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Bringing Up Babes

Why do adoptive parents prefer girls?

In an October Slate column, Steven E. Landsburg deduced from an array of data that parents, on average, prefer sons over daughters. His evidence lay in a few recent studies that show that daughters have a slight but marked tendency to break up (or else forestall) marriages while sons tend to keep them together. But it turns out there’s a fascinating fork in the statistical trail of bread crumbs.

For years, it’s been common currency in adoption circles that girls are far more popular than boys among adoptive parents. Now there’s data to confirm it, which has prompted another round of speculation about gender preference among parents—an issue that is bound to rouse more interest, and concern, as the era of assisted reproduction progresses.

This past August, the Census Bureau released an unprecedented report comparing adopted, biological, and stepchildren based on results from the 2000 Census—amazingly, the first census to differentiate between these groups. First of all, the report found that there are about 105 boys for every 100 girls in the general population of biological children under the age of 18. Adopted children, it turns out, present a very different picture, with a “sex ratio”—the sociologists’ term—of 89 boys for every 100 girls. What’s more, adopted children under the age of 6 constitute a group where there only are 85 boys for every 100 girls. (The Census Bureau reports that stepchildren—a sizable population whose sex ratio is closer to the norm—are usually adopted at later ages than orphans are. Hence the under-6 drop-off.)

Last but not least, the sex ratio of adopted children goes still furtheroff-kilter if you look only at international adoptions. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (now part of the Department of Homeland Security) has kept up excellent data on international adoptions over decades of processing visa paperwork. Its word: Girls make up about 64 percent of all children adopted by Americans outside the United States. That’s a mere 56 * boys for every hundred girls.

What explains the disproportion? If we didn’t know better, the most obvious conjecture would be that these numbers simply reflect an imbalance in supply. After all, America’s leading source of adoptees is China, where the legacy of female infanticide is the grimmest hallmark of that country’s overwhelming preference for males. The organization Families With Children From China reports that about 95 percent of children available for adoption in China are girls. Other Asian adoption hubs (like Korea, the erstwhile lead supplier) have orphan sex ratios that tend in the same direction. So Americans adopt more girls because other countries don’t want them, right?

Wrong. Unlike biological parents, who must simply make do with what the procreative coin toss affords them—as in a market determined solely by supply—adoptive parents get to be upfront about their gender preferences. And a look at those preferences suggests that, in fact, the adoption market in China represents a happy coincidence of supply and demand.

Numbers vary, but it’s pretty safe to say that somewhere between 70 percent and 90 percent of parents looking to adopt register some preference for a girl with an agency. It doesn’t matter if they’re adopting from China, where girls far outnumber boys; from Russia, where the numbers are about even; or from Cambodia, where there is typically a glut of orphan boys and a paucity of girls. Everywhere, demand tends to favor the feminine.

And, as the case of Cambodia suggests, demand can in fact exert an influence on supply—and not a happy one. In the late ‘90s, Cambodia became a popular source for American adoptions, thanks to a relatively quick, cheap, and tidy process. But for whatever reason (some cite a Cambodian tradition that girls are expected to take care of their parents when they get older), Cambodia didn’t offer the standard Asian profile of adoptable children. Boys outnumbered girls by a healthy margin. So what happened was what you would expect to happen in an underpoliced free market: Market pressure built up, until certain enterprising Cambodian adoption suppliers, or “facilitators,” stepped in and found a way to meet demand.

Evidence of child-trafficking came to light in late 2001 and early 2002, when several poor Cambodian women stepped forward saying they had been approached by someone from an “NGO” who offered them a sum of money—significantly more for a daughter than for a son, though never more than $200—in exchange for their children. When that “NGO” turned out to be an orphanage, the U.S. Embassy and the then-INS slammed the gates on all U.S. adoptions out of Cambodia. They haven’t reopened the gates yet.

Scholars inside the adoption community are quick to admit that the historical aura of secrecy surrounding adoption has hobbled research efforts to account for the decided preference among parents for girls. Still, there are a few decent indicators. First, there are certain norms and stereotypes peculiar to the world of adoption that have been wafting around since adoption became a modern institution. Take, for example, the following quote, an excerpt from the 1916 annual report of the Spence Alumni Society, one of the very first American adoption agencies: “Why do so many people prefer girls! The majority seem to feel that a girl is easier to understand and to rear, and they are afraid of a boy.”

