What Drives Intercountry Adoption?

A political science professor talks about what's behind the ups — and downs — of intercountry adoption.

Collection of flag buttons, representing intercountry adoption

Critics of intercountry adoption see it as a demand-driven market for babies, in which parents in rich countries benefit at the expense of those in poor countries. Advocates say that it can provide the best chance for orphaned children to grow up in a family. I sought to investigate these opposing claims in a recent study  based on the theory that adopting parents’ motivations influence the incentive structure of adoption agencies and sending countries. The former are an essential “middle man” in intercountry adoption, and the latter are presumed to be responsive to the “demand” for adoptable children. I found that 26 years of data do not support the presumption that intercountry adoption can be equated with a “baby trade.”

From 1986 to 2011, Americans adopted children from 85 different countries.(1) The annual numbers of adoptions varied, with periods of decline and years of dramatic growth. Intercountry adoption reached a low point in 1992, with just 6,536 children adopted by U.S. families. The number of adoptions rose to 22,911 in 2004, followed by a decline to 9,319 in 2011.

Filling In the Blanks

Superficially, the claim that the demands of adopting parents drives the supply of children in intercountry adoption(2) could seem to be the case. On average, nearly 30 percent of all children who join American families are younger than one year old at the time of adoption. When countries with larger adoption programs are selected out, the proportion of babies rises. Almost half of the adoptees from countries sending 500 or more children annually are younger than one, as are about 54 percent of children adopted from countries sending 1,000 or more. However, there are dramatic differences between these countries. For instance, the average percent of infants ranged from 10 (the Philippines) to slightly more than 84 (Korea).

Nine of the countries with the highest intercountry adoption figures — China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Peru, Romania, Russia, Ukraine, and Vietnam — experienced periods of growth in their programs. Notably, only three of these countries — Ethiopia, Russia, and Vietnam — increased the proportion of children younger than one as their participation in intercountry adoption grew. However, this proportion remained low for both Ethiopia and Russia, about 20 percent on average. Vietnam, on the other hand, sent just over 50 percent of children younger than one on average.

On the other hand, Guatemala sent a consistently high proportion of very young children, just over 60 percent on average. So did South Korea. Adoptions from Korea consistently declined, from a high of 6,188 children in 1986, but included, on average, well over 80 percent of children younger than one. The stability of the proportion of infants from Guatemala and Korea suggests that, while these countries’ programs clearly accommodated parents with “family building” motives, they were not responding to this motive.

China presents an interesting case because the proportion of its children younger than one decreased during the period of its adoption program’s growth, and the proportion of children younger than five increased. While China continued to send a very large proportion of very young children, more of those children left the country after their first birthdays.

The overall decline in intercountry adoption may be attributed to dramatic downturns in the three countries that sent the highest numbers of children at some point during the period of investigation — Korea, Russia, and China. None of these cases, however, fit the pattern of a “boom and bust” cycle that results from abrupt program closure as an action against corrupt practices. Rather, the decline in adoptions from Korea and China may be broadly explained by socioeconomic growth, and the decline from Russia by political reactions to well-publicized scandals.

Complex Factors

Sending countries have — and actively use — the capacity to decide whether and how to participate in intercountry adoption. A few countries may indeed have responded to a “market” consisting of family-builders eager to adopt infants. But the differences between sending countries suggest that their participation in intercountry adoption is not simply a function of the desires of adoptive parents. Instead, the policies of sending countries are guided in good part by domestic factors — including the number of orphans within their society and the status of women. Why some sending countries are better able to control and manage the growth of their adoption programs, whereas other succumb to the temptation for revenue and possibly invite corruption and scandal, will require further investigation.

Further, a sizeable proportion of intercountry adoption involves older children; about one-third of all children adopted by families in the U.S. are older than five, slightly more than the proportion of infants (just under 30 percent).

The bottom line? Intercountry adoption involves a complex interplay between the desires of parents and the domestic imperatives of sending countries. And no, it’s not just about infants.


1 Marijke Breuning, 2013, “Samaritans, Family Builders, and the Politics of Intercountry Adoption.” International Studies Perspectives. 14(4): 417-435. As in other adoption research, I include only those countries from which 10 or more children were adopted into the U.S. in a given year.

2 See, e.g., Ethan B. Kapstein, 2003, “The Baby Trade,” Foreign Affairs, 82/6:115-125; E.J. Graff, 2008, “The Lie We Love.” Foreign Policy 169(Nov/Dec):59-66; E.J. Graff, 2010, “The Baby Business.” Democracy 15(Summer):27-40; Karen Smith Rotabi and Judith L. Gibbons. 2012. “Does the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption Adequately Protect Orphaned and Vulnerable Children and Their Families?” Journal of Child and Family Studies 21:106–119.

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