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Adoptions are transfers of children to new parents or caregivers. Two adoption types can be distinguished: (1) domestic and (2) intercountry. The first takes place within a nation-state, the second refers to immigration, because a child moves to a new country. In both cases, the adopted children and their new parents can belong to different cultures, languages, and races. Adoption is a welfare service and a measure of protection for children. Abandoned or relinquished children as well as those removed from their homes by authorities should receive a new family in accordance with the best interests of the child. However, adoption services charge a fee, which has to be paid by the adoption applicants.
Due to the involvement of money, authors like Debora Spar and Kimberly Krawiec share the concern that adoptions function as a commercial trade in which the purchasing power of prospective parents determines adoptions. Market prices are camouflaged as fees. This becomes evident, they argue, when adoption fees vary according to the different characteristics of the child (e.g., race, nationality, age). Thus, national and global markets for children exist.
The conclusions of Spar and Krawiec regarding adoption contradict an observation Émile Durkheim made at the end of the 19th century. He predicted that adoptions would lose their contractual dimension and thus their market features, and instead, a publicly controlled and organized adoption system would emerge. Historically, research supports Durkheim’s prediction. Ellen Herman proposed a de-marketization theory in the United States, which transformed the 19th-century market for children into a regulated system of what she calls “scientific adoption.”
From Children Markets To Scientific And Controlled Adoptions
Markets for children were common until the early 20th century in the Western world. Children were bought and sold. The few laws that regulated adoptions were seldom enforced. Orphan trains, baby farms, lying-in hospitals, doctors, and midwives mediated the transactions. Children were offered in newspaper advertisements in exchange for payment. According to Viviana Zelizer, older, physically strong boys and young, blond girls were favored. The former were desired for work, while the latter represented the cultural stereotype of innocence and virginity and were therefore emotionally appealing.
In the 1910s, professionals in the emerging fields of social work and child studies began to engage in the field of adoption and conducted studies about adoption outcomes. They concluded that adoptions should not be left to the devices of a free market, unprofessional intermediaries, and adoption applicants. Markets would sacrifice the best interests of the children for the sake of profit; those with dubious motives could buy children to exploit their labor potential and sexuality. Adoption applicants were irrational because of the emotional and normative value of children, stereotypes, and lack of knowledge. Therefore, they could not rationally decide which child would be suitable for them. Uncontrolled and unprofessional adoptions resulted in abuse, neglect, trauma, overstraining by the adoptive parents, and sometimes disruption of the new family.
Apart from the negative externalities, critics have stressed the moral conflicts that markets for children created. Zelizer has shown that societal groups saw the sacred dignity of children violated through commercial adoptions. Quoting prices for children, in their perception, would corrupt the inalienable human rights of children as free and unconditionally supported, loved, and nurtured human beings. They would be degraded to profane commodities.
Thus, social workers and child study professionals proposed the concept of scientific adoption, in which scientific methods and knowledge would be applied to match children with future parents. Eligibility tests for adoption applicants were developed; consumer autonomy was limited, and the process was regulated. Authorities and courts gained the right to decide who would be allowed to adopt. Eligibility, expert knowledge, and decisions by authorities—and not market forces—would organize adoptions.
Home Study And Fees
Today, adoption applicants must pass an eligibility test called a“home study.”It comprises psychological, social, and medical reports; home visits by social workers; trainings; and meetings with adoptive families. After the prospective parents pass the home study, they can apply to adopt a specific child, or they can receive a child referral. Eventually, a family court declares, based on the home study, the legal transition of a child to his or her new parents.
A variety of actors can be involved in adoptions: public and private agencies, social workers, public authorities, courts, lawyers, doctors, and private intermediaries. Their work, and not the placement, must be paid. If states do not compensate the costs (as in Germany and the United States), applicants must finance the adoption themselves. Adoption fees are typically regulated and publicly scrutinized, however, to protect children against commodification. On the intercountry level, the Hague Convention regulates adoption fees. According to Holly C. Kennard, it prohibits “placements for payments.”
The Grey And Black Zones Of Adoptions
Grey zones in the adoption system persist. In the United States, a race-differentiated fee system can be observed. Low fees are used as incentives to make the adoption of minority children more attractive. (Safeguards such as home studies are in place, however, and courts must still declare the adoption.) However, according to Michele Goodwin, offering financial incentives for the adoption of minority children violates their dignity as equal human beings.
According to Krawiec, “murky rules” are in place in some states in the United States, which regulate birth mother compensation. Her suspicion is that these rules could be an incentive for relinquishment because they allow high amounts of compensation (e.g., medical costs). Usually, compensation amounts are limited and publicly scrutinized. In intercountry adoptions, donations are seen critically. For officials and authorities, it is difficult to distinguish whether a donation is voluntary or a coerced payment to get a preferential service.
A black market for children also exists. Parents relinquish their children for money to new parents without going through the official system. On the international level, according to David M. Smolin, “child laundering” can take place, where children are illegally “harvested” in baby farms or kidnapped. Criminal groups would then bribe officials and falsify documents to introduce children to the official system. This is especially true in countries with a weak bureaucratic infrastructure, where criminal networks could circumvent the official system and commodify children.
- Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
- Goodwin, Michele, ed. Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Herman, Ellen. “Families Made by Science: Arnold Gesell and the Technologies of Modern Child Adoption.” Isis, v.92 (2001).
- Herman, Ellen. Kinship by Design: The History of Adoption in the Modern United Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
- Krawiec, Kimberly. “Price and Pretense in the Baby Market.” In Baby Markets: Money and the New Politics of Creating Families, Michele Goodwin, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
- Masson, Judith. Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem or a Global Journal of International Affairs, v.55/1 (2001).
- Smolin, David. “Child Laundering: How the Intercountry Adoption System Legitimizes and Incentivizes the Practices of Buying, Trafficking, Kidnapping, and Stealing Children.” The Wayne Law Review, 52/1 (2006).
- Spar, Debora. The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2006.
- Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.