Quaint, yes, but the same view still crops up regularly enough in adoption-talk that it invites some probing. Parents might be “afraid of a boy” because the adoption market stalks frightful circumstances like poverty, instability, and violence around the map: When taking the somewhat risky step of bringing a foreign element into their family, parents might perceive little boys to be inheritors of their homes’ uneasy fortunes, whereas little girls can more readily seem to be hapless victims of circumstance. Or it might be that, as Landsburg suggested in a follow-up piece, adoptive parents choose girls out of an inference that his theory is true—that most biological parents like sons better—and therefore they gather that “boys will tend to be put up for adoption when there’s something seriously wrong with them, but many girls will be put up for adoption simply for being girls.”

According to Adam Pertman, the real answer lies elsewhere. Pertman, the executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York-based think tank, and author of the book Adoption Nation,suggests that the most important step in figuring out why so many people want to adopt girls is to look at who wears the pants in most adoption processes. Hint: It isn’t the men.

“The extent to which women are the driving force in most adoptions is probably a factor,” he says. “It’s usually true that the women are filling out the paperwork, going to the conferences, the support groups.” He adds, “If I speak at a conference—whether it’s on adoption or family issues—at least 80 to 90 percent of any of these audiences are women.”

If men are indeed largely silent partners in most adoptions, it could indicate that men’s preferences with regard to their children’s gender are simply not as strong when patrimony is not an issue. A man might hanker pretty strongly after a biological son to pass down both his name and his genes; but if that grand prize, so to speak, is not on the table, he may not care as much either way. Furthermore, if women are the ones running the show in most adoptions, and daughters are the ones getting adopted, it might nudge us toward the overall conclusion that parents merely tend to want children who are like themselves. Absent a strong paternal vote, mothers adopt daughters—and, as Landsburg noted, “fathers stick around for sons when they won’t stick around for daughters.” If adoption has any light to shed on the larger questions of gender preference among parents, this is probably it: More often than not, the view from adoption has it, mom wants a little girl, and dad wants a little boy.

But perhaps it’s worth considering whether deeper motivations might also be at work. Let’s assume that the parenting instinct combines two different components: a procreative and a nurturing urge. Some might say women disproportionately answer to the call of nurture, and men are more susceptible to the leaner procreative impulse. In most instances, adoption provides people who cannot satisfy the latter part of that instinct (procreate!) with a means at least to satisfy the former (nurture!). By that reasoning, parents (mostly women) who initiate adoptions do so because they want children to nurture and love, and they adopt girls out of a common perception—however accurate or inaccurate it may be—that girls respond better to nurturing than boys do. Perhaps adoption simply isolates one of the variables involved in why people become parents, and that variable happens to be one that favors girls.

Any institution that grafts altruistic motives, and ends, onto stubborn instinctual predispositions—which is what adoption does—is a cause for rejoicing. (Full disclosure: I have two adopted siblings.) But the adoptive parents’ freedom to choose their child’s gender can, as recent events in Cambodia suggest, cast a potentially darker light on this cuddly scenario. When little girls or little boys become preferred commodities—instead of just glints in the eye—there can be unforeseen, and unfortunate, consequences.

In this, adoption may be a bellwether of things to come, as rising technologies of assisted reproduction begin to afford biological parents a similar freedom to stipulate the gender of their children-to-be. If nothing else, the case of adoption shows that gender preferences can indeed skew pretty far to one side if parents are free to jot them down before the fact of parenthood (after which point one’s theoretical desire for either a son or a daughter usually breaks up against an actual, beloved child of either gender). Perhaps, all speculation aside, we should regard this particular freedom with a wary eye—and applaud the growing number of adoption agencies that don’t allow prospective parents to stipulate any gender preference in the first place.

Correction, Jan. 14, 2003: This piece originally miscalculated the gender ratio for adopted children. It is 56 boys for every hundred girls, not 72. Return to the corrected sentence.