Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem or a Global Solution?

By Masson, Judith | Journal of International Affairs, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview
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Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem or a Global Solution?

Masson, Judith, Journal of International Affairs

"The US is unique amongst developed states in preferring private adoption, a position that Katz associates with the American bias towards market mechanisms and preference for individual autonomy over state regulation.

Adoption involves the legal, permanent transfer of a child from the birth parent or parents to new caregivers. In intercountry adoption, this transfer occurs across an international border. The child usually moves to a new country, to parents of different race, culture and language from the birth family, and acquires a new nationality. The child's new identity replaces his or her original one. Adoption, therefore, it is appropriate to say involves losses as well as gains.

This paper examines the use of intercountry adoption to provide for children in the most disadvantaged conditions. It discusses whether and how international legal instruments and domestic measures can combine to ensure proper standards are applied to such adoptions. (1) In doing so it accepts that intercountry adoption can and should be regulated, rejecting both the alternatives of a free market and a complete ban on adoption. The paper argues that regulatory standards, particularly the control of private adoptions, are required to ensure that abuses such as abduction and trafficking of children are eliminated. Also, as a child welfare measure that has the potential to compromise the human rights of both birth parents and children, adoption should only be used where it is appropriate to the child's situation. Adoption is known to make psychological demands on the parties beyond those of natural parenthood. For this reason, the paper proposes that research knowledge and experience should be applied so that the arrangements made provide the best chance for stable, long-term relationships for children who have been adopted. (2)


Intercountry adoption came about largely as an altruistic response to the plight of war orphans and the abandoned children of servicemen in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. It now involves the transfer of more than 30,000 children each year from over 50 countries. (3) With few exceptions, children move from poor countries to wealthy ones. (4) In the main receiving countries--the United States, Canada and most countries of Western Europe--the number of such adoptions has doubled over the last decade. Many factors have contributed to this increase.

In receiving countries, the decline in fertility associated with postponing marriage, the limited success and high cost of infertility treatment and a lack of domestic adoption opportunities have made intercountry adoption an alternative to childlessness. Intercountry adoption has also become easier as information about how it can be achieved has become more readily available, most recently via the Internet.

In states of origin (sending countries), extreme poverty, lack of contraception and attitudes to birth outside of marriage are three major factors leading to the abandonment of children to institutions. (5) In Eastern Europe, social and economic collapse following the end of communist regimes left orphanages close to destitution. Those responsible for these institutions, the welfare organizations that support them and would-be parents in other countries, have all seen intercountry adoption as a solution. In China, the "one-child policy" and the cultural preference for boys have led to the abandonment of large numbers of girls to under-funded and inadequate institutions. In response to these phenomena, organizations have sprung up to facilitate intercountry adoption. For many of these agencies, acting as an intermediary has become a business.

Because of the increase in international adoptions, a new legal regime has been developed. In 1993, the Hague Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption was signed to create an international framework for arranging and formalizing these adoptions and to prevent abuses.

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Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem or a Global Solution?


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