Adoptive Parents May Also Face the Decision to “Abort”

Last week I blogged about the decision to abort when faced with a diagnosis of Down Syndrome. A similar issue arises, perhaps in an even more intense way (if such a thing is possible), with foreign adoption. When you adopt from, say, China, they send you information about the baby that’s been assigned to you, including health information that is not very reliable, to say the least. When you arrive to pick up your baby, you never quite know what you will find. If there are serious health issues or other reasons why adoptive parents might find a child unacceptable, the Chinese authorities will quickly switch the child.

On my first trip to adopt in China, I happened to sit at a table next to another adopting couple from the United States. They were older, with no prior children, and had been assigned a three- or four-year-old girl. If memory serves me correctly, the father was a CEO of a large firm in New Jersey. They seemed like very nice people. The child that was assigned to them was very headstrong. She did not want to go with her adoptive parents and proceeded to throw tantrums, screaming, throwing things and spitting on and punching them for several days. They decided they couldn’t go through with it, and the girl was returned to the orphanage. My understanding is that she would not be eligible for adoption (at least, not internationally) in the future.

The next day, the couple told me, another three-year-old was brought over from an orphanage. The first thing she did when she met them was say, in English, “I love you, Mommy. I love you, Daddy.” The person who had transported the child from the orphanage had taught her the words. She had no idea what she was saying, but it didn’t matter. Needless to say, this little girl went home with them to New Jersey.

Almost seven years have passed since I shared breakfast with that New Jersey couple, yet I think about them often, and when I do, my eyes always fill with tears. I think about the little girl, now ten, living in a Chinese orphanage never knowing the life she missed. Should a three-year-old be punished for being attached to her caretakers in the orphanage? What if the New Jersey couple had just held out a little longer? Mostly, though, I think about how the second child learned those words in the cab, and how different her life is now because that first child put up such a fight. Strangely, I never think much about the decision the couple made with the first child, or whether I would have done the same thing myself. I only think about the children.

Not everyone makes the same choice as this couple. Yesterday The New York Times ran a wonderful, emotionally wrenching story about this sort of life-defining choice by another couple who had adopted from China. It is well worth reading.

(Hat tip to my friend Dave Eldan.)

Jed Lewison

To the psych student, your advice for prospective parents might be right, but the point here is that regardless of what decision the adopting parents make, their decision has a sustained impact on much more than just their own lives and the life of their new child. Indeed, it has an impact on a community thousands of miles away from their home in New Jersey. This isn't a moral or ethical observation, it's just reality.


Continuing on the randomness of my thought, here is one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite persons in history. It is the prologue to Bertrand Russell's autobiography.

"Three passions have governed my life:

The longings for love, the search for knowledge,
And unbearable pity for the suffering of [humankind].

Love brings ecstasy and relieves loneliness.
In the union of love I have seen
In a mystic miniature the prefiguring vision
Of the heavens that saints and poets have imagined.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge.
I have wished to understand the hearts of [people].
I have wished to know why the stars shine.

Love and knowledge led upwards to the heavens,
But always pity brought me back to earth;
Cries of pain reverberated in my heart
Of children in famine, of victims tortured
And of old people left helpless.
I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot,
And I too suffer.

This has been my life; I found it worth living."
- Bertrand Russell

When thinking about my life and life in general I agree with it most of the times, except usually for the last part of the last sentence.



Steven's story about the New Jersey couple has not so subtle undertones of immediate gratification American consumerism.


I recently read a blog by a woman who just came back from China not long ago. She and her husband had a similar situation where they were convinced there was something medically wrong with the girl they were given and refused to take her and there was a big mess. She found out later that the girl was medically fine and had no problems but rather the woman had had unrealistic expectations and overreacted to a high stress situation.

My wife and I leave for China soon. I'd like to think we are of the caliber of person that wrote the NYT article.



Steven, after reading your blog for a while, I saw you speak at Carleton last Friday. Fantastic job! My friend who came commented that you had the crowd in the palm of your hand, with perfect delivery. Anyway, I just want to say that if anyone gets the chance to see him, Steven is an excellent speaker.

Also, while I remember, video and audio recordings of Carleton's convocations end up here after a while, so within a week or so, Steven's talk should be there.


As a Psychology student, I can't help but think that the parents made a bad move in going with the kid that could easily be separated from the caretakers at the orphanage.

According to Attachment theory, children fall into a few broad categories in the way they relate to their caretakers. Securely attached kids develop close, trustful relations, and protest when separated from the caretaker (which is part of a bizarre measure called the Strange Situation). Kids with an avoidant attachment style don't protest at all when the caretaker leaves, but on the other hand, they don't seem to care much when the caretaker is present either.

The fact that a kid is happy to leave the only caretakers he/she has ever known is not necessarily a good sign.


Thanks for the post and the story link.


well as a parent of a special needs child l think this subject should not be discussed unless you can speak from personal experience ...
of course every american who adopts wants perfect and every parent that carries a child wants perfect ...well that part of life and the many curves it throws at you ..
besides l am sure most yuppie Americans would like at least one special needs child to guarantee they are talk of every party ...

