“Choose life” is a favorite slogan among those who, of course, focus only on the “life” part while ignoring the “choice.” For those women who do choose life, the vast majority are also choosing parenting. Yet, for those women who are pregnant but don’t want to parent, anti-choicers offer one seemingly simple solution: adoption.
But it’s not simple, not even close. Historically, adoption in the United States was built on stigma, shame, and frequently coercion. When faced with unplanned pregnancy, young women had no good options. Single, nonmarital motherhood was shamed to the point of invisibility – it virtually did not exist among White, middle-class women. Women who wanted to have and raise their children were ostracized from their families and communities, and were told their children would be taunted on the playground as a “bastard,” and were denied information about public services that might have helped them establish greater self-sufficiency and venture out on their own – a feat which would have been an anomaly, with or without children. Women could also choose to have an illegal abortion, if they knew where to find one and were willing to take a serious risk with their health and safety. And finally, there was adoption, which before Roe v. Wade was the most common response. (At least among White women; black women almost always raised their children. Single motherhood has a longer history of acceptance in Black communities, and there was no market for Black children, and thus no financial incentive for the adoption industry to reach out to Black women.)
Adoption before Roe v. Wade was predicated on emotional and financial coercion. I have interviewed many women who were funneled into maternity homes where they wished and begged for better options, where they were shamed and ridiculed by those purporting to “help” them, and where they were promised they would walk away after giving birth and soon forget about their child.
I spoke with these women nearly half a century after their adoptions, and they were still traumatized.
These abuses are anti-choice, and today’s adoptions have evolved from this anti-choice history. In some places, at some agencies, adoption has evolved far more than in others. But there are still many, many fundamental problems with the way the adoption industry is set up. (Please note that I am specifically discussing voluntary domestic adoption here – international adoption has further complications, and foster care adoptions are a whole different story. Because adoption is so complicated and good discussion of it requires such nuance, I’m limiting the scope of my discussion to be able to do it some amount of justice.)
So, what does pro-choice adoption look like?
1. Pro-choice adoption is not-for-profit. Yes, adoptions will always cost money – there are legal fees, medical fees (if the mother is uninsured), and travel costs that the agency, and consequently the adoptive parents, usually cover. And the level of post-adoption services that birth parents and adoptive parents deserve will require skilled professionals to administer them. This is not about making adoption inexpensive; it’s about removing any potential for profit-motive from the adoption system. (Yes, there are still for-profit agencies and private lawyers. How will this influence their ability to present young women with whom they’re working with all the available options?)
2. Pro-choice adoption should be open. Open adoptions, where there is ongoing contact between birth family and adoptive family after the adoption placement, are essential to improved outcomes among all members of the adoption triad. Openness is not just for the benefit of the birth parent – it also helps the child know where they came from (which all adopted people hope to know), and can increase the stability of the adoptive family by building trust and opening lines of communication. Openness is not easy. It requires a lot of emotional (as well as logistical) work. It requires trust where society presumes there should be conflict. And it requires a new idea of what a family should be – not a nuclear, isolated core, but a group of people bonded by different degrees of biology, legality, and emotional connectedness.
To achieve openness, adoption agencies must recognize that when the child is placed, their work is only beginning. They need to provide professional support in navigating and negotiating openness, in keeping lines of communication open, and helping resolve conflicts if and when they do emerge.
What about the women who would choose a closed adoption? I acknowledge that there must be some birth mothers out there who prefer closed adoptions, but I have met and interviewed many, many birth mothers over the years, and I have never met one. Futhermore, among those who were initially interested in a closed adoption but were encouraged (either by the agency they were working with, or by the adoptive parents they chose) to have a more open adoption, they welcomed and appreciated the openness after the adoption was finalized. Perhaps most tellingly, none of the women I’ve interviewed have wanted less contact with their child after the adoption. We should respect a woman’s desire for a closed adoption, but we should also recognize that it is easier to have periods of limited contact in an open adoption than it is to open up a closed adoption – working towards greater openness preserves more options for women throughout the course of their lives, as they live out the adoption.
