Washington, DC, USA, May 5, 2022: people protest the leaked draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion

Adoption, Family Separation & Preservation, and Reproductive Justice

By Gretchen Sisson

When a draft of the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health was leaked last week, its content was a jarring shock for many. Over a few days, the surprise of the leak and the appall at the decision narrowed into specifics, and more people noticed what might have been missed in first reading: in a footnote, a passing citation from a fourteen-year-old report from the Centers for Disease Control that read, “the domestic supply of infants relinquished at birth… had become virtually nonexistent.” 

In coverage, this note sparked rage anew at the connection between abortion bans and increasing the supply of adoptable infants being made overt. Yet, much like those of us who study abortion in this country were not surprised by the draft of the decision, those of us who study adoption were even less surprised by this note. In the Dobbs oral arguments, Justice Amy Coney Barrett told us this was about adoption – and pre-Roe history has shown us how closely adoption and abortion are linked rhetorically, if not actually in people’s pregnancy decision-making. Yes, the Dobbs decision will also be about constraining people’s choices and controlling their lives and futures to conform to fundamentally regressive ideas about family, gender, and race. But then again: most often, so is adoption.

During the oral arguments for Dobbs, Justice Coney Barrett pondered that the existence of “safe-haven” laws averted the need for legal abortion, as the ability to legally abandon an infant seemed, to her, to remove the “obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy.” In the draft decision, Justice Samuel Alito continued this line of reasoning, remarking that “a woman who put her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.” 

This reflects a critical and essential misunderstanding of how pregnancy decisions are made, why people need abortions, how adoption is practiced in this country, what research has shown to be best for adopted people and their families, and to what extent women are interested in giving away their children. Indeed, this latter idea – that relinquishment is easily accomplished, and an intuitive alternative – seems legally sound for Supreme Court justices, but otherwise seems so laughable that it was on this week’s Saturday Night Live. “What is more traumatic,” Kate McKinnon as Justice Coney Barrett asked,  “safely ending an early pregnancy or giving full birth to a healthy baby you can never see again?”

What will adoption in the post-Roe era look like? Whereas in past generations, the powerlessness that led to coerced adoptions is probably best attributed to a social control related to gender, sexual propriety, and middle class conformity, today that powerlessness seems rooted in financial deprivation. What endures, however, is the powerlessness.

Pre-Roe, adoptions were deeply coercive, entirely secretive, and deeply traumatic – all of which led to the period of adoption history from post-World War II to the Roe decision being dubbed the “baby scoop era.” Historically, “baby scoop” mothers were generally younger white women in nonmarital pregnancies, for whom adoption relinquishment was a way of deferring motherhood until a more “appropriate” stage of life. The overwhelming whiteness of private relinquishment endured into the 1990s, when researchers noted that relinquishment among women of color was virtually zero. (Again, this is for private adoption, and does not reflect state-mandated separation through the child welfare system or other means, which disproportionately impacts Black and Native families by huge margins.) 

This racial homogeneity in private adoption does not appear to be as universally true today. My analysis examining demographic data from over 8,000 private adoptions found that, while the majority of mothers privately relinquishing infants are still white, about 45% relinquishing mothers are women of color. Adoption relinquishment is also no longer entirely about delaying parenting: the majority of relinquishing mothers have had previous children. Instead, what seems to be the primary driving force between adoption is poverty: 64% of relinquishing mothers reported personal income of less than $5,000 per year. Most were unemployed. Nearly 90% were on public health insurance. Data from one agency found that 28% of mothers experienced “chronic poverty,” and that 20% were homeless. 

In some ways, adoption post-Roe might be eerily similar to what it was pre-Roe. In the Turnaway Study – which examined the impact of being denied wanted abortions on women’s lives for five years – we found that, among those denied access to abortion, the relinquishment rate was 9%. This might seem quite low, given that it means the overwhelming majority are parenting. However, when compared to the overall estimated 0.9% proportion of American women who will ever relinquish, or the estimated 0.5% rate of infant adoption of all American births in any given year, 9% is a staggering increase. It also mirrors exactly the pre-Roe rate: prior to abortion’s legality, 9% of nonmarital births led to infant adoption. With regard to at least one thing, then, the Supreme Court Justices are not wrong: the denial of abortion will likely lead to an increase in adoptions.

Yet, none of this is to suggest that many women are choosing between abortion and adoption. In my research, I found that most relinquishing mothers very much wanted to parent, but lacked the financial resources and family or partner support necessary to make that feel feasible. For these women, adoption was heartbreaking, often enduringly traumatic, and not as different from their baby scoop era counterparts as we might like to believe. 

Neither are these adoption decisions free from manipulation or coercion. I have heard stories of abusive boyfriends and parents, well-meaning but determined prospective adoptive parents, and unethical attorneys and agencies. There are also intensive marketing tactics: adoption providers that geofence abortion clinics; unlicensed adoption faciliators that aggressively buy Google ads; advertising agencies that charge thousands of dollars for prospective adoptive parents to market themselves to pregnant people. Given the stated intention of the National Republican Senatorial Committee last week to “encourage adoption” in light of the leaked draft decision, we can presume these efforts might intensify.

Adoption is a reflection of our country’s many and increasing failures to allow people control over their own reproductive choices and bodies, to support families at the most basic level, and to allow for compassion, dignity, and connection – rather than promoting separation – when imagining what might truly be best for children and their families of origin.

In this symposium, we gather contributors that reflect not only an array of scholarly disciplines, but a range of lived experiences related to adoption, including adopted people, birth/first parents, and adoptive parents. Any consideration of adoption that strives for comprehensiveness requires not only historians, social scientists, and legal scholars, but practitioners, advocates, and storytellers. Contributors (who wrote their pieces before the leak of the decision) are not just responding to Justice Coney Barrett’s comments on parental relinquishment in the Dobbs oral arguments, but considering the plagued history of forced pregnancy and coerced adoption, the inherent misunderstandings of safe haven laws, the role of the family policing system in public relinquishment and separation, the current practice of adoption in the United States, and the ways in which the Court’s understanding of adoption will impact not just reproductive rights, but issues as seemingly tangential as Indian tribal sovereignty, what an adoptee rights agenda might encompass, and what adoption looks like when considered from a reproductive justice perspective. For many readers, this might be the first critical consideration of adoption that they have considered in regard to myriad other issues of legal rights and justice. As contributors, we hope it is the first of many such considerations.

Gretchen Sisson is a research sociologist at Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of the forthcoming book Relinquished: The American Mothers Behind Infant Adoption, from St. Martin’s Press in January 2024.

The Petrie-Flom Center Staff

The Petrie-Flom Center staff often posts updates, announcements, and guests posts on behalf of others.

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