We all know the story of international adoption: Millions of infants and toddlers have been abandoned or orphaned -- placed on the side of a road or on the doorstep of a church, or left parentless due to AIDS, destitution, or war. These little ones find themselves forgotten, living in crowded orphanages or ending up on the streets, facing an uncertain future of misery and neglect. But, if they are lucky, adoring new moms and dads from faraway lands whisk them away for a chance at a better life.
Unfortunately, this story is largely fiction.
Westerners have been sold the myth of a world orphan crisis. We are told that millions of children are waiting for their "forever families" to rescue them from lives of abandonment and abuse. But many of the infants and toddlers being adopted by Western parents today are not orphans at all. Yes, hundreds of thousands of children around the world do need loving homes. But more often than not, the neediest children are sick, disabled, traumatized, or older than 5. They are not the healthy babies that, quite understandably, most Westerners hope to adopt. There are simply not enough healthy, adoptable infants to meet Western demand -- and there's too much Western money in search of children. As a result, many international adoption agencies work not to find homes for needy children but to find children for Western homes.
Since the mid-1990s, the number of international adoptions each year has nearly doubled, from 22,200 in 1995 to just under 40,000 in 2006. At its peak, in 2004, more than 45,000 children from developing countries were adopted by foreigners. Americans bring home more of these children than any other nationality -- more than half the global total in recent years.
Where do these babies come from? As international adoptions have flourished, so has evidence that babies in many countries are being systematically bought, coerced, and stolen away from their birth families. Nearly half the 40 countries listed by the U.S. State Department as the top sources for international adoption over the past 15 years -- places such as Belarus, Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Peru, and Romania -- have at least temporarily halted adoptions or been prevented from sending children to the United States because of serious concerns about corruption and kidnapping. And yet when a country is closed due to corruption, many adoption agencies simply transfer their clients' hopes to the next "hot" country. That country abruptly experiences a spike in infants and toddlers adopted overseas -- until it too is forced to shut its doors.
Along the way, the international adoption industry has become a market often driven by its customers. Prospective adoptive parents in the United States will pay adoption agencies between $15,000 and $35,000 (excluding travel, visa costs, and other miscellaneous expenses) for the chance to bring home a little one. Special needs or older children can be adopted at a discount. Agencies claim the costs pay for the agency's fee, the cost of foreign salaries and operations, staff travel, and orphanage donations. But experts say the fees are so disproportionately large for the child’s home country that they encourage corruption.
To complicate matters further, while international adoption has become an industry driven by money, it is also charged with strong emotions. Many adoption agencies and adoptive parents passionately insist that crooked practices are not systemic, but tragic, isolated cases. Arrest the bad guys, they say, but let the "good" adoptions continue. However, remove cash from the adoption chain, and, outside of China, the number of healthy babies needing Western homes all but disappears. Nigel Cantwell, a Geneva-based consultant on child protection policy, has seen the dangerous influence of money on adoptions in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, where he has helped reform corrupt adoption systems. In these regions, healthy children age 3 and younger can easily be adopted in their own countries, he says. I asked him how many healthy babies in those regions would be available for international adoption if money never exchanged hands. "I would hazard a guess at zero," he replied.
THE MYTH OF SUPPLY
International adoption wasn’t always a demand-driven industry. Half a century ago, it was primarily a humanitarian effort for children orphaned by conflict. In 1955, news spread that Bertha and Henry Holt, an evangelical couple from Oregon, had adopted eight Korean War orphans, and families across the United States expressed interest in following their example. Since then, international adoption has become increasingly popular in Australia, Canada, Europe, and the United States. Americans adopted more than 20,000 foreign children in 2006 alone, up from just 8,987 in 1995. Half a dozen European countries regularly bring home more foreign-born children per capita than does the United States. Today, Canada, France, Italy, Spain, and the United States account for 4 out of every 5 international adoptions.
Changes in Western demography explain much of the growth. Thanks to contraception, abortion, and delayed marriages, the number of unplanned births in most developed countries has declined in recent decades. Some women who delay having children discover they've outwaited their fertility; others have difficulty conceiving from the beginning. Still others adopt for religious reasons, explaining that they've been called to care for children in need. In the United States, a motive beyond demography is the notion that international adoption is somehow "safer" -- more predictable and more likely to end in success -- than many domestic adoptions, where there's an outsized fear of a birth mother's last-minute change of heart. Add an ocean of distance, and the idea that needy children abound in poor countries, and that risk seems to disappear.