How Liberal Adoption Laws Helped Romania’s Orphans
“The fetus is the property of the entire society. Anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity.” This was the justification Romanian Communist leader Nicolae Ceauşescu offered for his 1966 “Decree 770.” Aimed at increasing the Romanian economy through population growth, Decree 770 criminalized abortion, which was the prevailing form of birth control at the time. Subsequent laws imposed a specific tax on childless adults (in 1977), and when condoms and birth control became available in the 1980s, they were prohibited as well.
Enforcement of the law followed the typical Orwellian pattern. Not only were doctors imprisoned for performing abortions, but women were required by law to have monthly checkups with gynecologists, and if they were found to be pregnant, they were monitored to see that they carried the child to term. Secret police in Romania were commissioned with the task of finding and prosecuting women who attempted to circumvent the law through illegal abortions or black market contraceptives.
As a policy for boosting the population of Romania, Ceauşescu’s policy was wildly successful, but it should come as no surprise that the baby boom was an economic catastrophe as many parents, too poor under Romanian communism to care for their children, abandoned their children, crowding orphanages that were equally unable to provide for the countless children that were now exclusively in the care of the state.
According to Wendell Steavenson in her article “Ceauşescu’s Chldren,” “Estimates for the number of children in orphanages in 1989 start at 100,000 and go up from there.” On Christmas of that year, Ceauşescu was shot and killed, along with his wife, after being replaced in May by an opposing communist, Ion Iliescu. But Ceauşescu’s death heralded the end of Romanian Soviet-style communism.
Still, his legacy would survive through the tens of thousands of orphans that his policy brought into the hands of a bankrupt, failing state.
Adoption Policies in Post-Communism Romania
In the 1990s, Romanian adoption laws were among the most liberal in the world. An American Consul in Romania at the time, Virginia Carson Young, gave an interview on the subject. “In early 1990,” she said, “people began coming in quite large numbers to Romania. At one point, they were allowed entry into virtually any orphanage. They could just roam through and say, ‘I like that one and that one.’ Then there began to be some really awful stories of almost auctions, bidding wars. Nationality was pitted against nationality and couple against couple. But, for the most part, there were plenty of children and adoptions proceeded relatively quickly.”
Of course, the “awful stories” were simply that voluntary parties were negotiating the exchange of children between parents who could not care for them and adoptive couples who could. Heartbreaking as it may be (especially for those of us in wealthier countries) that some parents would let their poverty put a price on the custody of their child, these adoption practices benefited every party involved. The impoverished Romanians gained money from westerners, couples who wanted to raise a child were able to do so, and most importantly of all, Romanian children were rescued from a life of horrible deprivation, malnourishment, and misery.
Perhaps the people most benefited by this baby market were the children of Romanian gypsies. Because of the pervasive and superstitious discrimination that many Romanians have harbored against the gypsy population, gypsy orphans were almost never adopted domestically. But because Americans and parents from similar western European countries did not share these prejudices, gypsy children constituted a high percentage of those, according to Young, “offered directly ... to parents for ‘private’ adoptions,” saving them from being “left in an institution [state orphanage] until they were 12, 13 or 14.”
Modern sentiments made it difficult for some parents to understand the beneficence of the system even as they were using it. “This is so bizarre,” said one adoptive parent, “It’s a little weird — like going around shopping.” It is understandably hard for many people to accept the “commodification of children” (a poor way of looking at the system), but as Young observed in her years dealing with such parents, “adopting parents are absolutely determined, single minded. If a child is available, they will spare nothing in order to adopt him and give him a loving home, a better life.” Hardly an objectionable characteristic of the system.
None of this is meant to argue that the system was perfect or absent of any negative episodes from criminals and hustlers trying to take advantage of poor mothers or naïve Americans. The US government also created conflicts as it became more apparent that babies were being adopted from parents who were still alive, which made the adoption legal in Romania but illegal according to US adoption law. Shortly after the 1990s, Romania once again made it illegal for foreigners to adopt Romanian children. The question remains, are Romanian orphans better off in the current system?
In the first decade of the 2000s, only a little more than half of the “adoptable” children found homes every year. The numbers look worse when you factor in the state-classified “non-adoptable” children who linger in orphanages for reasons such as the lack of a birth certificate, or that their parents are still alive and simply abandoned the child, usually for financial reasons.
Despite whatever imperfections can be identified in the system of the 1990s, by all evidence, Romanian children were the most well off during the years of the controversial liberal adoption laws.