The grand history of adoption in the human realm must have begun long before we were able to document the process. Less developed countries existing today (like certain parts of Africa and Asia) give a clue to how ancient people cared for orphaned children. In true “it takes a village” style, their communities absorb the parentless into a greater family. It wasn’t until the devastation of the AIDS epidemic that this method became problematic.

The Ancient Code of Adoption

Documentation of more formal adoption practices exists from as far back as the 18th century BC. The Code of Hammurabi, named for the Babylonian king who lived from 1728 to 1686 BC, originally defined much of what we still consider the basics of law. This code contained an entire section on adoption!


A few centuries later, Pharaoh’s daughter found a baby floating in a river. She decided to adopt him and named him Moses. Ultimately, it wasn’t exactly the best example of an adoptive family living happily ever after. However, it is a prime example of an ancient adoption that people still talk about.


Of course, many consider Joseph the Carpenter’s adoption of Mary’s son Jesus to be the most significant of all adoption stories. It occured around the time BC became AD, and it’s a good example of an open adoption. The father of Jesus’ divine DNA seemed to remain very involved throughout His Son’s life.

The ancient Romans came up with their own version of Hammurabi’s Code in AD 535. It included a version of what we now call the home study, and it also dictated who could and could not adopt.

Adoption’s Less Ancient History

There are many dark periods in the history of adoption, some more recent and close to home. In the late 19th and early 20th century in America, “baby farms” were a common alternative for prostitutes and poor women who could not care for their children. It was not uncommon for these “farm owners” to charge as much as $15 to take a child, and then turn around and sell the same child for $100.

Often doctors, nurses, and midwives moonlighted as adoption brokers, placing newspaper ads that read, “For adoption at birth, full surrender, no questions asked.” Babies who weren’t adopted “at birth” were often cruely labeled as “shabby goods” not worth the effort of feeding for long. Consequently, many starved to death.

(Click here for a more detailed history.)

Adoptions in America

The first state adoption law in the United States came into being in Massachusetts in 1851. Then, in 1853, the Children’s Aid Society of New York was founded. Although it employed methods that differ from present-day systems, somewhere between 150,000 and 400,000 children were placed in foster or adoptive families by this organization during the 76 years it operated.

Potato? Potahto?

Nowadays, the word “adoption” gets thrown around quite casually in our world:

IT companies want adoption of their software.

Local zoos hope you’ll adopt a tiger or giraffe.

Elected officials wrangle for adoption of their favorite bills.

Dogs and cats are available for adoption at the SPCA.

Those trying to garner influence hope listeners will adopt their attitude.

Get promoted and you can adopt a new title.

Retire and you adopt an new lifestyle.

The idea of the word “adoption” came from a very long time ago, though. Now, perhaps the most significant use for the ancient word is to describe the act of loving adoptive parents raising the child of loving birth parents.