We Should Be Fighting for a World Without Adoption

We Should Be Fighting for a World Without Adoption

We Should Be Fighting for a World Without Adoption

If poverty, racism, and health care inequities were properly redressed, adoption would be a last resort.


Adoption has taken a front-row seat in US political discourse since the overturn of Roe v. Wade. Remarks from the Supreme Court, most notably from Justice Amy Coney Barrett, position adoption as a viable alternative to abortion. Even some progressives sing the praises of adoption in cases where abortion is not accessible or desired. However, framing the tragedy of losing reproductive freedoms as a problem easily solved by the relinquishment of a child obfuscates the reality of adoption as an institution that is steeped in systemic injustice. Moreover, such a framing underscores the way adopted people—the ones purportedly “saved” by adoption—are overlooked. Finally, the overarching social narrative that places adoption on a pedestal and views adoption as an alternative to abortion completely misses the point that it is not a reproductive choice at all. 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. In an ideal world, where poverty, racism, and health care inequities were properly redressed, the need for adoption would be practically eradicated.

In the conservative adoption fairy tale, a pregnant person who does not feel that they are capable of adequately parenting hands off these duties to people who have been desperately hoping to become parents. The child, it is assumed, will fare better, escaping a life most assuredly filled with poverty or neglect. Above all, this child “could have been aborted,” so adoption rescues them from annihilation.

While it is true that many parents who relinquish children for adoption cite financial concerns as a chief obstacle to parenting, it does not follow that adoption is the solution. Positing adoption as a solution to impoverished parenting ignores the fact that another solution exists: supporting struggling families. The sociologist Gretchen Sisson has found that even the smallest financial assistance would have empowered many birth mothers to keep their babies rather than relinquish them. 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. In other words, Child Welfare Services are far more likely to remove Black children than others, even in cases where no eminent threat to the safety and well-being of the child is present.

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 Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade chronicles similar predatory practices. In short, the idea that parents freely decide to relinquish their children is an oversimplification at best.

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. And unlike non-adopted persons, who can legally emancipate from their genetic family, adoptees have no autonomy in their adoption and cannot annul it when they are grown.

Ultimately, rhetoric positioning adoption as a reproductive choice or an alternative to abortion is a denial of bodily autonomy. First, we must consider for whom adoption might be said to be a reproductive choice. It’s not the adoptee, since they have no say in any of the events leading to their birth and subsequent relinquishment and adoption. Nor is it the birth parents. When facing an unplanned pregnancy, the pregnant person can hypothetically either carry the pregnancy to term or have an abortion. Once a baby has been born, there are no more reproductive choices to be made. Now the choices related to the child are parenting choices. And as we have seen, very few parents completely willingly choose to relinquish their babies. It also seems odd to claim that it is a reproductive choice to adopt a child, because the adoptive parents are not reproducing, at least not genetically. Even if one wanted to argue that they are seeking to culturally reproduce their family traditions, adoption is still fundamentally a parenting choice, insofar as it is a decision about how to raise a child.

Rather than push such rhetoric, what if we promoted family preservation by engaging in practices that support rather than separate families? We could start by offering economic assistance and comprehensive medical care, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and abortion on demand. 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. Legal guardianship and kinship placement are options, for instance. You can care for children without erasing their history and turning them into commodities for purchase.

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