The Politics of Adopting States in Intercountry Adoption

When we talk about the politics of intercountry adoption, we tend to focus on the policies of the states which allow foreigners to adopt children.  We think less about how adopting states shape the possibility and practice of intercountry adoption.  Yet, the governments in well-developed states like the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Sweden are just as influential in the politics of intercountry adoption as the governments in the states with vulnerable children. 

The last article in this series argued that thinking about intercountry adoption as an exchange has important implications for how we understand the practice and how we can best protect vulnerable children and adoptive parents.  The very language of exchange rubs us the wrong way, especially when we are talking about children.  The idea that adopting states have a “demand” for adoptable children seems offensive, because in general we assume that without a demand for something, the exchange is unnecessary. But we can think of numerous exchanges where a need is identified and we start to think creatively about how to meet the need. 

Similarly, a nuanced and systematic understanding of adoption helps us understand how we have a responsibility to engage in the practice, even if we are not individually adopting.  This installment will examine the motivations, institutions, and complications on the adopting side of intercountry adoptions.


The demand for adoptable children in well-developed states does not create the supply of vulnerable children; rather, it grows out of the response to the supply of vulnerable children.  As the plight of vulnerable children has become more and more visible since World War II, adoption has become one solution to states’ challenges when they have a disproportionate number of vulnerable children.  But there are also at least two trends within adopting states which have also shaped this demand.  First, citizens in adopting states increasingly struggle with infertility because young adults tend to build careers before building families.  As people wait longer to start families the likelihood that they would struggle with infertility increases, simply because the prime child-bearing years are in younger adulthood.  Infertile couples often either pursue fertility treatments or adopt children. 

Second, families in developed countries are intentionally choosing to construct their families through adoption for religious or humanitarian reasons.  For instance, multiple faith communities throughout the United States are increasingly conveying a theology of adoption (God adopts us into His family) which translates into a growing culture of adoption (families adopting children into their families).  This phenomenon is not isolated to faith communities; the culture of adoption has spread through neighborhoods, towns, and cities as more and more families adopt children from the same countries and use those adoptions as springboards for international advocacy.  Though some adopting states have a supply of adoptable children themselves (like the United States for example), often the demand for adoptable children is much larger than the number of vulnerable children.  These families and individuals then turn to other states to adopt children. 


Regardless of the motivations of adoptive parents, there are institutions at the international level, the state level, and at the local level which interact to process adoptions. Potential adoptive parents initiate the intercountry adoption process by requesting a child from another country.  Sometimes they request a child from a state with a well-established relationship with the adopting state.  Other times they request a child from a “new” state for intercountry adoption.  In the United States, institutions like the State Department, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and even research departments within the Library of Congress work together to determine whether adoptions from particular states are legally possible or logistically feasible.  Most important in this determination is whether or not the child can be processed into the adopting state as a citizen.  In other words, is the child legally available for adoption (and is there sufficient information to make the determination), and can the two states coordinate their visa regimes?

Adoption agencies are the mediators which connect adoptive parents with children in other countries most often, and they facilitate the legal and administrative processes in both states.  Moreover, adoption agencies provide information to help adopting states determine the feasibility of a partnership with a new state.  These adoption agencies are typically accredited through the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption, the multilateral treaty governing adoptions, and they provide guidance so states can fulfill their obligations to this treaty and pursue less corrupt adoptions. 


What are the complications in the process on the adopting side of the exchange?  The first and most obvious is the fact that adoptions can often become more about the needs of those adopting than the needs of the vulnerable child.  This is a dangerous trend because vulnerable children often have challenges which make adoption difficult for adoptive parents.  If adoptive parents pursue adoptions outside this reality, adoptions can break down post-adoption.  The second complication is the fact that often the money spent on expensive international adoptions could instead be used to build domestic programs in the states with vulnerable children to mitigate the need for adoption in the first place.  As a result, orphan advocate agencies are increasingly focusing on adoption as one of many solutions to vulnerable children.  These agencies also pursue social welfare development, domestic foster care, and family support in the states with vulnerable children, in addition to providing adoptive services.

Understanding the motivations, institutions, and complications on the adopting side of the exchange opens the door for us to contribute to public justice in the practice as individuals and professionals.  Because the motivation for adoption develops at the individual and community levels, we can help shape the exchange by faithfully engaging those around us advocating for intercountry adoption.  Identifying multiple levels of institutions driving the demand side of intercountry adoption helps us understand how our vocations can actively influence the practice of intercountry adoption.  Finally, understanding the complications on the adopting side of the exchange should motivate us to think creatively about how to protect vulnerable children and adoptive parents.  What would it look like for us to develop better support for adoptive parents facing difficult situations post-adoption?  How can our faith communities better support adoptive parents instead of marginalizing those whose stories do not match our expectation of perfection?  How can this advocacy for parents and children shape the ways we care for those around us?   

 -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.