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Why adoption isn’t a replacement for abortion rights

From the dangers of pregnancy to the trauma of adoption, there’s a lot the Supreme Court didn’t acknowledge last week as Roe v. Wade hangs in the balance.

Demonstrators gather in front of the US Supreme Court as the justices hear arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health on December 1 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Americans don’t need abortion because adoption exists.

That, at least, was the implication of comments made by Justice Amy Coney Barrett last week, as the Supreme Court appeared to edge closer than ever to overturning the landmark 1973 decision Roe v. Wade and stripping Americans of the right to an abortion before viability.

During oral arguments December 1 in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which concerns Mississippi’s ban on abortion after 15 weeks, Barrett noted that all 50 states have safe haven laws, allowing a baby to be surrendered for adoption shortly after birth without criminal consequences for the parent. If abortion rights advocates are worried about the burdens of forced parenthood, she asked, “Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem?”

The idea that adoption is a panacea for unplanned pregnancy and a substitute for abortion is far from new. Anti-abortion activists “have been making this argument for decades,” says Marcela Howell, president of the nonprofit partnership In Our Own Voice: National Black Women’s Reproductive Justice Agenda. According to researchers and people who work with parents and adoptees, it’s always been wrong.

The argument that adoption can effectively replace abortion assumes that people who choose the former are able to simply sidestep all the challenges associated with parenthood. But people who choose adoption still become parents — they just don’t raise their children. They often experience significant grief and loss, for which they struggle to get support in a culture that views adoption through rose-colored glasses. Barrett seemed to be “assuming that people who terminate their rights are moving quickly past this termination,” says Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist with Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health, a group at the University of California San Francisco. But “that is not something that I have ever seen in my research.”

Thinking of adoption as a stand-in for abortion also ignores the very real dangers people face when they carry any pregnancy to term. Maternal mortality has been rising in the US for 20 years, and the most recent data places the country a dismal 55th in the world when it comes to the safety of childbirth.

All of this, reproductive justice and adoptee advocates say, makes the argument that adoption can replace abortion at best a distraction, and at worst a willful misrepresentation of the facts. “As an adoptee, it’s infuriating,” says Joanne Bagshaw, a psychology professor at Montgomery College in Maryland who also works as a therapist with other adoptees.

Adoption is often difficult and traumatic for birth parents

Promoting adoption has long been a mainstay of the anti-abortion movement, with conservative groups like Focus on the Family providing resources on adoption and anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy centers” sometimes steering pregnant people toward the practice. It’s not just conservatives, however, who support adoption as a good alternative to abortion — “adoption has been understood as this common ground in the abortion debate by both parties for a very long time,” Sisson said.

Both Democrats and Republicans have embraced the view that even if they can’t agree on whether abortion should be legal, they can agree that more people should choose adoption instead. There are multiple problems with thinking of adoption as a substitute for abortion, however, researchers and advocates say.

In order to choose adoption for a child, someone still has to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth. Both are risky propositions in America, which ranked 10th out of 10 comparable countries in a 2018 study of maternal deaths. Black people are at especially high risk, dying in childbirth at three to four times the rate of white patients. “For Black women, carrying pregnancies to term is very dangerous in this country,” Howell said.

Beyond the medical risks, there are social consequences to consider, from fielding unwanted questions to potential abuse from family members or partners who find out about the pregnancy. Homicide is a leading cause of death for pregnant people, with Black women and women and girls under 25 at the highest risk, according to a study published last month by researchers at Tulane University.

Though pregnancy discrimination is illegal, it also remains widespread — “many of the country’s largest and most prestigious companies still systematically sideline pregnant women,” Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg wrote in a 2018 New York Times investigation.

Then there’s “the emotional toll that goes on if someone is forced to carry a pregnancy to term that they didn’t want in the first place,” Howell said.

“I felt as if I were carrying my son for them, for everyone else,” Merritt Tierce wrote in the New York Times Magazine of her unplanned pregnancy when she was 19 years old. “I was afraid, and I was estranged from myself, and I felt an unbearable load of guilt for being the mother my son had to have. He didn’t get to choose, either.”

