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  • Contrary to preconceived notions about the adoption process, birth moms can have an extraordinary amount of authority and agency throughout the adoption process. Tweet This
  • With so many media platforms available today, there are countless ways to let the positive stories of adoption counter the prevailing negative narratives.  Tweet This

In her May 2019 Atlantic article, “Why So Many Women Choose Abortion Over Adoption,” Olga Khazan paints a bleak picture of social attitudes towards adoption. The piece is a thorough and helpful overview of the recent data and thinking surrounding adoption among pregnant women, and her main finding, put plainly, is that adoption today “is a remarkably unpopular course of action.”

Adoption as a pregnancy choice is certainly in decline. In 2014, she notes, only 18,000 children two or younger were placed with adoption agencies, down significantly from the 1970s. By staggering contrast, there were about one million abortions.

And it’s hardly for lack of demand by couples that yearn to adopt. Just last week at a black-tie dinner in New York, I met a man who said he and his wife were unable to have children and were seeking to adopt. I was stunned to learn that they have been waiting over two years for a baby. There are no reliable figures that quantify the number of couples waiting to adopt. Some estimate it to be in the millions. Other estimates say that for every baby placed in adoption, there are 36 couples waiting to adopt.

And yet, Khazan quotes University of California at San Francisco sociologist Gretchen Sisson as saying, “Women just generally aren’t interested in adoption as a reproductive choice. It’s an extremely rare pregnancy decision.”

One of the most common reasons women choose abortion over adoption is surprising: many women fear that placing their baby for adoption would result in more emotional pain than abortion. Women not ready for motherhood have an overwhelmingly “dim view of the adoption process,” she writes. “Guilt-inducing,” “traumatic,” “emotionally distressing,” and “morally unconscionable.” These are all ways adoption is described in the article from the perspective of pregnant women deciding how to proceed with their pregnancy.

In short, while the historical trend has been one of “reduced societal stigma for unwed mothers,” there seems to be a persistent and even growing societal stigma against adoption, at least among women faced with unintended pregnancies.

So what can be done to change the negative perception many people have of adoption? Here are four suggestions:

1. Educate women about the reality of modern adoption and the agency given to birth moms. 

Khazan quotes Chuck Johnson, the president of the National Council for Adoption, as saying the fault for “failing to educate pregnant women adequately about adoption” falls evenly on the shoulders of both pro-choicers and pro-lifers, and this failure is a large “part of the reason for adoption’s unpopularity.”

Contrary to preconceived notions about the adoption process, some of them due to nefarious anti-adoption campaigns on the part of those who profit from adoption alternatives, birth moms can have an extraordinary amount of authority and agency throughout the adoption process. They, by and large, call the shots, deciding everything from what kind of adoption process they want what agency they want to work with, and even what family they will eventually place their child with. Many birth moms are increasingly opting for open adoptions, in which the birth mom maintains some degree of contact with the adoptive family. As Parents.com recently put it, “Open adoption is the new norm.”

That adoption is a predatory process preying on vulnerable moms is a falsehood; rather birth moms are empowered with a range of choices and have the power to drive the process according to their preferences.

2. Resist the cult of kinship. I agree with Elizabeth Kirk, who wrote here that the soft stigma toward adoption can be found lurking behind many of today’s studies about the importance of biological connection. A distorted emphasis on kinship and biological tribalism, coupled with a focus on the struggles adopted children may face (as if they are worse than the alternative of not being alive at all) do not cultivate a pro-adoption culture. Those realities shouldn’t be ignored but be studied and discussed within the framework of how to help adoptive families overcome those obstacles.  

3. Tell positive adoption stories. My colleague Grazie Pozo Christie routinely uses her platform as a writer and speaker to tell her own adoption story. She not only writes about adopting a baby girl from China but also brings the topic up in speaking engagements. She even filmed a short video about adoption in which she told her story and plugged adoption as a positive blessing. I’ve noticed an uptick in adoption photo and video shoots on social media, and major media outlets are increasingly recognizing that people enjoy reading adoption stories. With so many media platforms available today, there are countless ways to let the positive stories of adoption counter the prevailing negative narratives. 

4. Be purposeful about adoption rhetoric. In a recent conversation with an adoptive father, I used the phrase “give the baby up for adoption.” His smile briefly disappeared. “Place the baby for adoption,” he swiftly corrected me. I was embarrassed, but it was a welcome correction and a reminder that even the most fervent adoption supporters among us can be sloppy in our word choices, which can cause pain to birth moms, adoptive parents, and children, as well as contribute to stigmas about adoption. To imply that a woman “gave her baby up” feeds directly into the negativity framing of the topic as described by the women profiled in Khazan’s piece. It implies they did something wrong—that adoption is something to feel guilty about—when in fact adoption is a courageous choice that will bless both the child and their future family. As Kirk wrote, “Our language can also help us avoid reinforcing the unspoken, negative narrative that children placed for adoption are ‘unwanted’ and ‘abandoned’ by their birthmothers.”  

Khazan’s piece is a wake-up call to those who want to cultivate a pro-adoption culture. The reality is that women facing difficult decisions in pregnancy overwhelmingly feel as though adoption is the most painful choice. For those women, the “soft stigma” against adoption is hardly soft, and the choice they face is often a false one. It is up to us to change that. 

Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.