What We Get Wrong About Adoption

What We Get Wrong About Adoption

Activists and political leaders promote adoption as a social good, looking past the complex experiences of adoptees and the parents who relinquish them.


Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett ignited fury last week when she implied during the oral arguments for Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that people had no need for abortion because they could, instead, waive their parental rights and relinquish their newborns for adoption. People on the political left were incensed, firing back that adoption was no substitute for abortion. They are correct, both factually (based on how people make pregnancy decisions) and morally (based on the burden imposed by pregnancy alone). But their outrage over the justice’s comments ignores the work done across the political spectrum to frame adoption both as a mutually agreeable common ground in the abortion debate, and as a panacea for social complexity around the desire for parenthood.

Support for adoption is one of the most enduringly unifying issues in American culture and politics. While many may remember Vice President Mike Pence’s celebration of adoption as a “solution” to abortion, or President Donald Trump showcasing a story about the redemptive power of adoption at the 2018 State of the Union address, it is also true that President Bill Clinton established November as National Adoption Month in 1995. And President Barack Obama included “promot[ing] adoption” on his list of priorities on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade for many of the years he was in office. 

This promotion of adoption transcends bipartisan politics—it is a deeply rooted cultural understanding. It’s reflected in our popular culture, from the ease of relinquishment on Juno, to the “courageous[ness]” and “selfless[ness]” of birth parents on MTV’s Teen Mom, to the white saviorism of transracial adoptions in movies like The Blind Side and Instant Family. Some more recent depictions offer more nuance around race and openness, but most are still committed to upholding the idea of adoption as a primarily benevolent action. The many narratives driven by adoptees—such as Nicole Chung’s memoir All You Can Ever Know or Angela Tucker’s documentary Closure—do offer counterpoints to these broader cultural stories of adoption, yet their stories have never been the center of this conversation to the extent that they ought to be. Instead, all of the stories we choose to tell about adoption—both politically, and for our entertainment—contribute to a predominant, largely unchallenged narrative of adoption as a social good.

But this political and cultural consensus around adoption as a social good has ignored the history of private domestic adoption as a mechanism for maintaining norms of whiteness, class privilege, religion, and social order in the context of the family. As adoption scholar Laura Briggs describes in Taking Children: A History of American Terror, the taking and transfer of children has been used as a tool throughout American history in the separation of enslaved African children from their parents, the forced removal of Native American children from their families and tribes, the policing of Black families within the child welfare system, and, of course, the removal of children from immigrant and asylum-seeking families at our border. Tellingly, this child-taking was not about “finding families,” given that the children already had families (as do most children who are available for adoption)—it was about terrorizing, punishing, committing genocide against, and extracting obedience from vulnerable groups. These concerted political efforts are in addition to the cultural, social, and religious values that fed such high levels of stigma and shame during the “baby scoop” era of the 1950s and ’60s, when over 1.5 million young women relinquished their infants in the United States.

These infants had mothers, many of whom were likely capable of and would have been interested in parenting had they been given control of their own lives. These adoptions were about policing women’s behavior and strictly upholding deeply rooted patriarchal ideas of sexuality, reproductive choice, motherhood, marriage, family, and power. Historian Rickie Solinger has argued that the prevalence of adoption in a society is, in a crucial way, a reflection of the vulnerability of women. Today, most women who relinquish infants for private adoption report wanting to parent but lacking the support and financial resources to do so. Their relinquishments are a reflection of their lack of the power in other areas of their lives that would enable them to parent in the way that they wish to do. What do these adoptions, then, reflect about the vulnerability of American women today?

These historical realities of adoption have never been readily incorporated into progressive ideas of adoption. Instead, those on the political left have focused on the families made possible by adoption. Indeed, part—perhaps much—of the lure of adoption is its offer of nontraditional family building, which appeals deeply to progressive values. Adoption allows for the creation of families that resist traditional ideas of families and relationships; it puts love and bonding at the root of what “makes” a family. Adoption makes many queer parent-led families possible; it allows some adults to pursue single parenthood by choice; it can create familial bonds across racial, ethnic, and cultural difference. All of these types of families would have been radical a generation ago, and inconceivable a generation or two before that. From this paradigm, adoption is about not just family creation but also family creativity: new ideas of kinship that can emerge as adoption allows new kinds of families to form.

But what adoption, as a social practice, requires is not just a new paradigm for an outcome but also a new understanding of the premise. An understanding of adoption that is rooted in reproductive justice is not about creating radical families but about giving radical support for people to determine what is best for themselves, their children, and their families—and we know that, given such support, few parents will choose relinquishment.

