The surprising and complicated history of adoption

In 1976, Peter Conn and his wife, Terry, were confronted with a dilemma.

At the time, they were up to their ears in red tape, trying to adopt their fourth child, Jennifer, who had been born in an orphanage outside Seoul, South Korea. On one form from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, they were confronted with the following question: “How many natural children do you have?”

Conn says they understood that the state meant to ask them how many non-adoptive children were in the family already—but the phrasing of the question implied that Jennifer was “unnatural.” They were conflicted on how to answer the question, but ultimately reluctantly answered they had three “natural” children.

“I used to tell that story as a small joke, but it’s no joke,” says Conn, the Vartan Gregorian Professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences. “It is a part, however unintentional, of a linguistic and even to some extent, a philosophical or sociological point-of-view that has in fact identified adoption as a second-best form of family creation.”

For Conn, a scholar who has written about the American literary history of the 1930s and ideology in the United States from 1898 to 1917, writing about the topic of adoption was deeply personal. In the years since they adopted their daughter, Conn and his wife joined the board of the adoption agency from where Jennifer came. Conn took notes about the topic here and there, but mostly filed them away.

A couple of years ago, Conn says he finally decided to tackle this subject and set out to read existing histories of adoption. He discovered hundreds of memoirs, technical social work manuals, and micro-histories of adoptions—but no readable survey of adoption from its beginnings. Conn’s book, “Adoption: A Brief Social and Cultural History,” is the first to provide a well-researched and readable survey of adoption from its earliest days.

“Adoption lies at the center of very important contemporary debates about racial identity, sexual orientation, cultural traditions, and their power, and it’s all given a special intensity by the fact that the debate is now located in the most intimate of spaces, which is the family,” Conn says. “The law speaks to it. Literature speaks to it. Philosophy has spoken to it. It’s tied up with notions of what’s natural.”

In his book, Conn explores the long history of adoption, from the earliest human behaviors to present-day practices across the world. He also uncovers histories of adoption in the United States, beginning with Native American customs.

Conn says that from its earliest days, a practice similar to adoption existed.

“Life was short and dangerous. Children were probably killed by predators more often than adults, but adults were killed, disappeared, died, and children were probably frequently abandoned or left to die,” he explains. “In at least some cases, there has to have been a pattern in which adults would accept the care of children.”

Conn also briefly surveys some findings that surprised him—behavior research that shows animals accepting unrelated animals into their families and giving them equivalent care. “What’s really surprising in this research is, in some cases, it involves what we call in humans, ‘stranger adoption.’”

Conn remembers when adoption was so widely suspect that children, in many cases, would not be told they were adopted, or social workers practiced “matching,” pairing up families with children who closely resembled them in appearance.

While attitudes about adoption have improved in this country since then, Conn did uncover some representations of the practice in modern texts with a “considerable tilt” against adoption —including a schoolbook published in the last century.

“[My book] is both a history and an argument, and the argument is about the status and nature of the adoptive relationship, and trying to claim for it a dignity and a worth equivalent to natal families,” Conn says. “It uncovers a whole lot of the historical record, which has, by and large with lots of exceptions, treated adoption as a kind of second-best or unfortunate situation.”

Conn notes that his book has even been quoted in a Supreme Court amicus brief in favor of overturning Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative passed in 2008 that recognizes marriages only between a man and a woman.

“That amicus brief is distilling data in support of the notion that families come in all sorts of flavors and children can flourish or not in all sorts of settings,” says Conn.

Conn says that this topic touches upon cultural assumptions about race, gender, and culture. “These debates that do exercise us, and quite legitimately, are played out with a kind of intensity in the area of adoptions because they’re not abstract debates anymore. The debates are being compelled by notions of childhood, child-rearing, ideas of family. [These are] some of the most intimate questions that we live with. What is a family? Who is my child?”

Adoption Research