Why Adoption Needs to Play a Bigger Role in the Reproductive Justice Conversation

A recent proposal by a Texas state senator that would mandate pre-abortion adoption counseling has given reproductive justice advocates a unique opportunity to show what real, meaningful adoption industry reform could look like.

A recent proposal by a Texas senator that would mandate pre-abortion adoption counseling has given reproductive justice advocates a unique opportunity to show what real, meaningful adoption industry reform could look like. Adoption via Shutterstock

This summer, reproductive rights supporters in Texas descended upon their rose-hued state capitol, day after day, through two special legislative sessions, to rally against an omnibus anti-abortion bill that is expected to drastically reduce access to safe, legal abortion in the state.

Texas Democrats ultimately failed to block the bill, despite a historic fight that catapulted Sen. Wendy Davis into the national spotlight, as HB 2’s passage was all but guaranteed by the state’s right-wing legislative majority. But even some Democrats voted to pass the law, which could shutter all but the six abortion clinics in the state that are currently able to meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers.

One of those Democrats, 30-year state senate veteran Eddie Lucio, added insult to injury when, as the second special session wound down, he filed a last-minute bill that would require Texans seeking abortions to take three hours of adoption counseling before their procedures, putting yet another obstacle between pregnant Texans and legal abortion. The state already requires such Texans to undergo forced ultrasounds and a 24-hour waiting period.

Lucio knew his bill wouldn’t go to a vote that session, but it wasn’t meant to. It was meant to be a prelude to the 2015 legislative session, when he plans to lobby hard for state-mandated, directive adoption counseling. (Lucio later filed a slightly different version of the bill, mandating “resource awareness” counseling that specifically highlights adoption.)

“I’m hoping that we can save a few lives by having the woman think about the possibility of allowing her child to go through the birth process and giving it up if necessary so she can continue to go through her life as maybe she has planned,” Lucio told Texas Public Radio in early August.

While Lucio, who waxed theological on the issue of “personhood” and abortion for several minutes before ultimately voting to pass HB 2 this summer, may be coming from a well-meaning place, his bill shows a deep ignorance about the reality of adoption, and a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons why it is not an alternative to abortion, but rather an alternative to parenting. Research shows that the vast majority of pregnant people who seriously consider adoption never considered abortion as a viable option in the first place, and Lucio’s bill would serve predominantly to detain, and perhaps shame, pregnant people who are already in a time crunch, and who are already facing logistical hurdles to obtaining legal abortions.

Lucio is not alone in his ignorance, and as an anti-choice senator, it’s hardly unusual that he would champion adoption despite the basic illogic of his own bill, as adoption has become almost exclusively the purview of the anti-choice community, while reproductive rights supporters are compelled to concentrate instead on fighting other, mostly abortion-related battles in state legislatures.

But reproductive justice advocates who Rewire spoke to say there is plenty of room for adoption in the larger conversation about reproductive rights, and in light of Lucio’s proposed bill and growing awareness about the coercive practices of a largely unregulated domestic and international adoption industry, it is not an issue they can afford to ignore.

“On the pro-choice side, they’ve kind of handed adoption over to those in the ‘pro-life’ arena,” said writer and social worker Amanda Woolston, an adoptee herself and author of The Declassified Adoptee. “We need to take it back and say that anybody who cares about women and children and families needs to have an opinion.”

Even though the question of being able to choose when and whether to parent, and whether resources exist to support those options, is central to any adoption decision, adoption tends to be overshadowed by abortion in the reproductive justice arena, for a variety of reasons: Abortion is more politically volatile, countering explicit legislative attacks on abortion access demands a great deal of time and resources, abortion is significantly more common than adoption, and adoption is an under-researched area, perhaps in part because it is by and large understood in our culture to be a social good that needs little oversight.

“I think [adoption] is a crucial part of the reproductive rights conversation,” said Kathryn Joyce, a journalist and author of The Child Catchers, an investigation into the international trafficking of adoptees by American evangelicals. “It’s part of the larger conversation about not just the right to choose when you parent, but to choose to be a parent. That’s a fundamental right that is absolutely, beyond question part of reproductive justice.”

According to critics of adoption as it is practiced today, even after the “Baby Scoop Era,” during which single women were shepherded away to maternity homes to deliver their children in secret, many of the common accusations leveled at the so-called abortion industry by anti-choice reproductive rights opponents—specifically, that coercive “abortionists” are solely interested in creating and maintaining demand for their services for the singular purpose of making money off hoodwinked and/or ignorant clientele—could be aptly applied to the largely unregulated domestic and international adoption industry.

