Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: … And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive. …
And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him.
And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river’s side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child: and, behold, the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews’ children.
Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?
And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child’s mother. And Pharaoh’s daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the women took the child, and nursed it.
And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water. (Exodus 1-2)
Here I feel compelled to stop and note that what we call “adoption” in the US is a specific legal construct in which the biological parents lose all legal rights to the child (they may or may not be dead) and the adoptive parents gain 100% of legal rights. The adoptive parents are thereafter considered to be the child’s “true” parents, and even birth certificates are re-written with the adoptive parents’ names on them instead of the biological parents’.
This construct is only about 100 years old, and not common to all societies. According to Wikipedia:
… the Progressive movement swept the United States with a critical goal of ending the prevailing orphanage system. The culmination of such efforts came with the First White House Conference on the Care of Dependent Children called by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909, where it was declared that the nuclear family represented “the highest and finest product of civilization” and was best able to serve as primary caretaker for the abandoned and orphaned. … As late as 1923, only two percent of children without parental care were in adoptive homes, with the balance in foster arrangements and orphanages. …
England and Wales established their first formal adoption law in 1926. The Netherlands passed its law in 1956. Sweden made adoptees full members of the family in 1959. West Germany enacted its first laws in 1977.
Prior to 1900, and in many cultures today, even kids who were “adopted” were (as far as I can tell,) still considered the children of their biological parents.
Adoption has taken many forms throughout history (and today), shaped by local family norms and traditions. Just off the top of my head, we have:
Fosterage (half adoption)
Noble fosterage/kin fosterage
Elder care adoption
Kin adoption is an obvious one: that’s taking in the children of your deceased relatives. Kin adoption has probably been with us for as long as there’ve been people–maybe longer–and is probably a human universal. It is obviously a genetically sound strategy. Your nephews and nieces and even cousins share more of your DNA than distant strangers, so ensuring that they survive helps put more of your DNA into the world.
Stranger adoption is the adoption of some totally unknown infant whose parents you’ve probably never met. That’s what Genghis Khan was up to, though technically, he might have met those kids’ parents for a few seconds before killing them. Stranger adoption is still uncommon in many societies, like China, Korea (hence the large numbers of Chinese and Korean babies available for foreigners to adopt,) and the Arab states.
The Justinian Code, issued between 529 and 534, distinguishes between kin and stranger adoption, clearly regarding kin adoption as superior:
…when a filius familias is given in adoption by his natural father to a stranger, the power of the natural father is not dissolved; no right passes to the adoptive father, nor is the adopted son in his power, although we allow such son the right of succession to his adoptive father dying intestate. But if a natural father should give his son in adoption, not to a stranger, but to the son’s maternal grandfather; or, supposing the natural father has been emancipated, if he gives the son in adoption to the son’s paternal grandfather, or to the son’s maternal great-grandfather, in this case, as the rights of nature and adoption concur in the same person, the power of the adoptive father, knit by natural ties and strengthened by the legal bond of adoption, is preserved undiminished, so that the adopted son is not only in the family, but in the power of his adoptive father. [bold mine.]
Fosterage, as I’m using it here, is any kind of semi-adoption where either the child’s ties to their birth family are not entirely severed, or the adoptive parents are not considered the child’s full parents. For example according to Wikipedia, adopted children in pre-modern Japan could inherit their parents’ aristocratic rank (if they had one,) but adopted children in pre-modern Britain could not. The Japanese therefore practiced full adoption while the British practiced fosterage. (See also Wuthering Heights, aka “an essay on the dangers of adopting Gypsy orphans.”) Historically, most “adoptions” were probably closer to fosterage.
Noble fosterage/kin fosterage are systems of shuffling children around between different parts of a family or allied families. For example, children might go live with an aunt for a year while their mother works in a distant village, or the child of a noble family might be raised by a different noble family to help cement an alliance between them. In these cases, the birth parents aren’t seen as “giving up” their children at all. Noble/Kin fosterage seems to have been common in ancient Rome, Ireland, and many African societies (and probably many others.) It is probably also related to the practice of having a child “adopted” by a tradesman to teach the trade, as detailed in the Code of Hammurabi, though we would today call this “apprenticeship.” (See Hammurabi discussed below.)
Fosterage in Ireland, from the Wikipedia:
In Gaelic Ireland a kind of fosterage was common, whereby (for a certain length of time) children would be left in the care of other fine members, namely their mother’s family, preferably her brother. This may have been used to strengthen family ties or political bonds. Foster parents were beholden to teach their foster children or to have them taught. Foster parents who had properly done their duties were entitled to be supported by their foster children in old age (if they were in need and had no children of their own). As with divorce, Gaelic law again differed from most of Europe and from Church law in giving legal standing to both “legitimate” and “illegitimate” children.
Elder care adoption appears to be a system that older folks in some societies have used to ensue that there is someone younger around to care for them in their old age, if none of their biological children can be called upon (or they have none.) These systems don’t appear to involve the parents caring for the child, or necessarily any children at all–a 20 year old is a much better choice for someone to care for you as you age than a 5 yr old, after all. I don’t know much about this system, so I’ll have to add more details when I find them.
Forced adoption is just any adoption that happens to be forced by the state, eg, the removal of Native American children by the US gov’t, the removal of Polish children who looked too German by the Nazis, the removal of Aborigine children by the Australian gov’t, and many individual cases involving parents deemed incompetent to care for their children.
The Code of Hammurabi goes into some detail on various situations that might arise related to adoption:
185. If a man adopt a child and to his name as son, and rear him, this grown son can not be demanded back again.
186. If a man adopt a son, and if after he has taken him he injure his foster father and mother, then this adopted son shall return to his father’s house.
187. The son of a paramour in the palace service, or of a prostitute, can not be demanded back.
188. If an artizan has undertaken to rear a child and teaches him his craft, he can not be demanded back.
189. If he has not taught him his craft, this adopted son may return to his father’s house.
190. If a man does not maintain a child that he has adopted as a son and reared with his other children, then his adopted son may return to his father’s house.
191. If a man, who had adopted a son and reared him, founded a household, and had children, wish to put this adopted son out, then this son shall not simply go his way. His adoptive father shall give him of his wealth one-third of a child’s portion, and then he may go. He shall not give him of the field, garden, and house.
192. If a son of a paramour or a prostitute say to his adoptive father or mother: “You are not my father, or my mother,” his tongue shall be cut off.
193. If the son of a paramour or a prostitute desire his father’s house, and desert his adoptive father and adoptive mother, and goes to his father’s house, then shall his eye be put out.
Jeez! Hammurabi sure had something against adopted kids wanting to know who their biological parents were! (And people think closed adoptions are a pain.)
#191 reminds us that, in Hammurabi’s time, adoptive children were not seen as full children with the same rights as other children, but were seen as only 1/3 children–and unable to inherit certain classes of property.