Arissa H. Oh
International adoption is in the news almost daily, but its numbers are in decline and the tone of the conversation around it has darkened. Celebrity adoptions and heartwarming stories of orphans finding "forever families" in the U.S. have given way to more skeptical coverage that emphasizes the underside of international adoption: the profit motive that leads to illicit practices and the lack of regulation and oversight in a vast system that shuffles children around the world.
The American evangelical crusade for international adoption has received particularly sustained attention. Since the middle of the last decade, evangelical churches and organizations have encouraged their members to adopt children from abroad, often providing funds to help with the high costs. They have promoted a culture of adoption by publicizing a “global orphan crisis,” a disputed concept in itself. Children—many not actually orphans—are adopted hastily by well-intentioned but ill-prepared parents. Horror stories of fraud and abuse abound.
Much of this is not new. International adoption did not begin in the 1990s, or even in the 1980s. Americans began adopting children from abroad at the end of World War II, mainly from places with significant U.S. troop presences, like Germany and Japan. Systematic international adoption began in Korea after the Korean War (1950-1953) as a way to remove mixed-race “GI babies,” the children born of Korean women and foreign military personnel. It quickly grew to include non-mixed-race Korean children, and then spread to other developing countries: most notably Vietnam in the 1960s, Colombia in the 1970s, Guatemala and India in the 1980s, and China, Romania, and Russia in the 1990s.
Nor have evangelicals become focused on international adoption only in the last several years. A central reason why adoption from Korea became systematized was the intervention of American evangelicals. They publicized the plight of Korean children in need of rescue, lobbied Congress for the changes in immigration laws that made these adoptions possible, and promoted the practice among their friends, churches, and communities. American evangelicals considered international adoption a form of missionary work long before the megachurch leaders of the 21st century began to cultivate an adoption boom.
The current reporting on evangelical adoption overlooks the importance of race in international adoption. The vast majority of these adoptions involve white parents and non-white children. In the 1970s, as Americans faced a white baby “famine” at home, a hierarchy of desirability became firmly established in which non-white children from abroad were preferable to African-American children. These children were not white, but they weren’t black either. That they could be rescued from poverty and backwardness heightened their sentimental appeal. Today, Americans cross the color line more readily to adopt black children from African countries. Their blackness is mitigated by their perceived exoticism and victimhood.
Consumerism and humanitarianism have always been uncomfortably entangled in both domestic and international adoption. Regardless of their reasons for adopting, would-be adopters have had to venture into the marketplace in order to obtain a child. Americans long ago declared in principle that children cannot be assigned a market value, but adoptive parents, especially those adopting internationally, engage in what looks like consumerist behavior: selecting children priced according to race, sex, age, disabilities, and country of origin.
These market dynamics explain why the corruption that has captured the attention of many journalists today is not new. Baby-hunting, trafficking, and stealing; document forgery; unclear relinquishments; coercion of birth parents (usually mothers); substituting one child for another—all of these practices have shadowed international adoption since it began. The unintended consequences of international adoption also follow the practice wherever it goes, especially the vicious cycle of orphanage expansion and child abandonment, and foreign governments’ use of international adoption as a substitute for domestic child and social welfare.
Reforms to make international adoption more ethical are decades overdue. The process needs to be more stringent, uniform, and transparent. Americans also need to rethink its purpose. Should international adoption be about finding families for children, or children for families? This all-important question lies at the troubled heart of international adoption, and it demands an answer from all Americans, not just evangelicals.
Arissa Oh is an assistant professor in the history department at Boston College, where she teaches classes on race, gender, and immigration in 20th-century U.S. history. She is in the process of publishing her first book, Into the Arms of America: The Korean Origins of International Adoption.