“Ironically, some of the same things that the anti-choice side will accuse abortion rights supporters of doing seem to be kind of actually happening in some adoption counseling scenarios,” said Joyce, who also wrote about “shotgun adoptions” for The Nation in 2009, detailing the lengths to which crisis pregnancy centers and some religious-affiliated adoption agencies go in order to convince women to relinquish children to what they’re often told are sure to be better homes than those they themselves could provide.

If reproductive justice is about freedom from coercion and the ability to make affirmative choices with appropriate and sufficient resources, the adoption industry deserves all the attention those in the movement can give it.

“Adoption, the issue, is just really under-talked about and really under-explored,” said Katie Klabusich, a writer and reproductive justice activist living in New York. An adult adoptee, she says “we need to do everything we can do to make sure [adoption] is an affirmative choice.”

That means, in some cases, going up against adoption agencies that have not only an ideological investment in increasing adoptions, but a financial one. In 2012, Midwest-based Bethany Christian Services took in $82 million from adoption fees, investments, contributions, and “reimbursement for children’s services,” while Texas’ Gladney Center for Adoption reported over $37 million in net assets for the same year.

These agencies do all they can to ensure that women who consider adoption follow through on their plans. Gladney offers a kind of all-expenses-paid new-wave maternity home for women considering adoption, while Bethany places pregnant women in private homes with families who encourage them not to change their minds. Critics say this separation from family and social networks engenders a sense of isolation and helplessness, prompting those facing unplanned pregnancies to feel reliant on adoption agencies and indebted to them for support. In return, they may feel obligated to relinquish their babies despite their misgivings.

Joyce says adoption counseling can be a “very socially engineered” conversation, with adoption “presented as, ‘This is the responsible way you can take responsibility for your bad decision of having premarital sex and getting pregnant.'”

At the Gladney website, pregnant women are told that while adoption may initially cause them “pain,” it will “someday [be] replaced by strength.” The page on Bethany’s website aimed at people considering abortion advises them that “taking the time to look at your other choices may prevent you from making a decision you will later find hard to live with,” implying that abortion is a guaranteed path to regret.

But research shows that adoption can indeed be an option that pregnant people later find hard to live with. According to the Center for American Progress, those who choose to relinquish children for adoption often experience grief and profound loss, along with relief. For many in the triad of adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents, adoption it is not unilaterally the joyful exploration of loving kindness presented by agencies and messaging campaigns like Gladney-affiliated Brave Love, which aims to communicate “the heroism and bravery” of adoption.

Woolston, the “Declassified Adoptee,” said adult adoptees live with frustration and guilt when they’re reminded that “what our lives could have been before adoption would have been so much more terrible, that once adoption comes into the picture, we have nothing to complain about.”

And Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, an outspoken critic of the adoption industry who relinquished a child in 1987 when she was 19 years old, says birth mothers are often cast aside once they’ve relinquished their children, particularly when they have no legal means of holding adoptive parents accountable for open adoption agreements, or ensuring they get the post-adoption counseling so often promised by adoption agencies. “We’ll take away the baby,” muses D’Arcy, “but we’re going to leave you in the same crisis.”

As for birth fathers, Woolston said they’re treated as little more than a “roadblock” to adoption: “It’s another person with rights who we have to consider,” she said. “Fathers have largely been written out of policy for that reason.”

No credible research conducted by non-partisan, objective groups or experts has found that the adoption experience universally reflects the transformational journey of joy and selflessness put forth by many adoption agencies and crisis pregnancy centers. Instead, research suggests that adoption is as complicated and nuanced as the individuals involved, who experience a wide variety of emotions and outcomes.

Which is not to say that good cannot and does not come out of adoption—none of the adoption critics that Rewire spoke to oppose adoption as a concept—but the waters must be navigated carefully and ethically. A three-hour adoption counseling program that explicitly aims, as Sen. Lucio said his would, to encourage women to relinquish their children to adoptive families could not be anything other than, at best, deeply biased, or at worst, profoundly coercive.

Indeed, private agencies like Gladney are already using slick marketing campaigns to do what Lucio hopes his adoption counseling mandate would do: increase the available supply of adoptable infants. According to the Gladney website, Brave Love’s goal is to “drastically increase adoption rates in the U.S.” But how? The Brave Love website contains no information about how parents can adopt existing foster children. Instead, it is aimed at pregnant women who, according to a promotional video, will be “heroes” if they relinquish their infants for adoption.

However, Brave Love’s founder, Ellen Porter, who herself adopted a child through Gladney, told Rewire that her organization believes “increased adoption education is necessary across the board, not just for abortion-minded women,” for whom “adoption should be presented as an option so that women can make a well-informed decision when faced with an unplanned pregnancy.”

