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Lost Generation
Adoption in America has collapsed; here’s what to do about it.


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Kevin D. Williamson

Editors’ Note: This week’s extraordinarily backward and hateful comments by MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry on the subject of transracial adoption have brought renewed attention to this neglected issue, and to the issue of adoption more broadly. National Review addressed the question in print in 2008 with this cover story on the breakdown of adoption and the poisonous politics of racial discrimination against adoptive parents, an issue on which the late Senator Howard Metzenbaum (D., Ohio) was a key leader. Because of the interest in the issue, we are making an updated version of the story available for our non-subscribers today.

Adoption is an unexpectedly rare phenomenon in the United States, and that’s a supply-side problem. The United States is the third-most populous country in the world, and each year more than a third of our country’s 4 million births are to unmarried women, but it is estimated that in a typical year the total number of mothers who voluntarily relinquish their children for adoption is fewer than 14,000 — barely enough to make a statistical radar blip on the demographic Doppler. Would-be parents trek to the Far East and mount expeditions to South America because there are so few infants available for adoption in the United States.

At the same time, a half million children languish in foster care, awaiting permanent adoptive homes. There are would-be parents who want to adopt them, too, but this situation is more complex: Older children are less eagerly sought after, and the longer a child is in foster care the less likely he is to find a permanent home. The lot of these foster children has been made worse by years of bad public policy discouraging transracial adoptions — a significant barrier, since most of the couples looking to adopt are white and the children in foster care are disproportionately nonwhite. Supply and demand are wildly out of sync: If we were talking about consumer goods instead of children, we’d call this a market failure. And some of the most incisive critics of U.S. adoption policy are calling for reforms that would make adoption policies look a lot more like a market — that is, a system characterized by free and open cooperation — and a lot less like a welfare bureaucracy.

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As an American institution, adoption is in decline and has been for 35 years. The decline isn’t in the number of families looking to adopt: That number has remained constant for decades, around 2 percent of all married couples. The decline has come rather in the number of American women who choose to give their children up for adoption. From 1952 to 1972, one in five white unwed mothers chose adoption, according to the National Survey of Family Growth. The rates of adoption were lower for black and Hispanic women, but, even so, nearly one in ten unwed mothers overall chose adoption over raising children without a husband. On January 22, 1973, the cultural earthquake that was Roe v. Wade changed all that. By 1981, the number of adoptions was down to 4 percent of all children born out of wedlock. The number for black children fell below 1 percent.

Roe v. Wade was of a piece with the culture of permissiveness and extended adolescence that had its roots in the post-war generation but truly bloomed in the 1970s. In these years, the more radical iterations of feminism were ascendant, together with the budding homosexual-rights movement and similar expressions of the liberationist ethic of the day. Divorce rates soared as the promise of lifelong marriage, once the rock of American civil society, began its melancholy, long, withdrawing whimper. And what had been murder on Sunday night was a constitutional right by Monday morning.

Roe ushered in a culture that not only served to diminish the stigma once conjoined to premarital sex and consequent unwed motherhood, but also ensured that those babies who survived to birth were born to women who were much less likely to choose adoption. The same markers that had once identified young unmarried mothers as more likely to choose adoption — being white, relatively affluent, and relatively educated, with higher educational and career aspirations — today mark women as being likely to choose abortion. The maternity home went the way of the shotgun wedding, vanishing from the cultural landscape along with its euphemistic cousin, the months a pregnant girl spent “visiting family” prior to a quietly arranged adoption. Affluent white women tend to have fewer unwanted pregnancies across the board and, being more thoroughly secular, have been quick to avail themselves of abortion’s convenience. As a consequence, the sort of child most likely to have ended up with an adoptive family a generation ago is the sort most likely to have been eliminated in one of the 50 million abortions that have occurred in the United States since 1973.


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