Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Politics of International and Domestic Adoption in China

Academic journal article Law & Society Review

Politics of International and Domestic Adoption in China

Article excerpt

This article analyzes why the Chinese government turned to international adoption in the 1990s as a means to deal with increasing numbers of abandoned children in Chinese orphanages. Although many people involved in international adoption assume that Chinese families are unwilling to adopt the kinds of children who fill most Chinese orphanages, primarily abandoned girls, research indicates that many families in China are willing to adopt abandoned children, including girls. Yet legal requirements that adopters be over 35 and childless severely limited the number of families who could legally adopt children in the 1990s. While this did not prevent unofficial adoption in violation of the restrictions, it did keep adopters away from government orphanages, thus increasing the burden on those institutions. Restrictions on adoption are the result of birth planning efforts to prevent adoption from being used as a loophole whereby birth parents adopt out daughters in order to be able to try again for a son. The result of this policy has been to increase abandonment while decreasing the number of legally eligible adoptive families in China. International adoption has helped enlarge the pool of potential adopters without disturbing birth planning priorities. It has also helped provide needed funds for improving conditions in state orphanages. Although legal changes in 1999 eased restrictions on the adoption of abandoned children living in orphanages, a number of factors have limited actual change, while restrictions on adoptions outside of orphanages have been largely maintained. Birth planning authorities remain wary of liberalizing domestic adoption, and a decade of international adoption has institutionalized powerful interests that orient adoption from orphanages toward the outside rather than inside China. Nonetheless, China is slowly moving toward an adoption policy more in line with the Hague Convention's injunction to prioritize domestic adoption over international placement, turning to international adoption only when it is impossible to find domestic adoptive families.

The relationship between international adoption and domestic adoption in sending-countries has been a central concern in international conventions that seek to protect children's interests and to regulate international adoption. The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the 1993 Hague Conference's Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect to Intercountry Adoption argue that an ethical adoption policy should privilege domestic adoption over international adoption whenever this is feasible within a reasonable period of time. Moving children across borders, which separates them from their country and culture of birth, is viewed as a last resort for adoptive placement, preferable to long-term in-country institutional care but second choice to domestic adoption. Scholars such as Barbara Yngvesson (2000) and Claudia Fonseca (2001) have pointed out that some features of the Hague Convention and other international legal codes in fact mitigate against this prescription by valorizing a narrow definition of adoption and postulating an ideal adoptive family that in some cases (e.g., Brazil) leads social workers and lawyers to overlook local adopters and traditional forms of adoption in favor of international adopters. The latter not only offer wealthier homes than domestic placement would but also a "stronger" form of adoption that places children permanently and exclusively in a nuclear family, which thereafter has sole legal custody, rights, and responsibility for the child.

Nonetheless it is commonly understood that many, if not all, sending countries participate in international adoption primarily because some combination of domestic, cultural, and economic factors make it difficult to find enough homes for homeless children inside their country of birth. In such circumstances, institutional care may be the only alternative to international adoption. …

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