For the State of Texas to engage in similar practices aimed at talking pregnant women into relinquishing infants, glossing over the nuances of adoption in order to present the choice in the best possible light, is to wade into ethically questionable waters, said Katie Klabusich. To be frank, she said, Lucio’s proposal “freaks [her] out,” not only because she is an adoptee who believes her birth mother never was able to consider abortion as an option, but because she herself has also chosen to end a pregnancy.

“I feel like it cheapens the effect that the unplanned pregnancy had on my life,” she said. “It judges the decision that I made, and it also cheapens the way that I came into the world.”

Birth mother Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy called Lucio’s bill “really frightening.”

“Three hours is not at all a decent length of time to get adequate information,” she said, adding that she’s “sure the information that would be given would not be true information.” Instead, she says most adoption legislation, when lawmakers make any attempt to address the issue at all, is intended to benefit adoptive parents and adoption agencies, the most privileged players in an adoption situation.

Adoptive parents, says D’Arcy, “are, in the end, the paying customer and the ones the agencies are going after.” According to a 2011 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, private adoptions can cost anywhere from $5,000 to over $40,000.

“They want the moms to make the product,” said D’Arcy. But today, very few pregnant Americans choose adoption in the first place, with an estimated 14,000 domestic adoptions taking place each year, compared to some 175,000 in the 1970s, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Before 1973, nearly 19.3 percent of never-married white women and 1.5 percent of never-married Black women relinquished children for adoption, whereas today, fewer than 2 percent of white women, and “nearly 0 percent” of Black women choose adoption.

Woolston told Rewire that what legislation has been passed has largely centered on enabling and encouraging would-be adoptive parents. Legislators ask, says Woolston, “‘How can we convince people to adopt?’ ‘What can we do to encourage them to keep adopting?’ And then, ‘How can we convince pregnant women to choose adoption instead of abortion?’ And then at the bottom they say, ‘What can we do for adoptees that doesn’t interfere with our plans?'”

In the end, says Woolston, “none if it is empowering to any of us, even at the top. We all have roles that have meaning in society, and we’re expected to play within those roles and stay contained.”

What, then, can reproductive justice advocates do if they want to ally with those in the adoption triad in addressing some of the problems facing the adoption industry today, and challenge what appears to be the industry’s increasing reliance on obfuscation and coercion?

Woolston suggested advocates start by looking at privilege itself, a concept central to any reproductive justice conversation: “In adoption, children tend to go from poorer homes into wealthier homes, and that really reflects traditional hierarchies of privilege,” she said. “We must ask ourselves, what circumstances place mothers and families in a position where they have to choose abortion, or between adoption and parenting? What can we do to address their needs? And how can we go a step further into the institution, to help those who live it?”

That could mean a variety of practical actions: increasing, rather than decimating, funding to food stamps, increasing the availability of affordable health care, and ensuring low-income families have access to prenatal care. But it also requires a shift in cultural conversations about parenthood, to one that doesn’t privilege some parents as being more worthy, or capable, simply because of their class privilege.

Often, when women are poor, pregnant, and considering adoption, they are told by crisis pregnancy center counselors and adoption agencies that their own selfishness, their poverty, and their general unpreparedness for parenthood will prevent them from raising a healthy, happy child.

In fact, the right-wing lobbying group the Family Research Council released a paper in 2000 intended to help crisis pregnancy center counselors direct more women to choose adoption, advising them to “emphasize the difficulties of parenting” and to tell pregnant people that “unprepared mothers” will parent children who “may very well live lives of pain and suffering.” The report, astounding in its open disdain for women with unplanned pregnancies, highlights women’s “level of selfishness” when they resist the idea of adoption. It scoffs, “[B]onding with their children, and the desire to keep them, matters most.”

The implication here, of course, is that an adopted child with a middle- or upper-class upbringing and two heterosexual, married parents will definitely fare better than a child raised in a low-income or single parent household, or one in which parents are not married.

“Ideally, no one wants to separate a mother from her biological child,” said Ellen Porter at Brave Love. But the Family Research Council’s report certainly seems to indicate that some adoption agencies and crisis pregnancy centers desire to do just that, in part by using the kind of redemption narratives and heroine-worship language used on Brave Love’s website. From the report:

Choosing adoption is a way for many women to regain their identities as responsible, caring adults. This allows them to feel they are making up for their past failures by doing the best they can for their babies whom they feel are the innocent parties in the situation. By acting responsibly and giving their babies to loving families, these women are able to see themselves as responsible and unselfish. They feel good about themselves because they are able to see beyond their own desires and strong emotional urges to keep the children regardless of what is actually the best thing to do.

