woman with iv in her hand in hospital. Labor and delivery preparation. Intravenious therapy infusion. shallow depth of field. selective focus

A Birthmother Reflects: The Perpetuation of Adoption Myths

By Angie Swanson-Kyriaco

During opening remarks for Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization on December 1, 2021, Justice Amy Coney Barrett stated that the “obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy” and the “burden” of parenting are eliminated through adoption.

It is no surprise that a conservative, anti-abortion, adoptive parent would have an over-simplified opinion about adoption, expectant parents, and birth parents. In her remarks, Justice Coney Barrett demonstrated a common lack of understanding about the complexities of adoption, and a blithe unawareness about adoption ethics and the need for adoption reform.

As someone who worked for over a decade in the field of reproductive health and rights, and now as the executive director of one of the only nonprofit organizations in the country that exclusively serves first/birth mothers who have relinquished infants for adoption, I know both how detrimental the lack of access to abortion can be, and how significant the lifelong impact of an adoption can prove.

And, as a first/birthmother, I have a deep personal understanding of the significant trauma of placing my own child for adoption, and the lifelong grief and ambiguous loss that follows relinquishment. 

In 1997, while I was in an abusive relationship, severely depressed, struggling financially, and facing housing insecurity, I became pregnant. Due to a lack of access to health care, financial abuse, and abortion no longer being an option for me, I believed adoption would be in the best interest of my child. I internalized the plethora of patriarchal and misogynistic messages that were prevalent in the 1990s — especially those about unwed mothers. This compounded the belief that someone else was more fit and deserving to parent my child.

Most expectant mothers who are contemplating adoption are never fully prepared for the enormous impact placing a child for adoption will have on their life. They are often bombarded with manipulative messaging that they are making the “loving,” “brave,” and “selfless” choice to relinquish their child. It is difficult to imagine the depth of grief and loss of placing a child for adoption until one has experienced it. 

Many adoption professionals, agencies, and crisis pregnancy centers, use persuasive language that can cause an expectant parent to believe they determine the level of openness in adoption. It is understandable that a pregnant person would believe the information that the professionals are presenting to them – especially if that person is terrified about the possibility of relinquishing their child. They want to know they will still be a part of their child’s life. However, this language is deceptive and creates false expectations of who actually holds the power in determining how open the adoption will be and if the openness is sustainable. What these adoption facilitators fail to mention is that once the biological parent terminates their parental rights, in most states they no longer have any control over the frequency of contact, the amount of communication, and the levels of openness in the adoption. Expectant parents will negotiate with prospective adoptive parent(s) their openness arrangement, and may sign a post-adoption contract agreement. Some expectant parents sign these agreements being told, or otherwise believing, that they carry some legal weight. In some states, there is no legal enforceability to such agreements. In others, there is a theoretical degree of legal commitment, but, realistically, if adoptive parents do not honor the post-adoption contact agreement, there is little to no legal recourse for the first/birth parent. There are power differentials in adoption, and the adoptive parents hold most of it – including financial power. Most first/birth parents do not have the disposable income to hire a mediator or attorney if the adoptive parents do not adhere to the agreement. Whether or not the contract will be upheld is based on the courts, and whether or not they deem it in the best interest of the child to have contact with their birth parent. Seeking legal action can also put additional strain on an already tenuous relationship between the adoptive parents and first/birthmother, which rarely bodes well for ongoing contact.

When I was pregnant, the only knowledge I had about adoption was what I learned from movies and television. This was also a time when the Internet was not easily accessible to the masses. In 1997, I believed that it would be “too confusing” if my child were to have visits with me — their biological parent. The prospective adoptive parents eagerly agreed to my request for letters and photographs two times per year. 

California, where I lived and where my child’s adoption was finalized, allows a pregnant person to waive their right to their own legal representation. This means that the prospective adoptive parents and I shared an attorney, whom they had hired. Because of my own ignorance and sense of being overwhelmed with the process, I did not realize the attorney was not working in my best interests. Without my own advocate, I believed that we had negotiated an “open” adoption agreement. 

When I was three months postpartum, grieving and missing my baby, I asked the adoptive parents if I could have one visit with my child. The adoptive parents were quick to deny my request and promptly contacted the attorney. To my knowledge, the attorney made no attempt to mediate the situation. Instead, he admonished and shamed me for making such a request. The attorney reminded me that in our “open” adoption, there were to be no visits or communication other than the biannual photographs and letters. It would be years later before I learned that we in fact did not have an open adoption, but rather a semi-open adoption.  

In my work, I see a significant number of first/birth mothers who have had the conditions of their open adoption agreements drastically changed to alter the regularity of visits and communication. In some cases, the adoptive parents inform the first/birth mother they are closing the adoption entirely. One first/birth mother reported the adoptive parents blocking her on all social media platforms, changing their phone numbers, and moving with no forwarding address. Not only was the birth mother heartbroken, but she was also extremely anxious and distraught over the well-being of her child. Rightfully so, these first/birth mothers feel manipulated, defeated, and deceived. More often than not, there is no justice for them or their child who has lost contact with their family of origin, genetic mirror, and culture. When an adoptee is denied the ability to know their family of origin it creates an environment of shame and secrecy. It is far better for the adoptee’s sense of belonging and self-worth, and lessening feelings of abandonment, when they have unencumbered access to their biological family. 

Justice Coney Barrett’s remarks are dangerous to pregnant people. To insinuate that it is simple to relinquish a child for adoption diminishes the magnitude of the deep and profound loss for the first/birth mother and the adoptee. It is unreasonable and inhumane to force a person to carry a pregnancy to term with the expectation that they should give that infant to another. 

Angie Swanson-Kyriaco, MA is the Executive Director of MPower Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of first/birthmothers through supportive services, community-building, and advocacy.

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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