Adoption Essay

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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.


  1. Durkheim, Émile. The Division of Labor  in Society. New York: The Free Press, 1997.
  2. Goodwin, Michele, ed. Baby Markets: Money  and the New  Politics of Creating Families. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  3. Herman, Ellen. “Families Made by Science: Arnold Gesell and the Technologies  of Modern Child Adoption.” Isis, v.92 (2001).
  4. Herman, Ellen. Kinship by Design: The History  of Adoption in the Modern  United  Chicago,  IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.
  5. 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.
  6. Masson, Judith. Intercountry Adoption: A Global Problem  or a Global  Journal of International Affairs,  v.55/1 (2001).
  7. 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).
  8. Spar, Debora. The Baby Business: How  Money,  Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception. Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2006.
  9. Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. Princeton,  NJ: Princeton  University Press, 1985.

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