Where Do Babies Come From?

The geopolitics of adoption after the Kremlin's bizarre ban.


While Vladimir Putin’s latest policy absurdity — the ban on adoptions of Russian babies by well-meaning Americans — might seem a tragedy for the country’s tens of thousands of lonely orphans, take heart: comedy is but Russian foreign policy plus time. No doubt the international community will one day look back with amusement on the erratic behavior of Russia, the town drunk of the global village: a Kremlin statement on Jan. 11 suggested that adoptions from Russia to the United States will, actually, remain valid until 2014. Meanwhile, one can only marvel at the growing list of Mother Russia’s bizarre dealings with the outside world.

If it’s Tuesday it’s the Kremlin threatening its neighbors with turning off the gas tap or with outright nuclear annihilation — if their policies don’t agree with those emanating from Moscow. In August 2009, the Russian Ministry of Justice added Winnie-the-Pooh to its list of banned "extremist" material. And in early January, President Putin personally granted French tax exile and sometime actor Gérard Depardieu a Russian passport. (Straight comedy: Brigitte Bardot threatened to follow Depardieu’s example if the French government doesn’t prevent the euthanasia of two TB-ridden elephants in a circus in Lyons.)

If the bear-hug between the rather diminutive Putin and Depardieu, whose physique actually is bear-like these days, seemed something of a mismatch, it made one wonder about an even greater discrepancy: between Putin’s seeming eagerness to adopt the airplane-soiling enfant terrible of French cinema, and Russia’s abrupt embargo on the adoption of its toddlers by American citizens.

On the face of it, the Dima Yakovlev Act, which went into effect on Jan. 1, is designed to prevent abuse: it is named after a Russian-born child who died on a sweltering day in 2008 when his adoptive father forgot him in the car instead of taking him to day care. The baby — known to his American parents as Chase Harrison — is one of 19 Russian-born children to die of neglect at the hands of their adoptive parents in the United States over the last two decades, offering certain Russians the opportunity to portray Americans as child abusers.

Putting that figure in perspective are two others: more than 60,000 Russian children were adopted by Americans over that period, providing some statistical context to the abuse claim; as does the death toll of Russian children adopted in-country over the same period, which stood at over 1,200.

The Dima Yakovlev Act is not about abusive adoptions — although it taps into a Russian view of the United States as the acme of decadence — as much as about retaliation for the Magnitsky Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in mid-December. Sergei Magnitsky was a Russian lawyer who died in a Moscow jail in 2009 after blowing the whistle on $230 million worth of tax fraud perpetrated by Russian officials. The Magnitsky Act prohibited those officials deemed responsible for the lawyer’s death from entering the United States.

The main victims of the Magnitsky/Yakovlev double-act are the approximately 740,000 children in state care in Russia: only 18,000 Russian families are currently in the process of adopting a child. Until the embargo went into effect, about 3,000 Russian children a year found new families in the United States — the main foreign destination for such orphans. According to State Department figures, U.S. families adopted a total of 233,934 children from foreign countries from 1999 to 2011. Here’s a rundown of the top 20 countries of origin, which together represent about 95 percent of all foreign adoptions into the United States from 1999 to 2011:

1. China – 66,630 (29.7 percent)

2. Russia – 45,112 (19.2 percent)

3. Guatemala – 29.731 (12.7 percent)

4. South Korea – 18,604 (7.9 percent)

5. Ethiopia – 11,524 (4.9 percent)

6. Ukraine – 8,889 (3.8 percent)

7. Kazakhstan – 6,421 (2.7 percent)

8. Vietnam – 5,578 (2.4 percent)

9. India – 4,979 (2.1 percent)

10. Colombia – 3,568 (1.5 percent)

11. Philippines – 3,005 (1.3 percent)

12. Romania – 2,945 (1.2 percent)

13. Haiti – 2,740 (1.2 percent)

14. Cambodia – 2,355 (1.0 percent)

15. Taiwan – 1,884 (0.8 percent)

16. Liberia – 1,436 (0.6 percent)

17. Bulgaria – 1,416 (0.6 percent)

18. Poland – 1,057 (0.4 percent)

19. Mexico – 1,023 (0.4 percent)

20. Nigeria – 962 (0.4 percent)

This overview is slightly skewed because Washington is currently not processing adoption requests from Cambodia, Guatemala, and Vietnam. And of course, the exit of Russia from the pack will contribute to a different top 20 over the next couple of years.

So, which countries will American couples looking to adopt abroad turn to now?

