When Birth Mothers Choose Foreign Parents

A recent CNN article brought to our attention the fact that increasing numbers of African American babies are being adopted by foreign parents.  The article identifies a puzzling trend: why are the citizens of other countries adopting American babies when US citizens adopt so many children from other countries?  Should it trouble us that US citizens are spending so much time and money caring for the vulnerable children in other countries when we haveso many vulnerable children in our own country?

CNN’s explanation—that US laws allow birth mothers to choose their child’s adoptive family—only explains part of this puzzle.  It explains why the citizens of other countries are able to adopt American children.  The article highlights how African American birth parents frequently choose adoptive parents from the Netherlands, or any other foreign country, over adoptive parents in the United States.  The author offers two explanations for why this might be the case: first, having your child grow up overseas seems exotic, and second, birth mothers perceive that black children overseas might not face the same prejudices as black children growing up in the United States.    

Though these explanations are compelling, they mask the complexity of this issue.  They don’t explain why US citizens continue to adopt so many children from other countries when we have vulnerable children in our own country.  I argue that it is the joint influence of two trends in our society that leads to more and more foreigners being chosen as adoptive parents for African American infants while US citizens turn to foreign adoption.  First, US citizens are increasingly motivated to adopt for missional reasons, instead of infertility reasons.  This shift in motivations for adopting goes hand in hand with a shift in the types of families pursuing adoption.  Second, from the perspective of African American mothers, these US citizens adopting for missional reasons tend to be less attractive as adoptive parents because they have multiple children already in their family.  Because of these realities, US citizens pursuing adoption frequently choose international adoption over domestic adoption.    

Conventional wisdom, and the baseline assumption of most scholarly literature examining adoption, tells us that US citizens turn to other countries for adoptable children for two reasons: 1) US citizens suffer increasingly from infertility, and 2) there is a shortage of adoptable children in the United States. But this assumption does not match reality. In fact, we can easily observe that more and more US citizens are adopting children when they have existing children in their family; increasingly adopting US citizens are not primarily motivated by infertility.  Additionally, there are many vulnerable children available for adoption in the United States. Conventional wisdom cannot account for these trends.  

Though infertility is undoubtedly an important motivation for adoption, my personal encounters with those who have adopted children both domestically and internationally confirm that many of them have no infertility problems, and they are adopting children into their family after having several birth children.

As I have researched intercountry adoption and interacted with adoptive parents, I have observed the growth in a “culture of adoption” within the United States that is driven more by a missional view of adoption than infertility problems.  In other words, US citizens are not primarily adopting because they are unable to have children.  Increasingly, more and more US citizens are adopting because there are children who need homes. 

Though this shift in adoption motivations is not exclusive to Christians pursuing adoption, there is a distinct reason why this culture of adoption is permeating Christian communities.  Christians, especially Christians in the Reformed and Evangelical traditions, have a theological understanding of adoption that is influencing changes in the practices of adoption.  One key to understanding this theology is grasping the connection between what Christians understand as “horizontal adoption” and “vertical adoption.”  Horizontal adoption is the adoption of humans by other humans. It is the practice of legally making a child a member of a family that is not their birth family. Vertical adoption is the adoption of humans by God, making them sons and daughters in His family. Christians’ theological understanding of vertical adoption compels them to pursue horizontal adoption, and their experiences with horizontal adoption inform their understanding of their own vertical adoption, and the way the two are interconnected.

This growth in missional adoptions interacts with the trend the CNN article highlights. When parents adopt for infertility reasons, the child(ren) being adopted are usually the first for the family. But families that are adopting for missional reasons are not necessarily adopting their first children. This reality complicates the likelihood that a family would be chosen by a birth mother as an adoptive family.  A birth mother placing her child in an adoptive family is highly concerned with whether or not that child will be accepted as part of his/her adoptive family. Birth parents are understandably more likely to be concerned when their child will be one of several children in the family, especially if their child is the only minority child in a primarily Caucasian family.  For families with children already in their family, the placement process for domestic adoption makes it difficult to be considered as a potential adoptive parent.  Rather than waiting many years to be chosen as adoptive parents, these parents frequently choose to adopt a waiting child in another country.

This brings us back to our original question: should it trouble us that US citizens are spending so much time and money caring for the vulnerable children in other countries when we have so many vulnerable children in our own country that foreigners need to adopt them?  Should it trouble us that foreigners are caring for our vulnerable children?  On the one hand, yes, there is a tension between the investment in caring for other countries’ vulnerable children and our investment in caring for vulnerable children in the United States.  But for families who feel called to adopt across racial and ethnic boundaries, domestic adoption might not be a viable option for the very reasons the CNN article highlights.

But this trend also speaks into a raging debate about whether or not children have a right to be raised in the culture of their birth.  This debate, which often characterizes intercountry adoption as predatory and exploitative, assumes that internationally adopted children are essentially free agents who are ripped from their culture by adoptive parents.  How does it change our understanding of cross-cultural and cross-national adoption to know that birth mothers are choosing international adoption for their children over domestic adoption?  We clearly respect the wishes of the mothers who are facing the difficult choice of giving their child up for adoption.  The reality that these mothers are actively choosing adoptive parents from other cultures should add nuance to this debate.  Most importantly, the difficulties of the choices that both birth and adoptive parents are making as they navigate adoption should encourage us to display grace and challenge us to provide intentional support.

 -Becca McBride is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Her research focuses on investigating how politics influence states’ efforts to control intercountry adoption, and how advocacy organizations influence state policy on adoption.  She has a PhD in Political Science from Vanderbilt University and an MA in Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies from Georgetown University.