By Kimberly McKee
Adoption is a reproductive justice issue. Pretending otherwise ignores how adoption is used as a red herring in anti-abortion arguments. A recent invocation of this faulty logic occurred in Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s questions during the November 2021 oral arguments in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Coney Barrett’s statements implied that the option to relinquish infants vis-à-vis adoption rendered abortion availability unnecessary. This line of thinking is one with which I am familiar, as both a Korean international, transracial adoptee, and a critical adoption studies scholar.
People like Justice Coney Barrett argue that I should be grateful for not having been aborted. Not only that, but they dismiss critiques of adoption forwarded by adoptees, including those of us who are critical adoption studies scholars, as emanating from a presumably deficient relationship with our adoptive parents. It’s believed that adoptees like me should be happy for our upbringings, because adoption saved us from a far worse fate — being raised by our birth families. The realities that adoption systems are corrupt, that adoption is dependent on dissolving one set of family ties in favor of another, and that adoption is traumatic for birth mothers are overlooked to promulgate narratives of happy and deserving adoptive families. Adoption is a “gift,” after all. These are the undertones that coursed through Justice Coney Barrett’s statements, alongside a belief that safe haven laws provide an equitable, viable alternative to abortion.
Positioning adoption as a replacement to abortion elides pregnant and parenting people’s reproductive autonomy and their ability to be agents over their own reproductive destinies. While the carceral state seeks to curtail the reproductive futures of Black and brown families through foster care and the criminalization of being poor, the supports for white, middle- to upper-middle class families are strengthened. These inequities about whose parenting rights are upheld and preserved is unsurprising, especially when considering domestic and international adoption. Such rhetoric is used by “child rescue” programs that continue to sever and disrupt the kinship ties of families of color and Indigenous families as part of transracial domestic and international adoptions.
It’s important to recognize how absurd Justice Coney Barrett’s argument sounds. Adoption and abortion are not interchangeable. To assume so ignores the structural forces — often tied to economic precarity — that render adoption as constrained choice, sometimes rooted in coercion and other times fully without the consent of the birth parents. The notion of the heroic and selfless birth mother erases the truths of pregnancy, and how carrying a child to term and relinquishing that child with or without consent should be seen as potentially trauma-inducing. To pretend otherwise is to be complicit with manufactured adoption narratives that present adoption as a fairytale, where children of color and Indigenous children are saved by white families in suburbia. This narrative overlooks the racism, colonialism, and microaggressions adoptees of color and Indigenous adoptees encounter in their adoptive families and local communities.
When adoption is invoked as an anti-abortion talking point, it ignores the racialized experiences of children of color and Indigenous children in domestic adoption and fostering practices. This also erases what it means when society deems those children as valuable while their natal parents are deemed disposable. This discourse fails to understand that fetishized infants grow up, and the adorable adoptee of color or Indigenous adoptee enters adulthood with adoptive parents whose colorblindness and reliance on liberal multiculturalism fail to prepare their child for what it means to navigate a white supremacist world, including interactions with police and anti-Asian racism.
Adoptees’ lived experiences should inform adoption policy and practice as common themes emerge from their reflections on questions of race, belonging, and family. Centering adoptees as experts was at the core of the 2014 Twitter hashtag movement #FlipTheScript, which was started by Korean adoptee Rosita González at Lost Daughters, who took up the call to “flip the script” issued by Amanda Transue-Woolston, the Declassified Adoptee. The aim was to center adoptees’ voices and perspectives, and the rhetorical strategy of #FlipTheScript underscored what it means to listen, amplify, and call attention to adoptees as experts on the adoption experience.
There’s little support given to adoptees who disclose truths of hardship and abuse experienced within their adoptive families. They are pathologized, and their experiences are individualized. Nonetheless, Megan Twohey’s investigative report, “The Child Exchange,” makes visible the violent and unscrupulous practices of rehoming adopted children. Calls for retroactive citizenship for those international adoptees whose parents or guardians failed to naturalize them as children reveal the incongruities in adoption and immigration laws that allowed for thousands of children to be vulnerable to deportation in adulthood. The deportation of adoptees also exposes the ways that disrupted international adoptions render those children vulnerable. “Forever families” are celebrated when infants and toddlers arrive in the United States, or when infants and children are adopted domestically through private or public agencies. And yet these families should come with an asterisk, as not all adoptive families are forever. Nor are they all safe.
When discussions of adoption are attentive to adoptee voices and move beyond tokenistic inclusion to meaningful dialogue, we can shift the conversations around what it means to support both family preservation and adoptees and adoptive families. It requires recognizing the ways racial hierarchies persist in adoption, with Black children costing less to adopt domestically than white children, and how racial bias informs the countries adoptive parents choose to adopt from internationally. This means raising questions about how white privilege masks abuse within adoptive families and not marginalizing those adoptees who disclose trauma within adoption.
To #FlipTheScript means to challenge staid adoption narratives. It necessitates listening with intention to adoptees’ truths, no matter how uncomfortable. It requires attending to adoptees’ of color and Indigenous adoptees’ experiences with racism by family members and those in their community. Disrupting the narratives promulgated concerning the happiness of adoption demonstrates adoption’s limitations. The act of adoption does not end upon adoption finalization. Adoption reverberates throughout an adoptee’s life in ways that run parallel to how relinquishing a child affects birth parents, particularly birth mothers. A reproductive justice understanding recognizes that while adoptive parents may find adoption provides happiness to them (and them alone), adoption is rife with contradictions, and it is thus wrong to assumptively link gratitude and happiness to the practice.
Kimberly McKee is an associate professor in integrative, religious, and intercultural studies at Grand Valley State University. She is the author of Disrupting Kinship: Transnational Politics of Korean Adoption in the United States (University of Illinois Press, 2019) and co-editor of Degrees of Difference: Reflections of Women of Color on Graduate School (University of Illinois Press, 2020). McKee serves as a co-chair of the executive committee for the Alliance of the Study of Adoption and Culture.