Thinking of Intercountry Adoption as an Exchange

The way we think about intercountry adoption has implications for how we engage in the practice as individual citizens.  Some would argue that adoption is a family issue.  Individuals and couples decide they want to adopt a child from another country, and as individuals we can support our friends who make that choice.  Others would argue that adoption is a church issue.  We are called as Christians to care for widows and orphans, and thus adoption and orphan care should be a part of the mission of the church.  As individuals we can join in that mission and work through our church to care for vulnerable children.  Finally, others would argue that adoption is a human rights issue.  Vulnerable children lack parents who can protect their rights, and adoption is one way that vulnerable children can be protected.  Thus, as Christians we should be at the forefront of orphan advocacy and orphan care.

If intercountry adoption belongs exclusively to the realms of the family, or the church, or advocacy, then it seems separate from our careers where we engage the public sector.  I want to suggest a way of thinking about intercountry adoption that places adoption in the public realm and connects the issue to our vocations.  Because while intercountry adoption is certainly a personal and private issue, it is also a phenomenon that political systems, economic trends, and social factors influence.  In addition to these already mentioned understandings of adoption, we must also think of intercountry adoption as an exchange.  This is the first article in a three-part series that examines the implications of looking at intercountry adoption as an exchange.  In this installment I will provide a justification for such a conception of intercountry adoption and highlight some initial implications and potential dangers of such thinking.  The next two articles will examine each side of the intercountry adoption exchange.

Adoption is no longer a practice that occurs primarily within states’ borders nor within one coherent legal system.  Rather, it has become a global phenomenon—intercountry adoption, at the most basic level, is the legal transfer of a child across international borders.  Thus, there are many reasons that thinking about intercountry adoption as an exchange in the international system is helpful.  First, there are always two sides of exchanges in the international system.  There is a state with a supply, and another state with a demand.  Though we typically think in terms of goods being exchanged between states, this is also language that is often applied to the movement of people in the international system.  For example, when we think of labor migration, we know that one state has a supply of labor, and another state has a demand for that type of labor. 

Intercountry adoption is actually quite similar to the migration exchange.  One state has an overwhelming number of vulnerable children, and another state has a demand for adoptable children.  There can be numerous reasons for this demand—for example, developed states increasingly struggle with infertility because adults often build their careers before building their families.  On the other hand, many families in developed countries are increasingly choosing to construct their families through adoption for reasons connected to their faith or humanitarian concerns.  Though this is not a “demand” for children as we typically think of demand, it is still a response to the supply of vulnerable children in other countries.  Regardless of the reason for the demand, that demand is met by the overwhelming number of vulnerable children in many developing countries.  Examining intercountry adoption as an exchange helps us think more systematically about the motivations, institutions, and complications on both sides of the exchange.

Second, exchanges in the international system must be regulated.  There are laws that detail expectations of state behavior in such exchanges, and states commit to coordinating their behavior when they enter into exchanges.  There are systems in place to monitor compliance with agreements, and when states fail to follow through on their commitments, there are varying levels of consequences.  Intercountry adoption is a practice characterized by the coordination of legal systems across borders.  Adoptions must be processed in the origin state of the child such that the child can legally be transferred to another family in another state.  Though complications in intercountry adoption are increasingly becoming international incidents, intercountry adoption is still relatively under regulated and unmonitored compared to other exchanges. 

But, there are some potential dangers to thinking about intercountry adoption as an exchange, and these difficulties have caused some people to reject this approach to understanding intercountry adoption.  First, thinking of intercountry adoption as an exchange can translate into thinking that intercountry adoption is a market for children.  For example, critics of intercountry adoption often ask how intercountry adoption is any different from buying children.  We must take this criticism seriously if we are to understand the ways that intercountry adoption can easily become an exploitative practice.  But as I explained above, we use exchange language to talk about the international movement of people all the time, and we typically do not think of labor migration as a market for people.  Rather, that language helps us think of ways to protect the individuals involved in labor migration.

Second, thinking of intercountry adoption as an exchange shifts the focus to examining a trend instead of examining the people impacted by that trend.  This is a valid critique, and shows that examination of the trend should never be divorced from the reality that intercountry adoption profoundly impacts vulnerable children and adoptive parents’ lives.  But a singular focus on individual stories and individual circumstances can blind us to how individual actions often undermine intercountry adoption.  For example, in individual cases we often feel urgency to do whatever it takes to ensure that an adoption is processed.  But desperate actions can undermine the possibility of processing future adoptions as states respond to those actions.  This is especially true because intercountry adoptions are processed across cultural and political contexts and actions can be understood differently in different contexts.  We need a balanced understanding of intercountry adoption that takes into account both the individual circumstances of the people involved and the larger global patterns shaping the exchange.

How does this reframing of intercountry adoption as an exchange impact us as individuals who are not in the process of adopting a child internationally?  First of all, it enables us to better advocate for vulnerable children professionally.  If intercountry adoption is an international exchange, there are implications for those of us who pursue careers in law, accounting, civil service, journalism, and public service.  Secondly, this reframing helps us better advocate for vulnerable children personally in our social and faith communities.  It helps us add nuance to contentious conversations and guard against the tendency for representations to be reduced to a polarized debate between those for or against the practice.  Finally, it enables us to more effectively investigate the factors that facilitate or hinder the processing of adoptions so we can better protect the vulnerable children and adoptive parents involved.

 -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.