In a May 10 New York Times editorial “Celebrity Adoptions and the Real World,” HLS Professor Elizabeth Bartholet ’65, the faculty director of the Child Advocacy Program at Harvard Law School, was one of six contributors who shared their opinions on international adoption and what the standard should be for allowing international adoptions. Her editorial “Focus on the Child’s Human Rights” appears below.

In April, Bartholet issued a public letter, “Save the Children from Save the Children,” in support of international adoption as news that a court in Malawi denied a petition for adoption by Madonna. Joined in the letter by a group of experts in child welfare, she urged policy-makers, including judges making decisions in such cases, to review and consider the International Adoption Policy Statement and Supporting Report, endorsed by the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys, the Center for Adoption Policy, the Harvard Law School Child Advocacy Program, and the National Council For Adoption.

The news media often distorts some aspects of international adoption, but can at the same time bring needed attention to important realities.

The biggest problem in international adoption is that many who call themselves advocates for children’s human rights press for legal restrictions that limit the ability to provide homes to children in need. Thus Save the Children calls for denying Madonna’s second adoption based on interpreting a residence requirement so as to prevent virtually all international adoption. Some 67 children’s rights organizations went into court to oppose her first adoption. Unicef calls regularly for restrictions limiting international adoption to at best last-resort status. Romania was forced by similar pressures to outlaw such adoption as a condition of joining the European Union.

To fix this problem we need to focus policymakers on the real human rights issues for children. The judge who granted Madonna’s first adoption got it right in ruling that in light of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and that required allowing the child David to grow up in the nurturing home that only international adoption would provide.

Many millions of children worldwide are living and dying in orphanages or on the streets, with no possibility of finding homes in their own country. Unicef argues for the creation of foster care and social welfare programs, but these things will not happen overnight, and foster care generally doesn’t work nearly as well for children as adoption.

International adoption provides good homes for the children lucky enough to be placed, and brings significant new resources into countries to improve orphanage conditions and help build welfare programs for the future. Celebrities like Madonna and Angelina Jolie have provided many millions of dollars for such efforts. While few individual adopters have their resources, many develop comparable interest as a result of their own adoptions in contributing what they can to help those children left behind.

Bartholet has written extensively on the topic of adoption and children’s rights. She is the author of “Family Bonds” and “Nobody’s Children.”