In the biggest shake-up in adoption law for 20 years, ministers said they want more parents to consider adoption, along with the options of keeping the baby, or abortion.
Critics claimed this could result in "social engineering" if pressure was brought to bear on single mothers to give their children up for adoption.
Adoptions have fallen by more than half over the last 30 years. In 1977, a year after the Adoption Act, almost 13,000 children were adopted; about 3,000 were babies under a year old. In 1991 the total was 7,000 and fewer than 900 were babies.
The new bill stresses the need to protect the child's welfare. It includes a welfare checklist for agencies and the courts, a new complaints procedure and the right of adopted children to obtain information about their background when they reach 18. Step- and foster-parents will also find it easier to adopt - 50 per cent of adoptions are now by step-parents.
Councils will have a new duty to publicise their range of adoption services and encourage more families to consider adoption, particularly families from ethnic communities.
The Health Minister, John Bowis, said: "I want to see a system which safeguards children without the tangle of red tape and the roadblock of political correctness. There is no room for ruling out adoptive parents on such grounds of education, age or race."
Cases that caught national attention include Jim and Rosa Lawrence, from Cromer, Norfolk who were told they could not adopt a mixed-race child because of their "lack of understanding of racial issues". Mrs Lawrence was born to an Asian family in Guyana.
Hammersmith and Fulham refused one couple the right to adopt a Chinese child because they would be unable to ensure links with "China's rich culture".
Eighteen months ago, an adoption agency run by Kent social services said couples who had unprotected sex, smoked, were over the age of 37, or overweight, would be considered only for older children and those with special needs.
Felicity Collier, director of the British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering, said: "The picture of adoption workers withholding children from desperate families is cruel and misleading."
Mr Bowis insisted the best place for a child was with its natural parents and there was no intention to put pressure on single mothers. But Brian Waller, chairman of the ADSS Children and Families committee, said: "It feels like social engineering, which is not what adoption should be about.
"It's counter-productive to try to pressure parents. If they do give up their baby, it can stay with them for the rest of their lives. There are very unhappy adults with serious mental health problems because of the pressure they were put under 20, 30 years ago."Reuse content