The Life-Altering Impact of China's One-Child Policy on Adoption in the U.S.

A version of this commentary first appeared on

There's no question that China's one-child policy has had an enormous impact on that country and its people during the 35 years it was in place, and its repercussions will continue to be felt well into the future. So the media's recent focus on the domestic economic and social consequences of the recent lifting of that policy is purely understandable. What happens in China doesn't stay in China, after all, because of its outsized international role; indeed, its actions often send out powerful ripples that are felt around the world.

Most journalists didn't even mention one of the truly transformative effects of China's one-child policy, however, when they reported on its coming to an end. So here it is: Because boys are more valued than girls in Chinese culture, large numbers of parents abandoned their female babies, and tens of thousands of those infants were eventually adopted by individuals and couples globally - with the greatest influx coming to the nation that adopts more children than the rest of the world combined: the United States.

There's an ongoing debate about the positives and negatives of intercountry adoption per se, but that's a discussion for another day. For now, I'd like to take a brief look at the impact of the historic migration of Chinese children into the U.S. and other nations. To my mind, it falls into four primary categories:

Personal. For the many tens of thousands of girls (and some boys) adopted into new families far from their homeland, as well as for the cumulative millions of other members of their new families, life has forever changed. The reality is also that most of these adoptions resulted in the creation of multiracial, multiethnic, multinational families. Colleen McGregor, heading for a trip to Ireland with her parents, is Chinese. Sarah Rabinowitz, chanting prayers at her bat mitzvah, is Chinese. And their Caucasian parents are learning Mandarin and celebrating Chinese holidays. The daily and lifelong consequences for those directly involved go on and on.

Community. Individuals and families do not restrict their activities to their homes. They go to school, they go to work, they interact with a broad array of friends, colleagues and professionals. The result is that untold millions of people understand their communities -- and themselves -- differently as a result of the presence of these diverse families -- as well, of course, as the many other multiracial/cultural/national adoptive families formed with children from Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere. It's not so much about numbers as their visibility and the attention paid to them over the decades, notably including by the media.

Institutionally. Adoption as an institution was evolving well before the ripple effects of China's one-child policy -- and other important "trends" factored in as well, from the dissolution of the Soviet Union (where orphanages were teeming with children) to reforms in America's foster care system (which led to tens of thousands more adoptions each year) to greater openness and honesty in all sorts of adoptions. But the influx of Chinese girls, as noted above, received disproportionate attention, and so it has fueled more candid discussion, generated more organizational activity by the people directly affected, provided valuable insights and accelerated numerous reforms and, overall, has had broad systemic impact on adoption itself.

Society. Add up all of the pieces above and here's what you get: The adoption of (mainly) girls from China -- again, along with other significant factors -- has contributed to fundamental changes in American families and, most pointedly, to fundamental changes in how many if not most people define and understand the word "family." It's not just about bloodlines anymore. Children growing up today do not necessarily think that kids have to look like -- or be created by -- the parents who raise them. And that goes for a large and growing number of adults as well. It would be hard to exaggerate the breadth and depth of this forever altered reality.

The changes I've outlined here are, if anything, more profound and will be more enduring than my brief descriptions may suggest. I don't want to be a broken record on this, but it's vital to repeat that many other elements have contributed to this transformational shift besides the introduction of large numbers of Chinese children into non-Chinese families. But there's no question that China's one-child restriction has been a highly consequential cultural phenomenon. It irreversibly changed the history not only of the country that finally saw the folly of its population-control policies, but also of our own.