If we want to move toward an understanding of adoption that is rooted in this broader framework of reproductive justice, we must begin with listening to the stories of those most deeply impacted and least heard: adoptees and the parents who relinquish them. And, to our credit, this listening process did begin in the wake of last week’s Supreme Court hearing, with adoptee Elizabeth Spiers writing about her own adoption trauma in The New York Times, and adoptee Angela Tucker and birth mother Kate Livingston sharing their stories in New York magazine. The backlash was immediate, as conservative figures like Meghan McCain called “anti-adoption fringe intellectuals…by far the most vile and sick.” But as social worker and Declassified Adoptee Amanda Transue-Woolston points out on Twitter, there is no such thing as an anti-adoption movement:

“Anti-adoption” is not a thing. There are no anti-adoption laws or pending legislation. No candidates with an anti-adoption platform. No major anti-adoption groups. Even [adoption] abolitionists aren’t “anti-adoption” in the way this term intends to mischaracterize them. “Anti-adoption” is…a strawman used to suggest that any person who acknowledges problems or struggles in adoption must therefore not want children to have homes.… Literally no one argues for kids to not have homes.… People are more concerned about folks not ever saying anything bad about adoption than they are about adoption actually not being bad. Adoption is an institution. It cares nothing for what you think of it. It’s the people involved who need you to care enough to make it better.

But while “anti-adoption” may be a misnomer for some, that does not mean that there isn’t a clear policy agenda that adoption’s strongest critics—most of them adoptees and birth/first mothers—have been working to advance for years. For those involved in the reproductive justice and abortion rights movements, some of these policy items will seem quite familiar. Many efforts around family preservation are simply about offering American families the most basic levels of support: family leave, affordable child care, universal preschool, health insurance, public assistance that allows families to feed, diaper, and care for their children in a fundamental way.

As adoptee and adoption reform advocate Rebekah Henson shared: “When we talk about women ‘choosing’ adoption, what we’re really talking about is a woman choosing between raising her own child or giving [them] away permanently so she can survive. No one should ever be in a position where they need to make a choice like that, and it’s absolutely unconscionable to me that we so blithely allow it to continue.”

These policies are not taking an oppositional stance to adoption but rendering adoption unnecessary for those people who would prefer to parent.

Other proposals are more specific, with a direct focus on improving the ethical practices of adoptions that do occur, and maintaining a continuity of identity for the adopted person throughout their life. For example, many adoptees have long been advocating for the right to easily access their original birth certificates and adoption records—an effort that has never entered mainstream reproductive justice movements, and was opposed by at least one prominent civil liberties group. Part of this continuity of identity, in practice, is also the priority on kinship or community-based placements that allows adopted people to stay in their families and communities (or, for Native children, tribes) of origin, allowing for greater connection and fewer potential challenges around transracial placements. Adoptees and birth/first mothers have also pushed domestic adoption practice away from secrecy and overt coercion and toward more openness, but there is still no legal enforceability or industry consensus around openness. Transnational adoption—which is often also transracial adoption—is also far more resistant to progress around openness, and continues to reflect more adoption practices and global systems of inequity even as some transnational adoptees have become leaders advocating for the reduction or elimination of such adoptions.

This list of proposals is far from comprehensive, and meant to give those who are committed to reproductive justice, but only now thinking deeply about adoption for the first time, specific ideas to frame the work ahead. Adoptee rights advocate Henson sees the need clearly: “I would personally like to see the reproductive justice movement align itself with the adoptee rights and justice movement, calling out and demanding change of the overt human rights abuses and exploitation inherent in our current adoption policies, practices, and systems.” This effort must not just be the theoretical alignment of the reproductive and adoption justice movements but the actual, achievable aims.

All these things can be true: that parental love is full and valid without a biological relationship; that children do not need a “traditional” family to thrive; that children adapt to a range of normalcies and benefit from having many adults who care about them. And all of these things can also be true: that the families made whole by adoption are more visible to us than the families separated by adoption, and adopted people are always part of both; that adoption is almost universally the transfer of infants from families with fewer resources and less power to families with more resources and more power; that the idyllic appeal of adoption is such that it has moved those otherwise very deeply immersed in the work of creating a more just world to overlook the systemic issues of privilege upon which adoption functions, and without which adoption would be inconceivable.

The challenge is this: For people who are devoted to reproductive justice and committed to progressive values, considering one’s own position of privilege, centering the experiences of those most impacted, and incorporating a fundamental understanding of the structural forces at play are no longer new—they are key to the work of creating more-just systems. We must now become accustomed to considering adoption from that same framework.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly named the US president who established National Adoption Month. We regret the error.

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