Adoption Overview


Adoption is a legal process in which parental rights to a child (whose biological parents' parental rights have been severed) are bestowed on adopting parents, creating a parent-child relationship where one did not previously exist. The adopted child has all the same legal rights and responsibilities as a biological child, including rights of inheritance.

Although most adoptions are of minor children, legal provisions for the adoption of an adult exist in most states, and as with the adoption of a minor, the adopted adult has all the same rights as a biological child, including rights of inheritance.

The most common form of adoption in the U.S. and Canada is stepparent adoption.


Adoption is the process by which parents are matched with children who have none, either through death or inability to provide for them. The roots of adoption are deep: the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Babylonians all had systems for adoptions. It is mentioned in the Bible, most notably in the story of Moses, the Hebrew baby adopted into the family of the Pharaoh.

Interestingly, adoption in the United States did not involve a legal procedure until the 1850s. Until that time, transfers of children to new parents were done informally. Often there were economic reasons behind the adoptions - farm families needed laborers, while many immigrant families were unable to support or care for their children. Massachusetts was the first state to enact adoption statutes, in 1851. For the first time, adoptions required judicial approval, consent of the child's parent or guardian, and agreement that the adoptive family would care for the child.

Early legal adoptions had no provision for confidentiality. Original birth certificates were not altered or hidden in court files, meaning adoptive families and biological parents had no legal protection against intrusions into each other's lives following an adoption.

The climate changed in the twentieth century, with adoption records being closed first to the public, and then to the parties involved. By the 1950s and 60s, an aura of secrecy surrounded adoptions. The stigma surrounding unwed pregnancy meant that healthy white babies were readily available to families struggling with infertility - another issue surrounded by secrecy.

But by the late 60s and early 70s, a number of societal changes impacted adoption. Abortion was legalized, reliable contraception became available, and movements such as women's liberation, civil rights, and the sexual revolution altered the view of adoption. The need for more openness was recognized in 1984 with laws providing that health and genetic histories for the biological parents be provided to the adoptive parents. This non-identifying information is available on request to adoptive parents, adoptees over the age of 18, and other specified parties with a legitimate interest.

Increasing numbers of adoptions are now open, with birth and adoptive parents sharing information and sometimes maintaining a place in each other's lives. The hope and goal is that adoption will no longer pose a block to answering medical and emotional questions on the part of all involved persons.