It is as if, says D’Arcy, adoptive parents of means “are never going to get sick, lose jobs, get divorced.” But, she says, “they are the same as anybody else and have the same risks. The child is not guaranteed to have a happily ever after just because they’re adopted by wealthy parents.”

The “conversation about who is a legitimate mother,” said Kathryn Joyce, “feeds into so many other things about race and class and the whole broad history of coercion and reproductive history.”

From a policy point of view, adoption reform activists hope to achieve a number of goals, including opening adoptees’ original birth records and giving birth parents more legal recourse when adoptive parents choose to renege on open adoption agreements, which in many states are not legally enforceable.

Both of these issues serve to maintain adoption’s long history of secrecy. The Gladney-founded adoption lobbying arm, the National Council for Adoption, has long, and successfully, opposed opening adoptees’ birth records, and birth parents continue to be forced to rely on the honesty of adoptive parents when they agree to open adoptions.

“Once we actually have state laws allowing adoptees to access their original birth certificates,” says Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, “we’ll know what’s actually happening,” as opposed to hearing only the agency-promoted “mythology” of adoption, which she says is also used to mislead adoptive parents into thinking birth parents are making affirmative decisions.

“They all get sold a total bill of false goods,” said D’Arcy. “They get told what they want to hear, so [agencies] get their money. Once you’re $5,000 in the hole, indebted to the agency, and it’s probably your only chance that you’re ever going to have a kid, it’s just sad.”

Until adoptees have the ability to identify their birth parents, and birth parents are able to maintain mutually agreed-upon presences in their children’s lives, the reality of adoption will continue to be couched in secrecy. In the meantime, said Woolston, “It’s keeping adoptees from being able to get the same documentation from the government that everybody else can get.”

D’Arcy and Woolston both said that birth parents’ rights need specific protection from the government. D’Arcy would like to see “uniform state laws” that clarify and extend the time period in which women can consent to relinquishing their child, and in which she can choose to parent if she changes her mind. Too often, she says, women are compelled to sign consent agreements in hospital rooms, when they are still recovering from labor.

And while Ellen Porter at Brave Love said that “birth mothers can have a relationship with the family, if desired,” D’Arcy says many of these kinds of promises that are made to birth mothers, or first mothers as many prefer to be called, are never followed through with after the adoption takes place, especially when the law does not compel adoptive parents to adhere to open adoption agreements.

As for biological fathers, Woolston said they “have very little ground to stand on,” and “if we actually had laws that acknowledged a child’s right to be raised by their father or their mother,” the “heartwrenching” legal battles between adoptive parents and biological fathers could be shortened or eliminated.

It is crucial to remember that even critics of adoption are not wholly opposed to the practice; rather, they are concerned about how adoption is currently handled by its largest players, and the ignorance surrounding and motivating much U.S. adoption policy, which they say is heavily biased toward making adoption easier for adoptive parents, to the exclusion of the needs of birth parents and adoptees themselves.

Research suggests, and much anecdotal evidence shows, that adoptees have complicated and mixed emotions about their experiences—they are, after all, whole human beings and not, as they are so often told and imagined to be, perpetually thankful children who owe a debt of gratitude—to society, to their adoptive parents, to their birth parents, to God—for their very existence. Research also suggests that parents who relinquish children experience a variety of emotions and outcomes dependent on the circumstances of their adoption, again, because they are whole people and not a choir of saintly martyrs saved by the power of selflessness.

What no research suggests, and what no adoptive parent, adoptee, or birth parent that Rewire has spoken to believes, is that three hours of government-mandated counseling is needed to convince or compel more pregnant people to relinquish their infants for adoption.

But if reproductive justice activists don’t educate themselves and each other about adoption’s role in their movement, proposed legislation like Sen. Lucio’s could become a reality in lieu of very real, very needed adoption industry reform. In a way, Lucio has done these activists a favor by showing his hand; he has given them a reason to incorporate more, and more serious, talk about adoption into the larger conversation around reproductive rights, and an opportunity to show lawmakers and the public what meaningful, lasting changes toward a more ethical adoption framework might look like instead.

Correction: A version of this article incorrectly noted that Texas law requires people seeking abortions “to undergo forced transvaginal ultrasounds and a 24-hour waiting period.” In fact, state law does not specify that the ultrasounds must be transvaginal, though in practice, many of the forced ultrasounds are likely to be transvaginal, as is routine practice for people in the early stages of pregnancy.