Managing the Baby Backlash

After decades of nonstop growth, the international adoption mill has begun to stall. Driven by rising affluence, falling birthrates and resurgent national pride, many developing nations are much less willing to let their orphans go abroad. Not only can these nations increasingly afford to care for orphans at home, they have been spooked by highly publicized international baby-selling scandals into tightening the rules. Countries as diverse as South Korea, Russia, Kenya and Brazil now openly discourage foreign adoptions. As a result, intercountry adoptions have plunged 10 percent in the top five receiving nations: the United States, Spain, France, Italy and Canada. The turnabout is most dramatic in the United States; after nearly tripling between 1990 and 2004, international adoptions in America have fallen three years running. Mac Margolis caught up with international adoption expert Peter F. Selman, visiting fellow at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University in England. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: What's behind the steep drop in international adoptions?
Peter F. Selman: There have been a lot of pretty bad scandals in recent years, with serious charges of baby trafficking and bad matches between children and prospective adoptive parents. There's also some resentment, and the old taboos are still strong. In many developing countries there's the idea that "We don't want our children brought up by Americans or Frenchman." In the United Kingdom we sent many children—the so-called "child migrants"—from children's homes to Australia, Canada and New Zealand right up until the 1960s. Many countries also feel they can get along by themselves. (Article continued below...)

Isn't part of the rollback a reflection of economic and demographic changes in the developing world?
In the last two years the big fall has been in China. In part it's because of the stricter guidelines for prospective adoptive families. The government no longer accepts single parents, fat people or elderly couples. We don't know if the fall is temporary or whether it is going to go up again in the future. South Korea started sending children abroad after a devastating war, when it was a poor country and many children were mixed-race. Now it's a rich country, with one of the lowest birthrates in the world. The birthrate in China is also low. In fact, a lot of sending countries have fewer children per female than do receiving countries. Why doesn't Korea take in children from, say, the Philippines?

What is the significance of the United States finally ratifying the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoptions? What impact is the treaty going to have?
I think the U.S. ratification is very important. Remember that the U.S. has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which sets out the standards for intercountry adoption developed in the Hague. I was impressed by the expressed determination of the U.S. delegates to the 2005 Hague Special Commission on the practical operation of the 1993 Convention to put their own house in order, regarding accreditation of [adoption] agencies. Sure, it was a bit galling to hear the U.S. delegation talk as if they were the first country to ratify the convention, rather than the last, apart from Ireland. But more important is that the majority of intercountry adoptions will now be conducted between contracting states of the convention. Previously the convention was seen as a success simply in terms of the number of countries ratifying, but the reality was that only a minority of adoptions were actually affected.

There's been a barrage of bad publicity over international adoptions. What's the upside?
Intercountry adoption continues to provide good homes for many children who would otherwise spend a life in an institution, and research studies indicate that most do well in their new families. For older children and those with special needs, intercountry adoption can literally be a lifeline, and many adopters and adoption agencies are also putting resources into child care in the sending countries.

Will overseas adoptions continue to plunge?
I've been a demographer all my life and hesitate to make predictions. By the late 1980s intercountry adoptions seemed to be declining, as Korea and many South American countries reduced the number of children sent. Then came Romania and later China and Russia as new sources. In the United States, African countries weren't even on the map for international adoptions a few years ago. Now, after Angelina Jolie, there's Ethiopia, Liberia, and others. If China sends fewer young girls abroad and the "demand" from the West continues, the "market" may lead to children somewhere else. In the last resort it will be the sending countries who decide, but the pressures on poor parents will continue as long as money is allowed to play a part.

Why do so few older children get adopted?
The "demand" from Western countries is for younger children, and we know that these have the best outcomes, but there is much variation between sending countries. Some, like South Korea, send mainly babies born to young unmarried women, who are stigmatized and lack support. But in other countries, such as India, it's mainly older children who are sent for overseas adoption. Brazil will now send only children over 5, sibling groups and those with special needs. Other children are adopted domestically or cared for informally in the community.

In Korea and other countries, more and more people are lashing out at what they call the exportation of children. Should overseas adoptions even exist?
There are about 45,000 children adopted by foreign countries every year. Compared to the need, in both sending and receiving nations, that's infinitesimal. It could be 450,000. But most of us feel that children are best brought up in their country of birth and hope for a time when intercountry adoption is not the only way for a child to find a family. We must also not forget that a lot of the movement of children is between siblings and relatives, nephews, nieces, and such, or by step-parents. Many intercountry adoptions from India are by Indians living in the United States or other countries. The overriding need is to ensure that intercountry adoption is only carried out in the best interests of the child. For that to happen governments of both sending and receiving countries work together to put an end to the corruption that has damaged the image of intercountry adoption and everyone involved—especially the children.