Does Transnational Adoption=Cultural Genocide?

Recently I’ve heard people discuss international adoption and those who decry the practice say it’s a form of “cultural genocide.” Really?! It was referenced here as a reason some people are against international adoption.” I have a real problem calling international adoption “cultural genocide.”

In 1994, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) called for the banning of all interracial adoption of black children by white parents declaring is “cultural genocide.” According to the NABSW;

“We are opposed to trans-racial adoption as a solution to permanent placement for black children. We have an ethic, moral, and professional obligation to oppose trans-racial adoption. We are therefore legally justified in our efforts to protect the rights of black children, black families, and the black community. It is a blatant form of racial and cultural genocide”.

Then again in 1998, The National Association of Black Social Workers restated their position saying;

“Transracial adoption should only be considered after documented evidence of unsuccessful same-race placements have been reviewed and supported by appropriate representatives of the African-American community.”

To their credit, they have significantly softened their stance on the adoption as “cultural genocide,” but still maintain that their strong preference is to have African American parents, adopting African American kids.

Where shall I begin in unpacking this?

First of all, genocide is a strong term and should only be reserved for instances where the gravity of the situation demands it. Detractors of adoption like the power of the word “genocide,” because the word conjures an intense emotional response. However, in the last twenty years we’ve seen the international community believe merely labeling something ”genocide,” takes away their moral imperative to actually do something about one. The case of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide comes to mind.

Recently, we have diminished the meaning of the word and it’s lost the power to shock. Slate’s Ron Rosenbaum wrote a thought-provoking article about this “A problem from heck”. But this post is not about physical genocide, I’m here to write about how inane the idea is that international adoption is “cultural genocide.”

The term cultural genocide is really disturbing to me. I’ll be honest; I did not know exactly what its definition was, so I did in a quick Google search. My initial repulsion focused on calling international adoption any type of genocide. In looking up “cultural genocide,” I found a lot of crack websites, which I am not going to give the satisfaction of linking to here. I did find this one, which details “physical, biological genocide” and then tries to explain “cultural genocide” as well.

I’ll take a few of his points and examine them in the context of overseas adoption. According to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, cultural genocide includes “abolition of a group’s language, restriction of its traditional practices and ways, destruction of clergy, and attacks on academics and intellectuals.” Ask yourself this, is international adoption really doing any of these things? I cannot come to any conclusion other than a resounding “no.”

It seems to me that calling adoption “cultural genocide,” is a severe bastardization of the term.

It is interesting to note that in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, the controversy was about any linkage between physical genocide and cultural. In the final document, cultural genocide was left out of the proclamation in all forms, except one, “the forcible removal of children.” I’ll get into that shortly.

Ah ha, you say. So international adoption IS cultural genocide! But it’s not that simple.

To say that international adoption is some type of cultural genocide makes a few assumptions. One is that a child taken out of a country had the potential to be some sort of great leader, famous scientist, world-renowned artist, etc. They would have added greatly to their original birth culture and might have been able to impact that country in a singular way. The argument continues that because the child was adopted they can no longer be that transformative figure in the land of their birth.

But to label that “cultural genocide,” is a misnomer, because that child’s culture is not being eradicated. An adopted child is not being removed from the earth. Their lives do not end prematurely, nor is their overall culture being eliminated. They are merely removed from their country of birth. They could still go on to greatness elsewhere.

Being adopted does not preclude any child from a future. It just means they won’t have a future where they were born. There’s a stark difference.

Does international adoption take a child from a frequently impoverished place and move them elsewhere? Yes. Will that result in bringing the country closer to failure? I don’t think so. If millions of children were adopted from one single country, then maybe one could have a case. But that is not the situation. Since 1958 the largest number of adoptees from one single country has been South Korea. And while it’s a large number 160,000 plus according to some, it’s not overwhelming, and hardly detrimental to South Korea’s development, nor does it signal the end of Korean culture.

Calling international adoption a form of cultural genocide ignores that fact that so many of the kids in orphanages, or wards of the state, have no hope. It’s no stretch to say the vast majority of internationally adopted children come from severely impoverished upbringings, with little chance for education or upward mobility. Adopted girls have escaped especially socially pernicious circumstances. Some of the girls are not wanted by their own societies. To believe that bringing children from lives they once lived before they were adopted as some sort of genocide seems to dismiss the children’s reality. They are adopted, because they are not wanted, could not be cared for, or were a burden on their birth mother/father/family or society in general.

I’ve talked about the egregious cultural genocide basics, but the one criterion which the convention in 1948, finally settled on was “the forcible transfer of children.”

Expounding on the “forcible transfer idea; Article 2 of the Genocide Treaty in 1948 declared that the forcible transfer of children from a protected group to another group is cultural genocide if “it is conducted with intent to destroy the group,” in whole or in part. It in important to mention that the treaty and addition of the statute about “forcible removal of children,” was done with not only the Nazi Holocaust fresh in the framer’s minds, but the attempt by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler to “forcibly transfer” thousands of Europe’s children back to the German Reich.