PS- this blog doesn't belong here and Steve will send you an e-mail protesting also almost all your subjects lately are LAME !


l think this subject should not be discussed unless you can speak from personal experience …

Clearly one truth in life that is nevertheless and thankfully widely ignored.


We returned home from China in April 2006 with a beautiful daughter; her history and path partially known to us. In our group, there was another couple who made the same decision. They recinded their first daughter and received a second child. Their decision process was heartwrenching to watch much less try to understand. For the grace of God, we did not have to make that decision.
Call it what you want, we took the good and the bad but we brought home our daughter. She turns 2 in July and has recently learned to say, LaLu which her definition of "I love you".
Biological or adopted children, there are no guarentees. I keep waiting for the instruction manual to arrive any day now.

FWIW, Take a look at Half the Sky. They do an excellent job and our daughter is a product of one of their programs.



We've been through 3 adoptions, each quite different. It's a world of impossible choices and tragedies all around. My sympathies are very widely spread ...


My religious order sponsors an orphanage in Tijuana. I have heard the good and bad. One story that comes to mind here is this one. There were two friends in the orphanage. Both were awaiting homes. One was adopted. Several months later this child came back to visit and asked about her friend. When she found out that her friend had been adopted she smiled because she was so happy for her. This tells me that (some) children who leave orphanages want to be adopted and go compliantly with hope for the future and not because they suffer from some sort of attachment disorder. Whether prospective parents reject a child for the right or the wrong reasons, there are no guarantees with what they get, but wouldn't you rather they admit up front that they don't believe that they can handle a child than to take them home and than abandon them physically or emotionally? Rather than labeling them, we should be glad that they are willing to admit their limitations. Hurray for women who raise other women's children.



I find it oddly disturbing that some people are talking about children as if they are goods that can be returned....

This, and China's pro-eugenics policy (kids with genetic defects never make it out of the womb, mostly) is seriously beginning to creep me out.


This is the sort of stuff that has given me (like many other people) a little too many stomach/head-aches and my lack of control over my emotional side is impeding my ability to think in a logically relevent way on the matter right now. And here is what comes to mind.

We start with, Scarcity and Choices which are the basic economic concepts. And for choices to be beneficial we need to have some sort of sound reasoning with a decent logic behind it. And the concept that explains the whole phenomenon of nature (at least to some extent) is Evolution.

And evolution like markets tells us some people have to fail for others to succeed i.e. comparative advantage isn't always possible. And the ones who fail or are left behind for some intrinsic or extrinsic reason makes up the majority of humanity.

For some reasons I don't know of, sometimes I wish from the bottom of my heart that this wasn't true, but I (like many other people) can't imagine the utopian world where life will be good for all.

This partly because of the unsolved answer in my mind to the question of WHY should there be a world without any poverty, war, and illness in the first place? (because what will we do in such a world? And can we even value life without misery?)And I suspect everyone else knows that there is no answer to this normative question.



thats it right on the head ! you guys think these children are just stats - oh just return if u get a defective one ....

all done blogging here Mr Levitt Good Luck and once again you proved how pathetic American thinking can be ....

egretman will miss the humour BUT not having anything more to do with site!

my autographed copy of freakonomics will be mailed back to Mr Levitt ..DISGUSTED !
bye all ..........


It is a shame than RandyfromCanada has misunderstood your intentions.

Thank you for sharing this story. It's posts like this that connect you and your readers on a very human and personal level; a level beyond our shared academic interests.


ditto to mjlt.
I work with at-risk children, children who are abused, have incarcerated parents, are in foster care, that sort of thing. For the record.

Randy, do you know what a martyr complex is?
Steven Levitt is the type of person who would be sympathetic to your cause. Returning children happens whether you like it or not, and studying it (although statistics are absent from this post so I don't see how that criticism works) does not endorse that decision by any means. In fact, if you read closely, you'll find quite the opposite. It's sad and frightening that, mostly because of vast inequality in the world, the sometimes irrational or mis-informed decisions of adoptive parents has such a profound impact on the lives of children.

Vincent Clement

As an adoptive parent of two boys, my biggest is issue is with North American parents who travel to China or other countries to adopt when there are plenty of North American children just waiting (and waiting and waiting) to be adopted. Shouldn't we be thinking about the children here in North America?


Vincent, while I have not been through the adoption process, I have read several books on the subject. And it is my understanding that it is much cheaper to adopt overseas, and much easier to adopt younger children (infants and toddlers) than it is in North America.

Also, China has a considerable number of abandoned girls living in orphanages. An excellent book to read about the sociopolitical and cultural reasons for the high rate of abandonment for Chinese girls is The Lost Daughters of China by Karin Evans.


...and once again you proved how pathetic American thinking can be …

Yes RandyfromCanada, Americans are pretty pathetic right now.

We have gone from one of the most competent peoples on earth to the least competent. We want to tell everyone how to live their lives but we don't know how to live ours. We don't know what wars to fight or how to fight them.

We find god in tortilla chips, but not in the environment. Heck we can't even make cars anymore. Our politicians spout conservative values like water from a fireplug, but are instead just mean and crooked.

But you can't just run away, Randy. That's how pathetic people win.

You certainly have misunderstood Levitt's post. I suspect, if anything, that it might be a good idea for you not to comment after 10pm and that bottle of wine you had with dinner.