A young boy, about eight years old, sits in a crib.

Saving the Children: Is International Adoption Really the Answer?

The year 2021 marks thirty years since the United States first issued immigrant visas to Chinese orphans, signaling the beginning of international adoptions between the United States and China. As a 21-year-old Chinese adoptee, I have encountered plenty of people telling me how lucky and grateful I should feel regarding my adoption. But despite the love and opportunities I have in my life, adoption is not always so simple. Interactions within the adoptee community have shown me that many are acutely aware that international adoption is a consequence of the birth country’s policies and problems.

In the last decade, China has experienced a change in the major demographics of those adopted internationally, a shift from the adoption of healthy infant girls to that of children with disabilities. This trend is influenced by cultural beliefs and national policy. I believe that international adoption should not be the primary solution to helping these abandoned children. Rather, China should prioritize keeping families together and improving their domestic policies to ensure all individuals can thrive as members of Chinese society.

From 1991 to 2018, a staggering 97,082 adoptions took place between China and the United States. Through the 1990s and 2000s, the majority of China’s international adoptions were of healthy infant girls. The overwhelming number of these adoptions revealed issues associated with China’s strict family planning regulations and gender bias promoted under the One Child Policy. Families with children born outside legal regulations were faced with detrimental financial penalties and often unable to register “over quota” children onto their family record. Lacking this official government registration prevented children from receiving immunizations, attending school, getting a job, or inheriting family land. Having a son was believed to be a way for families, especially those in rural locations, to ensure financial security. Daughters, who were expected to marry, were obligated to care for their in-laws, rather than their first families. The pervasiveness of government pressures and familial expectations offer explanation for the decades of gender inequity present in China’s abandonment and international adoptions.

Two propaganda posters for the One Child Policy.
Propaganda posters celebrate the One Child Policy in China. (Courtesy kattebelletje, Creative Commons license)

Though the gender imbalance in adoptions between China and the US is essentially gone, there is now a disproportionate international adoption rate of children with disabilities. In 2009, nearly half of China’s international adoptions were that of children with disabilities and in 2015, over 98% of children in China’s orphanages had a disability. This dramatic disparity reveals a fundamental flaw in the way China cares for its people with disabilities. The lack of social services and normalized prejudice make it harder for families to support their children with disabilities and deters people with disabilities from working in mainstream society.

The gender bias against infant girls and the prejudice against children with disabilities are both deeply rooted in China’s cultural expectations of family. Filial piety, characterized as loyalty and dedication to one’s parents, family, and ancestors, has shaped China’s culture for over 3,000 years. Archaeologists have found records dating as far back as 1000 BCE demonstrating the existence of offerings to one’s deceased ancestors and living parents. Confucius (551–479 BCE) further emphasized the value of filial piety and its significance in establishing peace and stability in both families and all social networks. Confucius’s teachings and texts remained prominent in Chinese education through the 19th century and laid the foundation for much of Chinese culture today.

Modern Chinese society expects and even relies on younger generations to care for and provide material security for their aging parents. In the case of daughters, marriage signifies a new obligation of filial piety toward their husbands’ families. For people with disabilities, who have long been thought of as “deficient” or “useless,” a lack of support and protection are significant barriers to fulfilling such familial responsibilities. Those who do not or cannot uphold these expectations, therefore, are thought to be shameful and an obstacle to a harmonious society.

Such social stigmas are exacerbated by current government policies that deny people with disabilities access to education and opportunities. Despite the Chinese law Laws on the Protection of Persons with Disabilities and its efforts to decrease discrimination and provide assistive supports to people with disabilities, millions still face adversity. In 2010, only 32 million of 85 million people who identified as having a disability were certified as disabled. These millions who were not officially recognized as having a disability were left without legal protections and benefits such as employment support, medical service, and financial aid.

Physical accessibility also continues to be a barrier for people with disabilities. On a study abroad trip to China two years ago, I noticed that even large cities like Shanghai had barriers to accessibility. Buildings at my university, from dorms to cafeterias, lacked elevators and accessible bathrooms. China must reshape the way disabilities are perceived by providing better social welfare, legal protections, and accessible infrastructure for its people with disabilities. Enabling people with disabilities to get an education and establish their livelihoods would help them support not only themselves, but also their families. Additionally, when younger generations, including those with and without disabilities, cannot serve as the essential component needed to ensure the welfare of their elderly parents, the government should also provide greater pension benefits for the elderly. Supporting the livelihood of people with disabilities and alleviating the pressure to rely so heavily on children for future welfare would mitigate the disproportionate abandonments of children with disabilities and curb the need for their international adoptions.

Although China’s international adoptions have significantly decreased over the years, China remains the top sending country for international adoption worldwide. While international adoption may be an immediate solution needed to provide homes to children with disabilities, I do not think it should be the definitive solution. Rather, governments should make every effort to ensure children with disabilities can thrive in their birth country. If China and the United States agree on wanting what is best for the children, they will work to ensure biological families do not have to give up their children in the first place. To do so, social welfare and accessibility to education and employment are necessary for children, especially those with disabilities, to be supported in society.

International adoption can be a wonderful way to create families, but it also warrants a critical eye. China must recognize the systemic issues that cause children to lose their place in their birth countries. Although adoption will likely continue for years to come, China can act now to support families and ensure even the most marginalized members of society, particularly those with disabilities, can belong and thrive.

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