Do a quick search on the Internet and you'll see that there are lots more people waiting to adopt a healthy newborn these days than there are babies out there ready to be adopted. Gone are the (ahem) "good old days" when a pregnant woman finding herself in less than optimal circumstances could be shamed, coerced or forced to give up her baby as a matter of socially accepted course (for more on THAT history, check out Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away). Access to safe, legal abortion (while awesome when it occurs) has done a real number on the adoption industry.
So what's a pro-adoption organization to do? Well, start hard-selling adoption as an option to vulnerable women and bring back the days of shame under the guise of empowerment, of course. Enter the National Council for Adoption.
The NCFA is so all about adoption that they commonly speak out against the rights of adopted people to make their point. Their fight against the open records movement, (which argues that adult adopted persons have a right to their original, pre-adoption birth certificates) is based on the belief that it causes people to abort otherwise adoptable children.
Obviously, some number of women with unplanned pregnancies, who would otherwise choose adoption, would choose abortion if they could not choose adoption with the assurance of privacy. What that number would be is impossible to tell, but what does it need to be? The loss of human potential from even one abortion that would have been an adoption is unknowable. And the ratio of adoptions to abortions in New Hampshire is already extremely low. In 1996, New Hampshire had only 43 domestic infant adoptions placements for every 1,000 abortions.
The NCFA pushes their pro-adoption agenda (what they call Adoption First) in several ways. They lobby politically for things like a continuation of the adoption tax credit (a credit that makes adoption more affordable for hopeful adoptive parents), for Safe Havens despite the controversy that surrounds them and by creating a full-blown adoption awareness campaign to convince women that "sometimes choosing adoption is being a good mother."
In the interest of talking more women into placing their babies, the NCFA spearheaded the Infant Adoption Training Initiative (IATI). The IATI came about as an effort to bring down abortion rates and not coincidentally, bring up the number of babies available for adoption by raising adoption awareness in people who work with women facing crisis pregnancies (people like school nurses, migrant health service workers, Title X Clinics, health care staff from youth and adult correctional facilities, residential treatment centers, military health services, rape and domestic violence shelters, college campus health services etc.).
Given the biases inherent in the NCFA, it's no surprise that a study by the Guttmacher Institute points to some serious concerns for the feminist among us:
Kelly McBride of Planned Parenthood of Indiana noted the exclusive and "constant focus on 'child-centered' counseling" and "how to inform clients that adoption is a 'good choice for the child.'" She said she was given "tips and techniques...about how to work against [women's] resistance, make them proud of their decision and convince them that adoption is a good choice." One family planning provider from Planned Parenthood of Collier Country, Florida, said she was told to repeatedly bring up adoption as an option, even if a woman says she is not interested. These examples border on coercion and clearly violate both Title X guidelines and principles of medical ethics.
Adam Pertman of the Evan B. Donaldson Institute (an adoption think tank) phrases some of his concerns this way:
Here's an example of how the way in which adoption is presented is so important: The curriculum presents the best interests of the "child" as paramount; that sounds just right and, in the adoption world, it's accepted as a given. But it invariably refers to children who need homes, not ones who are not yet born. No professional standards of practice advise physicians and counselors to recommend to pregnant women that they weigh the best interests of their fetuses and as yet unidentified adoptive parents on a par with their own. This perspective implicitly furthers an agenda aimed at minimizing the option of abortion and perhaps even the option of parenting by the biological mother. [emphasis mine]
As the Evan B. Donaldson Institute shared in their landmark 2006 report Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents in the Adoption Process, women need better advocacy and better post-adoption support far more than they need more pressure to place their babies:
Research on birthparents in the era of confidential (closed) adoptions suggests a significant proportion struggled - and sometimes continue to struggle - with chronic, unresolved grief.
Hear that, Juno? Maybe you won't have such a happy ending after all.
Despite the empowered slogan, I don't see full disclosure in the I Choose Adoption rhetoric. In the Infant Adoption Awareness training, grief is acknowledged but not addressed as the lifelong issue that it is for most birth moms -- sure, it hurts but you're so happy to get back to your life, so happy to know that you did the "right" thing that it's all worth it.
Watch the young woman in this training video: Note that she laughs every time she discusses something heart wrenching. Note that she insists that she's dealt with her grief through her counseling and to prove it she says, "And you deal with [grief]. You don't hide it; you don't try to deny it. You accept it and work through it and in the end you come to healing and, ummm, a lot of happiness and joy for the whole situation."
Adoption can be an appropriate option for some women but it must be a decision made freely and with full information at hand. But a truly woman-centric model wouldn't focus on the empty arms and privileged homes of waiting adoptive parents. Instead women considering adoption need to know that they are not the expendable pieces of other people's adoption stories. They are not conduits to someone else's family building. And they also need to know that once those papers are signed, they lose all the rights no matter how many promises the hopeful adoptive parents made about visits, phone calls or pictures.
Fauxclaud, an activist and first mother (aka "birth mother") in a closed adoption who has since reunited with her son, writes this in her blog Musings of the Lame:
It is claimed that Women facing abortion choices need special safeguards to protect them from misunderstanding the nature and consequences of their decision and from the regret that might come from having an abortion without understanding important facts about the intervention. … There are no laws governing what an adoption agency can say and cannot say.
- There are no consequences if they outright lie on their websites about open adoption, affects on adopted children or the long term risks of relinquishment.
- There are no government sponsored watch dog groups or official forms to sign.
There isn't even a real good guidebook for birthmothers so we know that to look for and expect the rest of our happy birthmother lives.
Nada, nothing, Zip. We are on our own with only the professionals at the agencies to guide us and as we all well know, once you sign the papers and the power transfer is complete, they don't really care much for us anymore. We become the blind leading the blind, thinking we alone are "wrong" somehow in this journey until we miraculously find others who can validate our experiences as normal.
Adoption is a feminist issue because it is a reproductive rights issue. It is an issue about the value of women as mothers and who has "earned" the right to be one. It's about how the states supports or does not support women who fall outside of the "good mother" rhetoric. It's about privilege. It's about class.
Right now the dominant voices in our cultural discussion of adoption are those like the NCFA who perpetuate stereotypes about the women who place their children and the women who receive them. It's a conversation that tries to erase the presence of the women who give birth to those children by pushing t-shirts that equate adoption with pregnancy thereby obliterating the origins of adopted people. The way we look at adoption – especially domestic infant adoption – is a manifestation of our Madonna/whore complex where birth mothers are saintly sinners – angelic enough to give away the babies they aren't good enough to keep.
We feminists need to start looking at adoption in new ways. We need to let the first mothers among us speak about their experiences past and present because their voices have been missing from our discussion. In the blogosphere we have feminist thinkers like FauxClaud, like Suz, like Jenna. They can tell us how Juno will likely feel five years from placement, ten, twenty or more.
(*November is National Adoption Month, a month dedicated to helping find homes for the thousands of children waiting to be adopted from foster care -- although some industry players have hijacked the month to promote international adoption or domestic infant adoption.)
Dawn Friedman is a long-time feminist and adoptive mom who blogs at this woman's work. She's also a published writer whose article "Tales of the Reluctant Groupie" appeared in Bitch's Fame & Obscurity issue.