Absent the option of adopting Russian children, China will likely become the main source of foreign adoptions for American would-be parents — until China’s rules change. Foreign adoption policy is a complex field (the sum of as many bilateral relations as there are birth countries) but the last few years have seen a clear pattern, one only exacerbated by Moscow’s nyet: the global number of international adoptions has plummeted. Russia’s example is the most extreme example of the growing trend of source countries restricting the outflow of children adopted by foreigners, in what one might call "genetic nationalism."

No other country is affected as much by this as the United States, which traditionally receives the lion’s share of cross-border adoptions. Between 1948 and 2010, an estimated 1,000,000 children worldwide were adopted across national borders. Of these, almost half came to the United States.

Take Romania, for example: as one of Europe’s poorest countries, and with relatively high birth rates, it has been a major source of adoptions for Americans (and Western Europeans) since the fall of communism in the early 1990s. In 2000, it provided over 1,100 adoptions to U.S. couples — but only five in 2009, and none thereafter.

Like many other origin countries, Romania has progressively tightened its adoption laws to stamp out child trafficking. Regrettably but predictably, the black market in bundles of joy flourishes wherever the demand for adoption by rich would-be parents meets a reservoir of unwanted children in countries short on proper laws, or the means to enforce them. Romania, once the wild frontier of adoptions, at present only allows international adoption of its babies by biological uncles, aunts, and grandparents. While these draconian restrictions have helped stamp out rampant baby-trading, the end result is that over 70,000 orphans and abandoned children languish in a state system struggling to cope — equal to the number in government care back in 1989, when dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fell and the horrific images from Romanian orphanages set off the wave of international adoptions.

Not surprisingly, immediately after World War II, the defeated Axis powers were major sources of adoptive children. Between 1948 and 1969, Germany alone put up 30,000 kids for adoption, 5,000 of whom ended up in the United States. But in the first decade of the 21st century, less than 20 German children were adopted by American families. The richest, least fecund country in Europe can now take care of its own.

South Korea has been perhaps the most consistent provider of adoption babies; over 170,000 children were adopted from 1953 to 2010. Korean attitudes towards domestic adoption are fairly negative, while the expectation that adoptees will fare better abroad has been remarkably resistant to the country’s own economic progress. But China took over from Korea as the world’s number one source of adoptions sometime in the 1990s, holding on to the top spot ever since. Most Chinese adoption babies are girls, a consequence of the government’s one-child policy and a cultural preference for boys.

Times change, and so do top countries of origin. In the 1980s, then-impoverished Brazil and civil-war torn Sri Lanka figured in the top five; by 2010, Ethiopia and Haiti had pushed them out. The first decade of the new millennium was the high-water mark for international adoptions, with figures almost doubling against the previous decade, both worldwide (230,000 in the 1990s to 410,000 in the 2000s) and in the United States (about 10,000 in 1995 to over 22,000 in 2004).

The main reason for this spectacular climb: fewer adoption options in the developed world. Falling birthrates and the reduced stigma of birth out of wedlock (representing 1 in 3 births in the United States by 2000) meant that fewer and fewer American and European babies were given up for adoption. Going overseas was seen as an easier, cheaper way to adopt children while they’re still infants — wrongly, as it turns out.

The reason for the equally spectacular fall in foreign adoption figures — fewer than 10,000 in the United States in 2011, back to pre-1995 levels — is the result of tightening legislation in many countries of origin, as law enforcement grows stronger, often in tandem with booming economies. For Russia, this is more a reflection of national pride, hurt by the siphoning off of the country’s generational future to foreigners — worse still, American foreigners.

As options from traditional sources of international adoptions narrow, will the practice soon be a rarity? Probably not: as some doors close, others open. Like biblical locust swarms, conflict and poverty never so much end, but migrate elsewhere. As the number of adoptive babies from Ukraine decreased, more came into the United States from post-earthquake Haiti.

So where will America’s next wave of adoptive babies come from?

Syria? Perhaps, as a side-effect of its brutal, but as yet undecided civil war. Libya? Maybe, as it is freer now, but more chaotic since Qaddafi’s fall. Or maybe southern Europe? The descent into economic destitution of the EU’s southern flank may drive parents in Greece, Spain, and Portugal to part with their newborns, so they may have a better life elsewhere.

And who could blame them? Not only does adoption increase the chances of happiness of the children themselves, it’s generally a boon to the natural parents. By choosing to keep its unwanted children for itself rather than give them to loving parents in waiting, Russia is throwing away the baby with the bathwater.

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