Politics & Policy

Lost Generation

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

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.

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.

It may be that the widespread practice of infant adoption was doomed to be a short-term phenomenon. Like so much of modern American community life, adoption was profoundly influenced by the career of Theodore Roosevelt and the reformist movements to which he lent his vitality. Prior to the 20th century, adoption of non-relatives had been rare; orphans and children whose parents could not or would not care for them were relegated to orphanages. The Dickensian conditions at these orphanages — to say nothing of their insalubrious indoorsiness — inevitably attracted the improving passion of President Roosevelt. In 1909, he convened the first White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children and established as a matter of national policy that, where possible, homeless children should be placed in permanent adoptive homes. A new maxim was handed down from the bully pulpit: “Home life is the highest and finest product of civilization,” Roosevelt said. “Children should not be deprived of it except for urgent and compelling reasons.” The idea was radical at the time and was resisted by the institutional interests attached to orphanages. But the movement was hugely successful: Within a few decades the tribes of homeless children that had once been common sights in American cities had vanished, while the Child Welfare League of America had helped to establish standards and practices for adoption and foster parenting.

Since its early days, modern adoption has been a lightning rod for class and race anxieties. But while race, sex, and disabilities remain important considerations for many adoptive parents, Americans have grown steadily more eager to adopt children of different races. And adoptive families have been ahead of the curve: During adoption’s post-war heyday, adoptive families sprinted over the color line that would not be transgressed in other areas of American life for decades. A 1961 Time magazine article profiled Yonkers fireman Joe Treacy and his wife, who over the course of 20 years provided foster care to more than 300 children of varying races and nationalities. When questioned by a neighbor about the provenance of two black babies he was seen parading down the sidewalk in a stroller, the fireman answered: “They’re my wife’s by a previous marriage.”

It may be a simple matter of evolutionary biology, but it’s hard to be bigoted against babies. Hard, but not impossible: As Jonah Goldberg has pointed out in these pages and elsewhere, the eugenicists at Planned Parenthood and allied organizations didn’t want the children of the destitute, the black, or the sickly to be raised by adoptive families — they wanted them eliminated. After 1973 they would see their wish substantially fulfilled.

The unborn children of the post-Roe era are the true Lost Generation. With abortion having taken some 50 million American children out of the adoption equation, it’s no surprise that would-be adoptive parents have been sent packing across the Himalayas and Andes. But what of the 500,000 or so children relegated to foster care at any given time? Unhappily, politics has conspired against them, too.


The phrase “out of wedlock” has a chalky, anachronistic taste, but in this context it is a necessary distinction. Married women practically never voluntarily relinquish their children for adoption. Not all adoptions are conceived in voluntary circumstances, however. Each year thousands of negligent or abusive parents, singles and married couples alike, have their parental rights terminated by the courts and their children relegated to institutional care or foster families. While some of these children are older teens who will spend only a year or two in foster homes before reaching adulthood and legal emancipation, many are young — the median age is 8.4 years — and adoption is, in most cases, the aspiration of the children’s legal custodians.

For children in foster care, the calculus of adoption is complex. The older a child gets, the less likely he is to find a permanent adoptive family. Research suggests that white parents have their rights terminated earlier and more often than do black and Hispanic parents; this may give the impression that whites are being treated more harshly, but it is black and Hispanic children who are injured by this disparity. They are put on the road to adoption at a later age, placing them at a permanent disadvantage. They spend more time in foster care and are more likely to suffer from behavioral problems. All of these factors make it less likely that they will find permanent, stable homes.

Most of the parents waiting to adopt are white; most of the children awaiting adoption are not. Parents’ attitudes toward transracial adoption have become much more liberal since the 1970s, but the racial attitudes of social workers, those sometimes pitiless gatekeepers on the adoption pilgrimage, have hardened. A study published by the academic journal Child Welfare found that 43 percent of the caseworkers responsible for the longest-waiting black children in New York State expressed hostility toward transracial adoption. Federal law prohibits the use of racial criteria in adoption placement, but ethnic considerations have seeped into the system: The number of transracial adoptions executed each year remains tiny despite the willingness of the majority of couples to adopt a child of a different race. About 8 percent of all adoptions are transracial or cross-cultural — and that number includes international adoptions, commonly from Asia and South America. Professor Judy Fenster of Adelphi University finds that black social workers are particularly inimical to the prospect of cross-racial adoption. It seems that the matchmakers at the heart of the adoption system are part of the problem.

