The language of adoption is changing and evolving, and since the 1970s has been a controversial issue tied closely to adoption reform efforts. The controversy arises over the use of terms which, while designed to be more appealing or less offensive to some persons affected by adoption, may simultaneously cause offense or insult to others. This controversy illustrates the problems in adoption, as well as the fact that coining new words and phrases to describe ancient social practices will not necessarily alter the feelings and experiences of those affected by them. Two of the contrasting sets of terms are commonly referred to as positive adoption language (PAL) (sometimes called respectful adoption language (RAL)), and honest adoption language (HAL).
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In Spain under Francisco Franco’s 1939–75 dictatorship the newborns of some left-wing opponents of the regime, or unmarried or poor couples, were removed from their mothers and adopted. New mothers were frequently told their babies had died suddenly after birth and the hospital had taken care of their burials, when in fact they were given or sold to another family. It is believed that up to 300,000 babies were involved. These system – which allegedly involved doctors, nurses, nuns and priests – outlived Franco’s death in 1975 and carried on as an illegal baby trafficking network until 1987 when a new law regulating adoption was introduced.
Infant adoption during Antiquity appears rare. Abandoned children were often picked up for slavery and composed a significant percentage of the Empire's slave supply. Roman legal records indicate that foundlings were occasionally taken in by families and raised as a son or daughter. Although not normally adopted under Roman Law, the children, called alumni, were reared in an arrangement similar to guardianship, being considered the property of the father who abandoned them.
Infertility is the main reason parents seek to adopt children they are not related to. One study shows this accounted for 80% of unrelated infant adoptions and half of adoptions through foster care. Estimates suggest that 11–24% of Americans who cannot conceive or carry to term attempt to build a family through adoption, and that the overall rate of ever-married American women who adopt is about 1.4%. Other reasons people adopt are numerous although not well documented. These may include wanting to cement a new family following divorce or death of one parent, compassion motivated by religious or philosophical conviction, to avoid contributing to overpopulation out of the belief that it is more responsible to care for otherwise parent-less children than to reproduce, to ensure that inheritable diseases (e.g., Tay–Sachs disease) are not passed on, and health concerns relating to pregnancy and childbirth. Although there are a range of possible reasons, the most recent study of experiences of women who adopt suggests they are most likely to be 40–44 years of age, currently married, have impaired fertility, and childless.
The biological relationship between a parent and child is important, and the separation of the two has led to concerns about adoption. The traditional view of adoptive parenting received empirical support from a Princeton University study of 6,000 adoptive, step, and foster families in the United States and South Africa from 1968 to 1985; the study indicated that food expenditures in households with mothers of non-biological children (when controlled for income, household size, hours worked, age, etc.) were significantly less for adoptees; step-children, and foster children, causing the researchers to speculate that, instinctively, people are less interested in sustaining the genetic lines of others. This theory is supported in another more qualitative study where in adoptive relationships marked by sameness in likes, personality, and appearance, both adult adoptees and adoptive parents report being happier with the adoption.
Similar mechanisms appear to be at work in the physical development of adoptees. Danish and American researchers conducting studies on the genetic contribution to body mass index found correlations between an adoptee's weight class and his biological parents' BMI while finding no relationship with the adoptive family environment. Moreover, about one-half of inter-individual differences were due to individual non-shared influences.
As a reaction against the bans and hurdles affecting international adoption, scholars Elizabeth Bartholet and Paulo Barrozo claim that every child has a right to a family as a matter of basic human rights. This claim devalues heritage or "cultural" claims and emphasizes the child's existence as a human being rather than a "property" of specific nations or, for example, abusive caregivers.
Externally focused theories, in contrast, suggest that reunion is a way for adoptees to overcome social stigma. First proposed by Goffman, the theory has four parts: 1) adoptees perceive the absence of biological ties as distinguishing their adoptive family from others, 2) this understanding is strengthened by experiences where non-adoptees suggest adoptive ties are weaker than blood ties, 3) together, these factors engender, in some adoptees, a sense of social exclusion, and 4) these adoptees react by searching for a blood tie that reinforces their membership in the community. The externally focused rationale for reunion suggests adoptees may be well adjusted and happy within their adoptive families, but will search as an attempt to resolve experiences of social stigma.