Finally, there should be some legally enforceable degree of openness. Some states allow this; some do not. This prevents either party (though it’s usually the adoptive family) from completely ceasing communication with the other, especially without legitimate concern for the child’s safety or well-being. (Please remember that no adoptive parent would be forced to actively include an abusive or seriously unstable birth parent in their child’s lives; enforceability would simply require that they – at minimum – maintain some level of contact with their child’s birth parents.)
Openness is not easy, and it will not solve all of adoption’s problems. But it is a necessary first step.
3. Pro-choice adoption recognizes the problems with adoption’s past and present and seeks to fix them; specifically, it advocates for open records and against child-trafficking.
Currently in many states, adult adopted people who were raised in closed adoptions do not have access to their own original birth certificates. This denies them access to their own legal records and to their own original identity. Those in support of keeping records closed say that birth parents where promised anonymity – this is fundamentally untrue. In fact, most birth parents were never promised anything (other than, of course, that they would forget) and were forced to make the promise that they would never search for their child. In my experience, most birth parents want to be reunited with the (now adult) children they placed for adoption. In states where records are open, birth parents are allowed to place a hold on the records if they wish to maintain the secrecy around their adoption; less than 2% have done this.
Regarding child-trafficking, there is much to say that goes beyond the scope of this post. I will simply state the manipulative adoptions, child stealing, and baby selling are not solely in our past (particularly in international adoption), and that advocating for their investigation and prohibition is absolutely necessary to a pro-choice concept of adoption.
4. Pro-choice adoption supports unbiased counseling. This one is pretty intuitive, but adoption counseling should not be solely within the realm of anti-choice advocates working out of Crisis Pregnancy Centers (the modern-day equivalent of the maternity home). If a counselor doesn’t feel comfortable providing a woman with accurate information about abortion and parenting, that counselor has no business talking to a woman about adoption.
5. Pro-choice adoption does not glamorize or create a martyr out of the birth parent. Birth parents are simply people trying to make the best out of an incredibly difficult situation. Narratives that present them as especially selfless, as “giving their child something better” makes, by inverse, the mothers that choose to parent selfish or even irresponsible. While it’s true that many birth parents do choose adoption because they want their child to have a different life than the one they can provide, this usually (but not always) boils down to two things: having two, married parents and money. If we consistently frame two parents as always better than one, we’re stigmatizing single mothers. And if we’re framing more money as always better than less – well, then should we all just be transferring our children to a family with more means? All of these narratives create martyrs of birth parents in a way that also highlights their inevitable shortcomings and denies them of any capability.
There are other, more specific policies and practices that can go in to building a better, more pro-choice adoption industry. I’ve refrained from discussing all of them because I’ve already said a lot that I hope you’ll think about, and because there’s less consensus (within the birth parent community) over those specific ideas than those that I have chosen to discuss. For example, pre-birth matching: some birth parents find it coercive to have to select adoptive parents before the child is born, it can create an obligation which they must fulfill and denies them the room to freely make a choice once the baby arrives; other birth parents find it necessary to select adoptive parents while they’re still pregnant in order to feel in control of the situation and be able to make a long-term plan and discuss what the adoption will look like. This one example highlights how diverse birth parents are – they are not a homogenous group, and they certainly do not agree on everything. This is just another reason why we must focus more on listening to their experiences, not just within the context of adoption, but in speaking to a larger, reproductive justice framework.
I wanted to reiterate that there are some agencies out there that are actively working towards pro-choice adoption, but adoption still has not been embraced as a core issue by the larger choice community. This National Adoption Month I encourage you to consider the ways in which your concept of choice is accountable to women who choose adoption, and how we can work to build a better model of a respectful, safe, accessible, pro-choice adoption system.