country of birth but this is not always possible if the child was born in a very poor country, where social care and infrastructure to support local adoption are non-existent.

Banning international adoption will not solve the problems of homelessness in poor countries. Being anti-foreign without a reason is not reasonable. As far as international adoption works well under the existing adoption laws and serves children' interests, it should be justified and facilitated. The destructive earthquake in Tahiti left almost 300000 people dead and thousands of children without a family. For many of these children international adoption could be a justifiable solution and a unique opportunity for the U.S. to prove that its citizens can make good use of it for the sake of the children.


[1] National Council For Adoption. Adoption Fact Book 2000, Table 11.

[2] M. Berry, Preparation, Support and Satisfaction of Adoptive Families in Agency and Independent Adoptions, Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, April 1996, p.166.

[3]U.S. Centre for Disease Control. “Adoption Experience of Women and Men and Demand for Children to Adopt in the U.S.”, August 2008, p.19.

[4] ibid, p.8.

[5] Child Welfare Information Gateway.How Many Children Were Adopted in 2000 and 2001.

[6] U.S. Census Bureau. Population Survey's Annual Social and Economic Supplement, data on America's families and households (

[7] U.S. Census Bureau. Fertility of American women: 2006, issued August 2008.


[9] Internal Revenue Service/US Department of the Treasury,


[11] Mosher & Pratt, 1991.

[12] McEwan, Costello, & Taylor, 1987.

[13] David M. Brodzinsky, Daniel W. Smith and Anne B. Brodzinsky (1998). Children's adjustment to adoption, Developmental and clinical issues, …..

[14] ibid.

[15] Epstein & Rosenberg, 1997, Lieblum & Greenfeld, 1997.