Since ancient times and in all human cultures, children have been transferred from adults who would not or could not be parents to adults who wanted them for love, labor, and property. Adoption’s close association with humanitarianism, upward mobility, and infertility however, are uniquely modern phenomena. An especially prominent feature of modern adoption history has been matching: the idea that adoption substituted one family for another so carefully, systematically, and completely that natal kinship was rendered invisible and irrelevant. This notion was unusual in the history of family formation, especially because the most obvious thing about adoption has been that it is a different way to make a family. Practices that aimed to hide this difference ironically made modern adoption most distinctive!
In the United States, state legislatures began passing adoption laws in the nineteenth-century. The Massachusetts Adoption of Children Act, enacted in 1851, is widely considered the first “modern” adoption law. Adoption reform in other western industrial nations lagged. England, for example, did not pass adoption legislation until 1926. Observers have frequently attributed the acceptance of adoption in the United States to its compatibility with cherished national traditions, from immigration to democracy. According to this way of thinking, solidarities achieved on purpose are more powerful—and more quintessentially American—than solidarities ascribed to blood. Yet adoption has always had a symbolic importance that outstripped its statistical significance. Adoption has touched only a small minority of children and adults while telling stories about identity and belonging that include us all!
Conservative estimates (which do not include informal adoptions) suggest that five million Americans alive today are adoptees, 2-4 percent of all families have adopted, and 2.5 percent of all children under 18 are adopted. Accurate historical statistics about twentieth-century adoption are, unfortunately, almost impossible to locate. A national reporting system existed for only thirty years (from 1945 to 1975) and even during this period, data was supplied by states and territories on a purely voluntary basis.
Since 1950, a number of major shifts have occurred. First, “adoptability” expanded beyond “normal” children to include older, disabled, non-white, and other children with special needs. Since 1970, earlier reforms guaranteeing confidentiality and sealed recordss have been forcefully criticized and movements to encourage search, reunion, and “open adoption” have mobilized sympathy and support. The adoption closet has been replaced by an astonishing variety of adoption communities and communications. Adoption is visible in popular culture, grassroots organizations, politics, daily media, and on the internet.
Adoption history illustrates that public and private issues are inseparable. Ideas about blood and belonging, nature and nurture, needs and rights are not the exclusive products of individual choices and personal freedoms. They have been decisively shaped by law and public policy and cultural change, which in turn have altered Americans’ ordinary lives and the families in which they live and love.