Barrett did seem to acknowledge some of the burdens of unwanted pregnancy last week, calling it “an infringement on bodily autonomy, for which we have another context like vaccines” (never mind that the side effects of vaccines, for most people, last a mere few hours). She did not acknowledge, however, that any sort of burden might continue after a person gives birth. Just give up the baby for adoption, her questions seemed to suggest, and everything will be fine.

That’s far from the case, many experts and advocates say. Surrendering a baby for adoption can be traumatic, Sisson says. “A lot of birth mothers feel pretty intense grief and mourning right after their adoption.”

As the years go by, that initial grief can be compounded by a sense of alienation. On the one hand, “there’s a lot of politicized and religious messaging around adoption that tells birth mothers that they have made a very courageous, brave, and loving decision,” Sisson says. But those messages don’t come with support for birth parents when it comes to negotiating and managing contact with their biological children (increasingly common as open adoptions become the norm), or in understanding and dealing with their ongoing sense of loss. Many birth parents “feel very alone,” Sisson said.

Pregnant people often anticipate some of this, which is why adoption is a relatively rare choice in America. They may know, too, that their child may not find a home quickly — there are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the US, and the average child spends nearly two years in the system. In one study of people who wanted an abortion but were turned away, just 9 percent chose to place the baby for adoption, Sisson and her team found. The other 91 percent chose to parent the child. “There were a lot of women who said, ‘If I couldn’t have an abortion, I was going to parent; there was no way I was going to give up my child,’” Sisson said.

In general, “Women are not often choosing between abortion and adoption,” Sisson said. “Adoption is always the second choice to either parenting or abortion.”

It’s not a panacea for children, either

In addition to grief and loss for birth parents, adoption has an impact on children as well. “Relinquishment is traumatic for adoptees, even for adoptees who had a good adoption experience,” Bagshaw said. Adoptee clients who come to her often deal with “lifelong issues of feeling abandoned,” as well as “a lifelong search for identity.”

And the question of whether and when a child is adopted at all is influenced by systemic racism. Research shows that Black children take longer to be adopted than white children, and dark-skinned Black children take longer than children with lighter skin, Howell said. Choosing adoption, then, is no guarantee that a child will soon find a permanent home.

There will likely always be a need for adoption, advocates say. They argue that what’s needed is not a blanket promotion of adoption over abortion but reforms to make adoption itself more just. That would include a requirement that adoptees be able to access their original birth certificate and information about family history for medical and other purposes. “All information about an adoptee’s identity should always be available,” Bagshaw says. “This is a human rights issue.” (Safe haven laws, which allow people to relinquish a baby anonymously, can make it harder for adoptees to access this information.)

Beyond that, what’s needed is “transparency about how a person gets in a situation where they’re deciding adoption,” Bagshaw said. “Why are we not assisting that person to keep their baby if they can and want to?”

These are complicated questions that will require a hard look at America’s social safety net and the politics and economics of adoption. But Dobbs v. Jackson isn’t about any of those things. It’s about abortion, and whether a state has the right to ban it prior to viability, usually dated at about 24 weeks.

According to Vox’s Ian Millhiser, all signs currently suggest that next year, when the Court hands down a decision in Dobbs, it will rule that a state does have that right, at least in certain circumstances. Shortly thereafter, it’s likely that states across the South and Midwest, armed with the decision, will so heavily restrict abortion access that their residents will no longer be able to get a legal abortion unless they have the money and time to travel out of state, perhaps thousands of miles, to a place where abortion is still allowed.

Many abortion opponents argue — and Barrett, with her questioning, has implied — that it won’t really matter because anyone who doesn’t want to have a child can simply give that child up.

To many reproductive justice advocates and people who study adoption, that argument is a red herring. It ignores, they say, a simple truth: that carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term irrevocably alters the course of a person’s life. Banning abortion will take some of the power to determine that course away from pregnant people and give it to the state, and the availability of adoption does nothing to change that.