Whom Does Adoption Really Serve? A Q&A With Gretchen Sisson

Whom Does Adoption Really Serve? A Q&A With Gretchen Sisson

Whom Does Adoption Really Serve? A Q&A With Gretchen Sisson

Sisson’s new book, Relinquished, is the corrective we need to shut down the Christian conservative myth that adoption can render abortion unnecessary.


During the 2021 Supreme Court arguments in the case that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Justice Amy Coney Barrett famously surmised that adoption seemed like an obvious solution to the issue of forced parenthood. The “safe haven” laws that allow parents to relinquish babies for adoption in every state would “take care of that problem,” wouldn’t they? Coney Barrett asked. Her comments showed that Christian conservative myth-making around the idea that adoption can render abortion unnecessary had reached the highest levels of power. Gretchen Sisson’s new book, Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood (St. Martin’s), is the corrective we needed to shut down this myth for good. For over a decade, Sisson interviewed people who relinquished their infants for private adoption. Such adoptions are a small fraction of overall adoptions in the United States, most of which are foster-care or stepparent adoptions, but they occupy a disproportionate amount of the public debate because of these anti-abortion claims. When we spoke, Sisson told me she wrote the book for people who “support reproductive choice but have never interrogated what adoption means and who adoption serves.” “There’s a lot in the book that will make people uncomfortable, and I hope that they engage on that,” she said. The most uncomfortable part of the book, for me, was reading birth parents describe, in their own words, their anguish at relinquishing babies many of them longed to take home themselves.
—Amy Littlefield

AL: Why did you decide to study this issue?

GS: I didn’t have critical ideas of adoption going into it or a sense of what I was going to find. What I did have were questions about how we decide who gets to be a parent in our country and who is supported in their path to parenthood, and, on the other hand, how we regulate and police and stigmatize and marginalize other groups of parents. I kept bumping up against this idea of adoption as a panacea—that if we have adoption, we don’t need access to abortion, we don’t need to support vulnerable families, we don’t need comprehensive healthcare that includes infertility treatment. We have these beliefs in adoption as a force for good. How is it actually serving the women who are impacted by it? That’s what I wanted to explore.

AL: One of the common beliefs about adoption is that people with unplanned pregnancies choose between adoption and abortion. But you write about a landmark study suggests the this is a misunderstanding.

GS: In The Turnaway Study, 91 percent of the women denied an abortion who gave birth ended up parenting the child. Only 9 percent relinquished for adoption. When I speak with Diana Greene Foster, my colleague who was the principal investigator of study, she looks at this 9 percent and is like: “Why is this number so small? One hundred percent of those women wanted an abortion and now 91 percent of them are parenting.” And I look at that 9 percent and I’m like, “Why is it so massive?” Because the overall adoption rate is less than 1 percent, about half a percent. What it illustrates is how adoption is really the last resort.

AL: What trends emerged in the stories of the birth moms you interviewed?

GS: Poverty was really the defining theme. That was the most common theme, but there are other ways that women were lacking power. A lot of them were members of conservative religions—the evangelical church, the Catholic Church—that gave them very specific ideas of what parenthood should look like, what their role as a mother should be. Sometimes it’s because they just want a better life for their kids. But we’re never interrogating the fact that “better life” in the United States is almost always about money, right? It’s either about finances, or it’s about these conservative ideas of what families should look like and what serves children well. Many of them felt shame or guilt or stigma for being pregnant if they weren’t married. The other constraint was the threat of the family policing system, particularly for Black mothers. One woman experienced postpartum psychosis. Her concern was: “If I turn to child welfare services, they are going to take all my children.” She decided to relinquish the baby to private adoption to guarantee she could keep her older children.

AL: To me the most disconcerting fact in your book is just how little money many of the birth moms said they would have needed to parent their children themselves. Sometimes it’s as small as $1,000—or maybe it’s not a specific amount of money, but something like a shorter wait for affordable housing. The margins feel so small.

GS: People have rightfully pushed me on that. How far is $1,000 actually going to get you in taking care of a baby? Of course, these moms do need more support in an ongoing way. But that’s the amount they need to get through whatever crisis they’re facing at the time. I think it’s a huge indictment of our society, especially given the amount of money we put into adoption tax credits and subsidies; the adoption tax credit is $15,950 for adoption expenses including travel. Prospective adoptive parents can claim the adoption tax credit even if the adoption falls through.

AL: Talk about the adoption agencies and their role in this process.

