Since the US election, adoption has been at the forefront of US political discourse. Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court’s comments, including those of Justice Amy Coney Barrett, posit adoption as an alternative to abortion. Even progressives are enthused about adoption in situations where it is not possible or desirable to have an abortion. The tragedy of losing reproductive rights is not something that can be solved with the surrender of a child. This obscures the fact that adoption is a systemic institution. Moreover, such a framing underscores the way adopted people—the ones purportedly “saved” by adoption—are overlooked. Adoption is not a choice for reproductive purposes. The dominant social narrative, which places it on a pedestal and makes it a viable alternative to abortion, misses the point. It’s a parenting choice—and one that should be a last resort, instead of being lauded as a great act of charity or a cure for a world where abortion is all but outlawed. The need to adopt would almost be eliminated in an ideal world where poverty, racism and inequities in health care were effectively addressed.
According to the conservative adoption fairytale, a pregnant woman who doesn’t feel capable of parenting adequately gives these tasks to others who are desperately trying to be parents. The child will be able to escape poverty and neglect, so it is presumed that they will do well. Above all, this child “could have been aborted,” so adoption rescues them from annihilation.
Although it is true that financial worries are a major obstacle for many parents who give up their children for adoption, that does not mean that adoption is the answer. Adoption is often viewed as the solution to poor parenting. However, it ignores the fact there is another option: helping struggling families. Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist, found that even the smallest amount of financial assistance would have enabled many birth mothers to keep and not surrender their children. Instead, parents are punished for their poverty, which is conflated with neglect in the child welfare system, as Dorothy Roberts’s scholarship shows. Roberts has demonstrated how Black families in particular are targeted by what she calls the “family policing” system for the crime of being poor while being Black. This means that Child Welfare Services are more likely to take away Black children than other families, even when there is no imminent threat to their safety or well-being.
Furthermore, the idea that a birth parent selflessly “chooses” to relinquish a child for adoption is not supported by research or by the testimonials of birth parents. Sisson’s interviews with birth mothers overwhelmingly indicate that adoption agencies engage in manipulation and coercion. Ann Fessler’s book The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History Of Women Who Adopted Children in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade outlines similar predatory practices. In summary, it is absurd to assume that parents will freely give up their children.
Also contrary to what the mainstream narrative would have one believe, adoptees are not necessarily “better off.” Over and over, the data show that adoptees suffer mental illness, attempt suicide or have suicidal ideation, have eating disorders, and struggle with addiction far more than their non-adopted peers. Non-adopted people can legally emancipate themselves from their family. Adoptees cannot cancel their adoption when they become grown.
In the end, any rhetoric that presents adoption as a choice for reproductive health or as an alternative to abortion is denying bodily autonomy. First, let’s consider who adoption could be considered a reproductive option. It’s not the adoptee, since they have no say in any of the events leading to their birth and subsequent relinquishment and adoption. The birth parents are not involved. If faced with an unplanned pregnancy, the woman can either have the baby to term or have an abort. There are no further reproductive choices after a baby is born. You have now made the decision to adopt the child. Parenting choices. We have seen that very few parents will give up their baby. Adopting a child is not a reproductive choice, as the adoptive parents do not reproduce, at least genetically. Although one could argue that they are trying to reproduce culturally their family traditions, adoption remains fundamentally a parenting decision, insofar it is a decision about how to rear a child.
Instead of pushing this rhetoric, why not promote family preservation through practices that support and not separate families? It could be as simple as offering financial assistance and complete medical care. This includes substance abuse treatment and abortion upon request. To be sure, some children are in fact in harmful situations and need to be removed, but they don’t necessarily need to be adopted. For example, legal guardianship or kinship placement may be options. It is possible to care for children without having to erase their history or make them commodities.