Transracial adoption is a volcanically touchy issue — the National Association of Black Social Workers has deployed weapons-grade rhetoric characterizing the practice as “cultural genocide.” That ideology has had predictable consequences: Black children spend more time in foster care than others, and in general have less luck in finding permanent adoptive homes. The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994, a legacy of the late senator Howard Metzenbaum, forbade the use of race as the decisive factor in making adoption-placement decisions, but the language of the statute left those politically opposed to transracial adoptions with room for much mischievous maneuvering. Would-be adoptive parents were disqualified for expressing political opinions at odds with social workers’ preferences. Just as the social workers of Teddy Roosevelt’s day defended the orphanages against the president’s radical drive for adoptions, their professional descendants have defended racial practices that allow them to impose their own political preferences as policy.

In one case, a white couple who had hoped to adopt a severely disabled black girl in 1994 were disqualified on political grounds — specifically that they expressed a desire to raise their children to be “colorblind” — and on racial grounds, specifically that they lived in Alaska, which was judged to be superabundantly Caucasian. The couple had raised other severely disabled children of various ethnic backgrounds but they were rejected in favor of a single woman who expressed the “correct” racial attitudes — and who ended up declining to adopt the child, precisely because of her disabilities. The girl in question suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and from Russell-Silver Syndrome, a form of dwarfism associated with, among other things, gastrointestinal difficulties, a triangular face, and asymmetrical body growth. It is difficult to imagine that her most pressing challenge in life was going to be the relative scarcity of black neighbors in Fairbanks.

Similar cases were common, if less dramatic. Implementation of MEPA had failed so comprehensively that Senator Metzenbaum came out of retirement to lobby for changes to the act. The 1996 amendments, sometimes called MEPA II, made the law more explicit, leaving those agencies that covertly use racial considerations to delay or prevent transracial adoptions vulnerable to fines and lawsuits.

MEPA II did not sit well with those who maintain an ideological animosity to the idea of white parents’ raising black children. The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an influential player in this debate, issued a report minimizing the progress in black adoptions and arguing for the repeal of the 1996 amendments so as to once again allow the use of racial considerations in adoption placements. The report is fascinatingly shoddy. For example, it transmits heartbreaking anecdotes about a dark-skinned adoptive child in a white household who listed “white skin” as his top Christmas wish — but that Christmas request was addressed to Sinterklaas, because the child was a Sri Lankan adoptee being raised in the Netherlands. What, precisely, the experience of Asian-Dutch adoptees is thought to tell us about black American adoptees is unclear, but that hasn’t stopped the Donaldson report from being cited, widely and uncritically, as evidence against MEPA II and the current practices governing transracial adoption.

Rosemary McDonough, mother of two adopted children and former chairman of the board of the National Council for Adoption, is skeptical of the Donaldson report’s claims: “If it’s a problem for my son that his Latin looks don’t match his Irish name — may that be the biggest problem he has in life.”

A. L. Burrow of Loyola University in Chicago reports more complex findings that do not seem to indicate that race is a reliable predictor of the happiness or success of adopted children: Asian children adopted into white families had the highest grades — but also had the highest incidence of certain psychological troubles. Black children adopted into black families had the highest levels of self-esteem — and the highest levels of depression. Of all the factors at play, the peculiar challenges of transracial adoption do not appear to be definitive, but MEPA II imposes unwelcome restrictions and oversight on child-welfare workers accustomed to following their own political eccentricities, and thereby attracts a dedicated opposition.