Forcible transfer could be considered “genocide,” only when it was it was carried out against a human group, and did not include just a small number of individuals from that group. In other words, for my adoption to count as “cultural genocide of Indian children,” there would have to be a systematic forcible transfer (both against my wishes and using either physical threats or actual force) attempt of all Indian children to be brought to another country. Just writing that explanatory sentence out, seems so outlandish to me, that I think anyone who really believes international adoption is some sort of cultural genocide is crazy.

Another big component of whether or not “forcible transfer of children,” can be considered “genocide,” is the transfer’s intent. There has to be clear and documented evidence in which the group doing the transferring is actively trying to destroy the transferee’s culture. One would be hard pressed to find anyone who adopts wishing to “destroy,” the culture from which the child originated.

If you disagree with an adopted child being removed from their country of birth and then raised without access to or knowledge of their native land, I understand. That is a separate issue in my opinion.

But please don’t call it “cultural genocide,” because it’s nothing of the sort. Calling international adoption any sort of genocide cheapens actual acts of genocide and dishonors its real victims.


  1. I agree. Calling adoption a genocide is way too much. I recently read a Time article about russian adoptions and how it is hard for Russian kids to assimilate. I agree. It is hard. But that goes for anyone, adopted or not. Being born in Pakistan but raised here, people can go around labeling that as a cultural genocide as well because according to many, “I have lost the Pakistani culture”. I disagree because , to me, this is the new Pakistan-American culture. Thus, we should embrace other cultures and if in the process we adopt a thing or two from them , let’s not label it as genocide.

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  3. Whoa, I have never heard of that theory but it’s ridiculous. I mean, the idea of “cultural genocide” is looking at something as a whole. If one would argue the idea that removing a child from his/her original land of birth is depriving the country of the potential that child could bring later on . . . that is looking at the possible “good” of the country as a whole. What about the good of the child? The individual? You’re right, many adopted children come from incredibly poor backgrounds and would probably live hard lives, lacking the education or means to make any sort of transformative difference in their land of birth. How is that beneficial to the child?

    I was adopted from Latin America as an infant. I know for a fact that my biological parents had less than a 5th grade education and were both agricultural workers. I was my biological Mother’s 5th child, almost all from different men, and she was in her early 30s. Her children were scattered here and there (what I know from my adoption file). I was adopted by American parents and I have had incredible opportunities I would not have had in Latin America. I never lacked for anything growing up, I had an excellent education, I hold a college degree and I have a steady job. It’s ridiculous to make an argument that removing me from my birthcountry would be committing “cultural genocide”. Wow.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I agree with you completely. You framed the argument in a compelling way. “Good” of the society as a whole, versus “good” for the child. In my opinion, the optimal solution for the “good” of both society and child would be to eliminate the conditions which make international adoption needed in the first place, but that’s a long process and for another post.

  4. Well said Aisha. Thanks for the comment. I think the point that you bring up about your own Pakistani-American culture is one that is generally overlooked. Cultural traditions ebb and flow over time. Some of it remains, while other aspects of it fade away. There’s nothing wrong with that. And to say that because you leave one country or culture for another doesn’t indicate its decline or its impending collapse. It’s just different. Also, were you referring to the story about Russian kids not being able to adapt? If so, keep on the lookout because I’m gonna write a post about that. That was a heartbreaking piece.

  5. Great post, the beginning part actually ties into this clip i watched on ABC news a few months back in March and how the NABSW was opposed to the Haitian adoptions taking place.

    Heres the link if you’re interested.

    I especially like the point you made regarding South Korea to counter the “1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide” It actually can be argued with countries like China and India, which in the past two decades had many international adoptions, and are now on the verge of being superpowers. And i also agree with you in that “genocide” is a word two harsh to be paired with culture and linked with adoption, its almost as if its a juxtaposition. Like you mentioned, a genocide is like what happened during the Holocaust or Rwanda, or more recently Sudan, NOT adoption. Even as you quoted the NABSW, i believe like us, it isnt cultural genocide when there are adoptee groups that can be formed to help adoptees band together and explore their culture. Like Aisha said in a preceding post, she’s imersed in the Pakistani-American culture, in a way, adoptees, for example, we are imersed in the “Indian American Adoptee Culture.”

    My last point has nothing to do with your post. I was jsut curious about your perspective on adopting. I’ve known several adoptees and thier own views about adoption, and also have looked on the web, and adoptees have mixed opinions about adopting kids themselves. I dont know if you want to make this a new post but anyways, it was a great post and I look foreward to reading the next one.

    1. Adam
      Thanks for the link to the ABC article. It brings up some good points and I generally agree with it.
      As for the last paragraph. Stay tuned! Eventually I will write a post on my own personal thoughts on pros/cons of adoption, but they seem to be constantly changing and I’m not quite ready to put them down on paper yet. As always thanks for reading and for commenting. Keep it up!

  6. You are nailing these issues which are coming to mind as I read your blog! Thank you!! Where’s the ‘LOVE’ button??? I look forward to more of your blog. It’s also therapeutic, interesting and mind-boggling to say the least.

    Thanks again.


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