Adoption Is Not a Universal Alternative to Abortion, No Matter What Anti-Choicers Say

Anyone who believes that adoption or foster care is a real solution to growing restrictions on reproductive rights is kidding themselves.

[Illustration of a brick building; a sign on the left says Adoption Agencies and an image of a family]
Posing adoption as the universal solution to unwanted pregnancies does a disservice to everyone involved. Shutterstock

All too often, those who seek to deprive women of their reproductive rights cite adoption as a supposed alternative to abortion. In a 2012 column for the New York Times, for instance, well-known anti-choice columnist Ross Douthat bemoaned the fact that fewer babies are available for infertile couples to adopt thanks to Roe v. Wade; in 2013, Texas state Sen. Eddie Lucio (D-Brownsville) proposed subjecting women to three hours of adoption education before allowing them to obtain abortions. The underlying message of this rhetoric, as well as other frequently espoused claims of anti-choicers, is clear: Adoption is a more ethical option for dealing with unwanted pregnancies than abortion.

My experience as the co-director of an adoption agency, however, has shown me that the decision to place a child for adoption is nowhere near the easy choice that anti-choicers often make it out to be. In fact, posing adoption as the universal solution to unwanted pregnancies does a disservice to everyone involved.

For 27 years, my professional life consisted of talking to women who were considering placing children for adoption; evaluating prospective adoptive parents; helping to facilitate relationships between all parties; and following up after placement. In fact, I was involved in some capacity with approximately 80 voluntary adoptions annually. As such, I feel compelled to offer a viewpoint sometimes overlooked by leaders in the reproductive rights debate—that of someone intimately familiar with the depth of the emotional issues facing those placing a child for adoption.

I went into my adoption work as a strong advocate of a woman’s right to choose, and I retire this year as an even stronger one. In fact, I wish abortion had been more readily available to many of the clients I worked with.

Of course, adoption is a valid option for many women, and some of our clients were no exception. Some pregnant individuals who sought our services had elected not to get abortions for religious or other personal reasons. However, most of the women who came to my adoption agency were too late for an abortion, didn’t know where to get one, or didn’t have the money to cover the cost. They just knew that they couldn’t parent a child—and, without the ability to access an abortion, adoption was their last resort. It’s also worth noting that this was the reality in California, a state where abortion has not been under legislative attack.

Needless to say, this is different from the narratives frequently trotted out by the anti-choice movement of women placing their children for adoption and feeling, as one website put it, “good and positive about [their] choice.” No matter what the reason was for placing a child for adoption, all of the women I personally encountered did so with a heavy heart. They expressed enormous sadness and guilt, having exhausted every other path. Many had no one they could turn to for help; the social services available to them were so paltry that raising a child seemed impossible.

It was very difficult to watch these women go through the adoption process: undergoing nine months of pregnancy, withstanding inquiries from family or acquaintances about their plans for a baby, allowing near-strangers or people they had only come to know in the last few months to love and nurture their child, and then trusting those people to follow through on post-placement contact agreements. Some women were, and are, able to get solace from providing a good home for their child and giving joy to new parents. Even so, though, the process also nearly always involved anxiety and long-term sadness.

And my clients were not alone. Experts have found that many biological parents who place their children for adoption go through an immense grieving process, one that may last for decades. In one study cited by the Child Welfare Information Gateway, three-quarters of birth mothers still experienced feelings of loss 12 to 20 years after placing their newborns.

The growing popularity of open adoption, through which birth parents can have contact with their child and adoptive family, is not a panacea for those feelings, though it is certainly an improvement over the secretive closed system common in past decades. I felt, in fact, that the relationship between adoptive parents, adopted children, and birth parents is as complicated as it gets. It requires everyone to have the best intentions, sophisticated psychological understanding, and an enormous amount of compassion and respect for everyone involved. Although birth mothers frequently assume that an open plan will guarantee a long-term positive connection among all parties, and those in the adoption world are trying to do a better job of helping to make those relationships more satisfying and enduring, they will always be somewhat unpredictable and emotionally fraught—as all human interactions are. Far too often, agencies and attorneys seem to tout “openness” as a catch-all way to resolve any of adoption’s negative emotional consequences.

Furthermore, the rates of adoption versus abortion are vastly disproportionate, suggesting that women themselves are not overly interested in the former as an option. Recent statistics show that approximately 14,000 newborns are adopted annually in the United States through voluntary placements, a number that has remained flat for about 20 years. Meanwhile, in 2011, 1.06 million abortions were performed—the lowest number in decades. And while abortion is not always a regret-free procedure, studies show that the vast majority of those who obtain one feel that it is the right decision—even those who experience negative feelings after the fact. Even with the societal and legal stigma surrounding abortion combined with adoption’s relative accessibility, adoption still accounts for a rare choice among pregnant women. I don’t see this changing, nor do I think it should.

For that matter, although my agency placed newborn children directly with parents, it is important to remember the role foster care plays in reproductive choice. If we continue to make abortions harder to obtain without funding social services for new parents, more children will inevitably wind up in these systems, which cannot provide the kind of services needed to either reunite them with their biological parents or find permanent homes for them. Currently, there are close to 400,000 children in state custody; only half have permanent plans for placement. Meanwhile, employees in protective services are underpaid and overworked, treading water to try to ensure that all of the children in their care are happy and healthy. Anyone who believes that adoption or foster care is a natural solution to growing restrictions on reproductive rights is kidding themselves.

Politicians, pundits, and anti-choice advocates should not put forth adoption as superior to abortion by overlaying it with talk about selflessness, wonderful adoptive parents, openness, and future contact as a way to ameliorate loss. It does need to stay in the conversation as a choice—but presented truthfully, without demonizing abortion or idealizing adoption. Women deserve the truth and access to all options.