Professor Elizabeth Bartholet of Harvard Law School argues that the law should be maintained in its current form, which allows for counseling and preparation for the challenges of raising a child of a different race but prohibits the use of race as a ruling criterion. When she testified before Congress, her assessment was astringent: “The fact is that transracial adoptions have increased post-MEPA, although not yet as much as we might hope. But it takes time for laws to have an impact, and it is only recently that the federal government began serious implementation efforts, issuing its first enforcement decision in 2003, with that decision not upheld on administrative appeal until 2006. In any event, there is certainly no reason to think that recreating a barrier to transracial adoption, as the Donaldson report calls for, will do anything other than make it harder to find homes for waiting children.” Professor Bartholet, who describes herself as “left-progressive,” attributed the Donaldson position to a vein of “racial separatism” that runs through the social-services bureaucracies.

Congress is still considering whether to allow MEPA II to stand or to regress to the previous form of MEPA, which would allow for the implementation of broader racial prerequisites, but adoption bills aren’t exactly on the congressional fast track under the current leadership.

MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry’s remarks deriding Mitt Romney’s black adopted grandson are illustrative of the culture of hostility that still greets transracial adoptions. Actor Nick Searcy of television’s terrific Justified, an outspoken conservative and the adoptive father of a black son, was scorching on the subject, and called it what it plainly is: racism. “We learned a lot about those attitudes within social services when we adopted Omar,” Searcy wrote. “It is shocking.” Harris-Perry offered a contrite apology for her remarks, but what is really shocking is that an adult American living in the year 2013 could be living in such a politically correct bubble — even at MSNBC — that she could denounce an infant as a “token” without even stopping to consider the impact of her words. When it comes to the politics of transracial adoptions, these children are not tokens — but they are, unhappily, sometimes treated as pawns.


The fight over transracial placements is only one small intersection in the nexus between politics and adoption. There are a number of policy initiatives in the works to support adoption, from increasing the financial incentives to adopt children out of foster care to protecting the First Amendment rights of faith-based adoption agencies. One important piece of legislation was former representative Phil English’s Religious Freedom for Providers of Adoption, Foster Care, and Child Welfare Services Act, which would prohibit punishing adoption agencies for declining to work with homosexual couples. Catholic Charities in Massachusetts suspended their adoption activities when the state attempted to force them to abandon their moral objections to facilitating adoption by homosexual couples, leaving the Bay State’s children bereft of an important ally in their search for families.

Representative English, a Pennsylvania Republican who lost his 2008 reelection campaign, complained in that year that his legislation was going nowhere: “This is the kind of legislation that this Congress is afraid to bring up for fear of offending the gay lobby,” he said. The bill later died in committee.

And even if Harry Reid and his colleagues had an interest in adoption reform, the abortion lobby — the real conscience of the Democratic party — views pro-adoption forces as a wing of the pro-life movement, rivals in a zero-sum game between the abortion ethic and the life ethic. Adoptions are as common in blue states as in red states, but adoption does not electrify Democratic leaders with the voltage of abortion or gay marriage.

Against this background, it is unsurprising that adoption supporters are not strongly focused on Washington. The National Council for Adoption has a legislative agenda, to be sure, but its most recent campaign isn’t aimed at Capitol Hill; it’s aimed at young mothers and fathers. Called “I Choose Adoption,” it is intended to communicate that mothers who give their children to adoptive families aren’t doing so because they’re bad mothers, but because they are good mothers.

Politicians love to dress their pet causes in swaddling clothes and declare that we have to do thus and such “for the children.” But here’s an issue that is literally about the children — defenseless, vulnerable children without families — and politics is hurting them. So while the NCFA is to be commended for its efforts to reach out to unwed mothers, it may be that helping unwed mothers feel good about adoption isn’t enough. Why not get the politicians out of the way and stack some money on the table? To the extent that politics is the problem, the best reform may be to get politics out of adoption entirely.

