WASHINGTON D.C., USA - SEPTEMBER 27, 2020: A Protestor carries a sign that says "Our Vote, Our Voice, Our Choice," at a protest against the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The False Choice: Adoptee Voices in the Fight for Reproductive Freedom 

By Michele Merritt

As legal scholars have predicted since the current composition of the United States Supreme Court became apparent, abortion restrictions are increasing; if Roe v. Wade is overturned with the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision this coming June, over half of the states in the country will likely ban abortion entirely

During the Dobbs oral arguments, Justice Amy Coney Barrett suggested that adoption is a viable alternative to abortion. Her defense of overturning Roe, in other words, amounted to a belief that it’s not a violation of women’s rights to increasingly restrict access to abortion because adoption is always an option. 

But adoption is not a viable alternative to abortion. This is why several adoptees and I founded Adoptees for Choice, a coalition of adoptees speaking into the reproductive rights debate and rejecting the appropriation of our lived experiences without our consent. 

Coney Barrett’s claim fallaciously equates two distinct issues, and, even when the false equivalence is amended to correctly reflect Barrett’s views – that adoption is an alternative to parenting – the assumption that it is a viable alternative is far from convincing.

When a person faces an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy, the options are: 

     A. have an abortion, or  

     B. carry the pregnancy to term. 

The supposed choice between A and B arguably doesn’t even count as a choice in many cases. Increasingly restrictive abortion laws, like those passed in Texas, make it nearly impossible for socioeconomically disadvantaged persons to travel, cross state lines, and access abortion care. Regardless of how constrained a choice between A and B might be, the fact remains that adoption is not a magical third alternative. Relinquishing a child for adoption is an alternative to parenting that child, not to carrying a pregnancy to term. 

Since fetuses cannot be adopted, adoption is only an option once there is a living child. When a person carries a pregnancy to term – whether this was freely chosen or not – once the baby is born, the two options now become:  

     C. Parent the child, or 

     D. Relinquish the child to be adopted.

The question then is, to what extent is D a viable alternative to C? 

Admittedly, there are cases where biological parents are not equipped to parent. Many of these instances, however, stem from temporary problems with straightforward solutions. Gretchen Sisson has shown that those considering abortion rarely also consider relinquishing, and for those who do relinquish, financial hardship is one of the most common reasons cited. Thus, it stands to reason that many adoptions would not happen if there were a social safety net empowering new parents. 

Further, relinquishing a child has been shown to have deleterious effects on the parents who do so, causing lifelong feelings of regret, depression, and even PTSD

Most importantly, when adult adoptees, the supposed benefactors of adoption and those often seen as “saved from abortion” are evaluated for their outcomes, we find that D is not win-win as the dominant cultural narrative surrounding adoption asserts.

Adoptees are overrepresented in mental health care treatment settings generally. 

Compared to non-adopted persons, adoptees are: 

In my recently published paper, I outline several hypotheses regarding potential explanations for the correlation between being relinquished and these negative outcomes. A compelling suggestion regarding infant adoption is that trauma occurring in the first two years of life – often referred to as “preverbal trauma”– can cause the autonomic nervous system to become wired for protection, rather than connection. In turn, the child develops negative schemas for coping with the pervasive sense of danger. Negative schema development as a result of preverbal trauma often happens below the conscious radar, because there are no episodic memories tied to infancy. 

This lends scientific understanding to an idea many adoptees discuss, namely, that they are in a “fog” until they are prompted to examine adoption apart from its social construction as an unequivocal good. Research suggests that trauma can often be remembered in therapeutic settings that mirror the original traumatic event, and hence, it stands to reason that adoptees might come out of the fog after giving birth, reuniting with their birth parents, or interacting with other adoptees. I talk about the latter phenomenon in another paper and how it can be both retraumatizing and healing to engage with other adoptees. Having trauma mirrored back through survivors of that same trauma can cause the body to remember. At the same time, meeting other adoptees and finally being heard, rather than perpetually silenced and misunderstood is validating and can forge a path to healing. 

One of the most common responses to adoptees speaking out about any of these issues surrounding adoption is the question, “Well, would you rather have been aborted?” This is gaslighting, misses the point of the original critiques, and presents a false choice between adoption and abortion, as highlighted above. 

But it is quite telling that many adoptees nevertheless respond affirmatively to this question. Particularly in light of statistics on adoptees and suicide risks, it is clear that instead of pushing adoption as a pseudo-remedy to what anti-choice proponents frame as a “crisis” of a legitimate health care choice, we should focus on rectifying all the harms associated with being adopted. 

In closing, it is simply not the case that adoption is a viable alternative to reproductive freedom, and it is harmful to adoptees and birth families to push this illogical idea. Instead, we need to listen to those most affected by adoption – the ones who know what it is like to live as the product of a for-profit industry that capitalizes on vulnerable parents and anti-choice legislation. Adoptees are not pawns to be used in political chess matches, nor are we poster children for the supposed successes of anti-choice legislation. 

Michele Merritt is an associate professor of philosophy at Arkansas State University, co-founder of Adoptees for Choice, and runs the platform “The Silenced Adoptee.” She is a domestic adoptee from a closed adoption.

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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