GS: There are between 10 and 45 waiting families for every baby that’s available for infant adoption. The demand is very high and the supply is very low. Even nonprofit agencies, if they want to keep their doors open, have to facilitate a certain number of adoptions per year. That incentivizes agencies to be aggressive in their marketing. That includes really aggressive online marketing, geofencing of abortion and methadone clinics, virtual geofencing of certain URLs, and buying keywords, so if someone Googles “help for a single mom in California,” you’re going to get ads for adoption. That is the least of what agencies have to do if they want to keep their doors open. Some engage in biased options counseling, and more directly coercive practices to convince pregnant people to terminate their parental rights. We don’t recognize that there is an industry here that is invested in separating mothers from babies. 

AL: You acknowledge in the book that lots of families are made, by necessity, through adoption—many LGBTQ families and couples who experience infertility, for example. What advice do you have for families considering adoption? Are the ethical issues you explored caused by the agencies or are they inherent to the process itself?

GS: It’s a little hard for me to answer that just because the agencies are so much of the process. There is a harm reduction model here. There are some policy efforts to restrict some of these marketing practices, to mandate certain types of unbiased options counseling. I think that these measures are worth exploring.  I particularly think that looking at ethical practice around open adoption is meaningful because that will impact adoptions that have already happened. To me, though, the most effective way to limit the unethical practice of adoption is to question why it’s occurring in the first place, and to invest in family preservation and to ensure that people have access to abortion care if they want, that they have autonomy, that they have access to pathways to parenthood if they want. If people’s choices continue to be deeply constrained, it doesn’t matter how ethically they’re treated once they’re in that system because they’re not choosing to be in that system. To me the more interesting question is: How can we ensure that people are only relinquishing from a place of choice rather than a place of constraint?

AL: The part that sticks with me from reading this book is the visceral anguish birth moms described experiencing when they were separated from their infants. One woman described it being so powerful that she literally fell to the ground.

GS: A lot of them couldn’t actually remember, which to me speaks really directly to the trauma of that moment. One of the mothers I interviewed very intentionally availed herself of this crisis care option that her agency offered her, which was like, we can take him and put him in a temporary placement for a week where you can come visit him as often as you want, as often as you need—this kind of trial window to test out the separation so that it wasn’t quite as definitive as most of the other mothers I interviewed experienced. This mother was very determined in their choice, and they actually said that week was very painful because they had to keep making the decision over and over again. And even from that place of intentionality, where they were like, I’m going to do this the “right” way, they still experienced a really deep moment—and I think it’s one of the ones that I cite where they just talk about falling to the floor. It still didn’t make it any easier.

AL: Is there a risk of essentializing mothers here, since not everyone feels that immediate bond?

GS: I understand what you’re saying. But I think even if they’re trying to regulate that bond, or that affection that they’re feeling, they still feel a responsibility. I think many of them felt like a failure in that moment, as much as they felt separated from this baby as an individual person. That’s part of what I think the grief was—like, I have failed this child that I feel a responsibility to, as much as it is about being separated from them. I want to make clear, women were not relinquishing their babies because they didn’t love their child deeply. Most of them felt very bonded to their child. But even for those that had more ambiguous feelings— there were a couple mothers I interviewed who didn’t realize they were pregnant until they were, like, 37 weeks, and they were like, if I had found out about this six months ago, I would have had an abortion, but here I am. I think two women I interviewed didn’t realize they were pregnant until they went into delivery. For them the grief came a little bit later, because it was like, “Oh, what else could have been possible if I had had just a week or two to wrap my mind around this?” It changed the shape, it changed the trajectory of the grief, but it was still there. That mourning period—they really all went through that.

AL: One woman you interviewed, Leah, told you in the initial interview that “every adoption should look like mine.” Ten years later, when you interviewed her again, her views had changed, and she saw relinquishing her child as “unnecessary, unfortunately.” Her advice to women considering adoption was: “Don’t.” A part of me wondered, reading these stories, whether infant adoption is ever an acceptable solution? Should we consider banning it?

GS: I find it more compelling to imagine what a world would need to look like not if adoption is illegal but if it’s unnecessary. What does that look like? Where are we finding spaces of care for families, for children, to keep them safe, to keep them supported? This draws obviously really heavily on Black feminist theory and Marxist theory. If we viewed adoption as a crisis response; if we viewed adoption, not as a beautiful, family-building thing but as a failure of society to keep a family together the way they want, then we don’t have to make adoption illegal—I’ve never pushed for making adoption illegal. But I do think that we should be raising the question of what we need to do to change the material and actual circumstances in people’s lives so that they don’t get to that point. The private adoption system, as it is now, is a fairly uncreative way of understanding what children and families need.

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