Comment: Adoption isn’t easy alternative to abortion some say

Giving up a child is often a coercive choice and can lead to trauma and a sense of loss.

By Gretchen Sisson / Special To The Washington Post

During last Wednesday’s oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court heard a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. Through her questioning, Justice Amy Coney Barrett pursued a line of inquiry premised on the ability of women to relinquish their infants for adoption soon after childbirth.

“It doesn’t seem to me to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden,” said Barrett. Didn’t the existence of adoption options, including “safe-haven laws,” relieve women of the “obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy” and thus “take care of that problem”?

The argument is that adoption allows women to quickly move on with their lives after giving birth; they do not need access to abortion to maintain control of their futures. This might be a novel assertion to hear from a Supreme Court justice, but it is not a new narrative for our country. We only have to look back before Roe, compare that to data from today and listen to women’s stories of relinquishment — as I have in my research, conducting more than 100 interviews with mothers who relinquished infants since 1962 — to see how this view of adoption has failed American women.

Because of the social pressures that shaped notions of “appropriate” pregnancy and “respectable” motherhood, the decades between World War II and Roe were dubbed the “baby scoop era.” The shame associated with “illegitimacy” was so intense, and the efforts of institutions like Catholic Church-run maternity homes to pressure young women into giving up their parental rights were so concerted, that nearly 1.5 million American infants were relinquished for adoption during this time. Conservative advocates promoted adoption as not only for the good of the child but for the redemption of the mother: Through adoption, young women could easily move past the presumed sin of premarital sex, forget their child and go on to have another family under more appropriate circumstances. In reality, these adoptions — often coercive and highly secretive — led to trauma and a sense of ambiguous loss for a generation. “The grief doesn’t really subside,” one mother told me, 40 years after she relinquished her child in 1968. “There’s no peace.”

The adoption rate dropped precipitously soon after Roe and continued to decline gradually in the following years; in recent decades, it’s remained at a stable, low level. It is easy, then, to think that abortion replaced adoption as a pregnancy outcome; and to surmise that women facing unintended pregnancies choose between abortion and adoption. But neither conclusion is entirely true.

Abortion has always been more common than adoption. This pattern held before Roe, when abortion was largely illegal and adoption was at its peak. Though it’s difficult to ascertain exact figures from the time, my colleague Carole Joffe, who has studied the history of providing abortion pre-Roe, has identified annual abortion estimates developed throughout the 1950s and 60s that range from 200,000 to 1.3 million; in contrast, the U.S. Children’s Bureau estimated that there were about 175,000 private domestic adoptions in 1970, its highest point. That disparity persists today: Every year, there are about 18,000 domestic infant adoptions and about 900,000 abortions. Over the course of their reproductive lives, less than 1 percent of American women will ever relinquish an infant for adoption, whereas around 25 percent will have an abortion. Abortion is, and always has been, a common experience; relinquishment is a rare one.

And in fact, most women making pregnancy decisions are not choosing between abortion and adoption. My colleagues and I at the University of California, San Francisco looked at how women who were denied access to abortion made decisions about what to do next, and we found that the majority were not interested in adoption. Of these women, 91 percent ended up parenting: Only 9 percent relinquished their infants for adoption. Nine percent seems remarkably small when you consider that 100 percent of these women did not want to give birth; but it is also notably large when you consider that only about 0.5 percent of all births in the United States lead to adoption. This 9 percent figure mirrors the pre-Roe relinquishment rate among never-married women. Most pregnant women are not weighing abortion and adoption as if they are equally likely or substitutes for each other. When the state removes abortion as a choice, however, more women are pushed toward relinquishing.

It’s worth considering how the women who do terminate their parental rights feel about abortion. Very few who choose adoption seriously consider abortion; some because they discover their pregnancies too late to obtain one. But most do not consider abortion because they feel bonded to their pregnancies early on, and they very much wish to parent. Many go through months of pregnancy, hoping that a job, a partner, a source of support or financial assurance, a sense of security or stability will materialize and enable them to raise their child.

The most common reason women cite for relinquishing — by far — is money. I remember speaking with Emily, who, at age 19, had become pregnant with her second child. She was raising her 4-year-old son and was planning to raise her second. Emily described one evening spent sitting in her car in a grocery store parking lot, using the store’s free WiFi to complete her homework while her son napped in the back seat. She was determined to finish high school so she could get a better job and support her children. “And I just burst into tears,” she told me. “I just realized I couldn’t take him. I couldn’t take care of him.” She met with an agency the following week and relinquished her baby when he was born. When we spoke, she had not had contact with him for two years. Many women like Emily turn to adoption when parenting no longer feels tenable and their hopes for their families are thwarted. For them, adoption is not about averting abortion but about a system that makes parenthood a privilege that is beyond their reach.

And it’s important to note that almost none of these women simply walk away, free of the burdens of parenting, as Barrett, herself both an adoptive and birth parent, would suggest. Today, as open adoption becomes the norm, it is often a lifelong process. It is no longer uncommon for birth parents to have ongoing relationships with the children they have relinquished, though the type and frequency of contact, and the underlying relationship, vary greatly; and are never assured. Birth parents may wish to maintain these relationships, but as children grow and navigate their own, often complicated, feelings about adoption, the terms of contact are often renegotiated. Casting adoption solely as a one-time pregnancy decision, the severing of a tie between parent and infant, misrepresents its realities.

Very few of the women I have interviewed feel enduringly positive about relinquishing their children. Like their pre-Roe counterparts, their experiences are marked by grief and resignation. Even those who are joyfully optimistic when I interview them soon after they give birth are markedly more cynical years later. When, in 2010, I asked Diana, who had relinquished a 1-year-old son a year earlier, what adoption should look like, she smiled: “Like mine!” Asked again in 2020, she shrugged. “I don’t know … I see it now as unnecessary, unfortunately. But, you know, we are where we are and have been making the most of it.”

Diana was one of many women who expressed feeling gaslighted by political and religious movements that tout adoption as a brave and loving option, but that offer little guidance for what it means to experience it. One woman I interviewed, Amanda, grew up in a family that was active in the pro-life movement, and she told me: “My experience with adoption has totally changed the way I think about abortion. Everything about how I was brought up says that abortion is wrong, but I would never, ever wish this [adoption] experience on anyone, and I would never strategically use adoption as a way to negotiate an abortion issue. I think that people who suggest that girls or women do adoptions instead of having abortions just don’t know how difficult and challenging adoption can be.”

Today, adoption is mostly a pathway either for those who would prefer abortion, but to whom that option is denied, or for those who would prefer to parent, but for whom that hope has been derailed. It is a path of constrained choice and often powerlessness, yet one that antiabortion conservatives frame as a compassionate, easy way to avert the “burdens of parenthood.” This framing is anything but compassionate: In eliding adoption’s painful complexities, it could lead us to callously repeat the damaging mistakes of the past.

Gretchen Sisson is a research sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco.

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