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History And Purpose

Adoption has been known from biblical times and in many cultures (Goody 1969). In Europe, the roots of modern law lie with the Greeks and Romans. Similarly, in the East, adoption has a long tradition. In Hindu literature, discussions of adoption go back more than 5,500 years (Pant 1994). Common themes dominate the purposes behind adoption in ancient times. Some of these themes are still relevant today.

To the early Greeks and Romans, the goal of adoption was to perpetuate the family based on the male line of descent and to ensure the continuation of the family's religious practices. Thus, the adopter originally had to be a male without a legitimate son (Harrison 1968; Hornblower and Spanforth 1996). Adoption also served the purpose of cementing political alliances between families and continuing political dynasties (Gager 1996). Later Roman emperors, however, did permit adoption by women to "console them for the loss of children" (Moyle 1912). Similarly, early Chinese tradition was primarily concerned with the goals of family continuity and preserving the cult of the ancestors. The object of adoption was to produce a legal successor, and the process was governed by strict rules. For example, the adoptee had to be from the same clan as the adopter, or at least have the same surname and be younger than the adopter so as to maintain order in the family genealogy (Bodde and Morris 1967). However, Chinese tradition also permitted the adoption of a charity son who was supported by the family but acquired no rights in it and did not participate in family religious rituals.

With time, the Roman concept of adoption migrated through Europe where it encountered local customs and codes, such as those found among the Germanic peoples. The use of formal adoption floundered in Europe, and notably in France, during the seventeenth century, chiefly as a result of the disapproval of the church (Gager 1996). Adoption survived, however, due to existing practices of custom, coupled with the needs of the elderly who, after depopulation following the plague epidemic, were willing to trade inheritances for security in old age—as the elderly still do in Turkey (Örücü 1999). One form of adoption practice employed during the seventeenth century involved the use of notarized contracts of adoption. This form is still found in some countries. Postrevolutionary France saw adoption as a means to break down class barriers and redistribute wealth, as well as being a remedy for childless households and children without families. Even so, the Napoleonic Code imposed strict limitations aimed at protecting legitimate biological heirs and the institution of marriage. As a result, ordinarily, only married couples could adopt (Gager 1996).

In contrast, Roman adoption practices never took hold in England. Statute law first introduced adoption to England in 1926 (Cretney and Masson 1997). English concerns with the integrity of blood lines and the desire to ensure that property was inherited by legitimate biological descendants meant that there was no adoption law to be received in postrevolutionary America. In the United States, adoption laws developed in response to the needs of dependent children, not infrequently poor, orphaned, or handicapped. Statutory schemes regulating adoption were first enacted by the states after the middle of the nineteenth century, the earliest probably being in Massachusetts in 1851.

The English and their European neighbors took their adoption practices to their colonies. For example, French and Spanish principles found their way to Central and South America (Monroy 1998). Imperial rules often encountered customary practices. Accordingly, current adoption law sometimes reflects a blend of the European roots and local tradition, as in New Zealand (Atkin 1997), Uganda (Okumu Wengi 1997), and Zambia (Munalula 1999).

In relatively recent times there has been a significant worldwide shift to recognizing the role adoption should play in advancing the interest of the individual adoptee, rather than the goals of broader elements of society or the interests of would-be adopters. This process has been enhanced by the evolution of global standards as reflected, for example, in the United Nations Convention on Rights of the Child. In some countries, for example, Argentina (Grosman 1998) and Uganda (Okumu Wengi 1997), this Convention is an integral part of the country's adoption law. In others, as in Scotland (Sutherland 1997), the Convention is highly influential.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodAdoption - Legal Consequences And Availability, History And Purpose, Process, International Adoptions