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How China's One-Child Policy Transformed U.S. Attitudes On Adoption


China's one-child policy, which is now being abandoned by Beijing, has limited the size of Chinese families for over 30 years. It's hard to imagine a national policy with greater impact on a country's demographics, economics and family life. Well, that same policy has also had an impact on American family life, specifically on adoption. Adam Pertman is president of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. Welcome to the program.

ADAM PERTMAN: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And first, explain the connection between the one-child policy and U.S. adoptions of Chinese children.

PERTMAN: One of the repercussions of that policy was infanticide - a lot of different repercussions. One of them was that a lot of those girls, because that's who it was, were abandoned. And a lot of those girls who were abandoned as babies wound up being adopted by people all over world, and no more so than in the United States, which is the biggest adopting country in the world.

SIEGEL: Because China parents hoping for a son, limited to one child, had a girl, abandoned the girl, effectively.

PERTMAN: Exactly. And it really changed the face of adoption in America for a long time.

SIEGEL: When did adoptions from China become common in the U.S., and how make kids are we talking about?

PERTMAN: Chinese adoptions - the large numbers of adoptions from China started about 20 years ago. They peaked about 10 years ago. And it's tens of thousands of families over time. The real big point, though, is that the impact is beyond the family. So if you don't have a child who was adopted from China - most people do not - you know someone who does. One is your niece or cousin. So the impact is far broader than the actual numbers might indicate.

SIEGEL: And what do you think the impact is - that qualitative impact?

PERTMAN: It falls into three categories. I'll make them quick. One is on the families themselves. I mean, these became, for the most part, multiracial, multiethnic families who changed the holidays that they celebrate. Then, there's impact on adoption per se. You don't exactly hide it when your child does not look anything like you, and that has had a real, long-term impact, along with other factors, on adoption practice. And third, I think, culturally within our country, how we think about families, how they're formed, what they look like. Again, this is not the only factor, by any means, but it is a very visible and real factor in altering all our perceptions and understandings of what constitutes a family.

SIEGEL: What do you think is likely to be the effect of China changing its policies on U.S. adoptions?

PERTMAN: The change is not going to be big because the change has already been coming. There have been clues about this from within the adoption community for some time. Adoption from China today is really a special needs program. The infant girls of yesteryear have not been available, if you will, for five, seven years. China has been changing that policy, trying to keep the girls within the country, sometimes just casting a blind eye to people who were keeping their girls and having a second child. But we have seen this change morphing for a good half-a-dozen years. And the consequence is that, today, rather than those young girls who used to be available - primarily girls - today, it's older children, children with special needs, children in sibling groups. It's very, very different.

SIEGEL: Adam Pertman, thanks for talking with us.

PERTMAN: You bet. My pleasure.

SIEGEL: That's Adam Pertman of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency, who is also author of the book "Adoption Nation." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.