It is necessary to be cautious when talking about market-based reforms of adoption practices. To American ears, that sounds like establishing a marketplace for babies, which justly sets off klaxons of moral alarm. Under any decent system of adoption, children are people, not commodities, and people have rights that it is the duty of society to protect. It’s not a question of buying and selling babies, but of freely contracting to exchange parental rights — which is, after all, what adoption is: an exchange of parental rights. And there is significant money involved in the process. What market-oriented adoption reforms are intended to accomplish is to align the incentives of unprepared parents with those of adoptive families in order to provide the best outcomes for children.

Richard Posner, a giant in the law-and-economics movement long before he became a judge on the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, has argued for the deregulation of the adoption system and its replacement by a market-based alternative since the publication of his paper “The Regulation of the Market in Adoptions” back in 1987. “The adoption market exhibits all of the pathologies of price regulation,” Posner says. “First, there’s a huge supply-demand imbalance. We have 1.5 million abortions a year but a shortage of babies available for adoption, and that suggests something is wrong. Second, there’s a black market and a grey market in adoption, where doctors and lawyers act as middlemen and collect fees.” The fees related to adoption can be dodgy; it’s illegal to pay a fee to secure a child, but there are all sorts of other fees that act as proxies for those verboten payments. The numbers coming out of grey-market adoption cases suggest that would-be mothers could expect compensation of $30,000 to $60,000, plus prenatal expenses — not an insignificant incentive.

Posner’s efforts to account for the economic realities of adoption have been taken up and amplified by others, notable among them the economist Donald Boudreaux, who points out that there already is a market for adoption. “Parental rights are bought and sold,” Boudreaux has said, “but they’re sold in a hidden way. If you look at the fees that adoption agencies charge, there’s no itemized schedule that puts a price on parental rights. The people who do, de facto, profit from selling parental rights are the adoption agencies or adoption lawyers — the middlemen — precisely because of the artificial scarcity of the thing that they sell.” Lots of money is changing hands, but little or none of it goes to the mothers who are, along with their babies, the most vulnerable parties in these transactions.

Boudreaux defended the market-based approach with great clarity in the libertarian Cato Journal: “When a birth mother gives a child up for adoption, she legally transfers her parental rights to the adoptive parents; the adoptive parents gain all those rights, but only those rights, that the birth mother possessed before the adoption. Such rights are those that all non-derelict parents have in their children. The rights do not include license to abuse the child or to use him or her as a slave. . . . Branding the sale of parental rights ‘baby selling’ provokes people reflexively but wrongly to assume that some horror akin to slavery is being advocated.” In a 2008 conversation with National Review, Boudreaux characterized the objections to the free exchange of parental rights in an open market as a question of taste: “The objections are for the most part aesthetic. It strikes people as unseemly. But they don’t stop and think through the ramifications.” Boudreaux argues that adoptive families would still have to be screened and the adoption approved, possibly by a judge.

Allowing adoptive parents to contract directly with mothers would, Boudreaux argues, create incentives that favor healthy babies who are well cared for and who end up in loving homes. “We allow parents who desperately want children to have them, and the mother profits from transferring her rights,” Boudreaux says. “Regardless of how you feel about the morality of abortion — and I’m pro-abortion — it’s hard to argue that the child is worse off. I don’t see who loses out on that deal. And women have better incentives to take care of themselves prenatally — parents who contract for adoptions are not going to go into it willy-nilly, and there will be mechanisms to monitor the health of the child, so women will have an incentive not to drink or use drugs while pregnant.”

Given a choice between a calcified adoption bureaucracy — one in thrall to racial ideologies and marred by the inevitable dysfunction of politics — or an imperfect but free system that helps to align economic incentives with the best interests of vulnerable women and children, the Posner-Boudreaux prescription is compelling. Economic incentives are part of every aspect of human life, and especially of family life. Many older professional couples find themselves looking to adopt because they have delayed marriage and childbirth for economic reasons. Economic calculation is probably the single biggest factor influencing how many children couples have and when they have them. Why not use economic incentives to make adoption safe, legal — and plentiful?

— Kevin D. Williamson is a roving correspondent for National Review.


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