Adoption: Exploitation or Reproductive Choice?
By Laurie Frisch
When trying to approach people with my concerns about adoption and its effects on adoptees and natural mothers, I have been stymied by the response. Churches, pro-lifers, feminists and others had difficulty comprehending why adoption surrender (really, surrendering all parental rights is not an “adoption”) as obtained today in the United States might not be considered a woman’s choice.
When speaking with a pro-lifer about why someone who apparently cared so much about a child before birth suddenly seemed not to care about the child’s well-being after the child was born, he immediately replied “It’s a woman’s choice.” Granted that’s an ironic use of language from a pro-lifer. But, he seemed quite serious. He thought he was protecting women, even while he was pointing them in the direction of services that would counsel a woman by telling her essentially that adoption is no big deal and “Your child will thank you for it”, services that would not provide complete, honest information such as a parent would expect when making a life-changing decision regarding their child’s well-being.
Before you feminists lambaste me for lingering with pro-lifers, I have to say it is a feminist I turned to next on this issue, attempting to get some protections put into place for naive mothers and their children. The response? “It’s a woman’s choice.” Just like the pro-lifers, many feminists truly believe that they are protecting women by making this “choice” available.
It’s commonly believed that a woman faced with an unplanned pregnancy has three choices: Get an abortion, surrender her child for adoption, or keep her child. This availability of choices is supposed to provide a woman with reproductive protections. A woman should not be forced or coerced into any one of these or else it is no longer a choice.
It is the second of these choices that I wish to address: The idea that a mother who signs a surrender document freely chooses to surrender her child for adoption.
Before I get started, I’d like to compare the surrender/adoption choice to an abortion choice. Many women would prefer not to have extensive delays prior to an abortion – it’s medically safer to have an abortion earlier for one thing. So, if she chooses abortion, it’s to her advantage to get the abortion as soon as possible. If she does, she may have minimal effects, and experience relief afterwards.
Having spent the last year and a half doing research on the effects of adoption on the women who surrendered their parental rights and supposedly made a free choice to do so, I can say authoritatively that surrender choice is not like abortion “choice” where less information may be desirable and a woman may have minimal effects afterwards. There may be a few instances where it’s true, but I have yet to run into any mother who has given birth and was anything like “relieved” to have lost her child. If she truly hadn’t wanted her child, she would have gotten an abortion. Even if she wanted an abortion initially and could not obtain it for some reason, by the time her child is born, she is as bonded to her child as any mother. It’s nearly always true that she cares about her child and what was best for her/him more than she cares about her own well-being.
The rates of mothers surrendering parental rights have declined since the 1970s due to the decreased stigma associated with single motherhood. With this decline, the adoption industry has doubled it’s efforts to obtain babies, especially healthy white infants from intelligent, educated mothers. The use of shaming as a means to obtain babies has diminished, leading to a false sense that women’s rights are being upheld. However mothers are still being lied to about the effects of separation and legal risks.
After hearing her whole life that “everyone benefits” from adoption, a mother is primed to think her child may be better off with someone else.
In addition to lies and information hiding, the intense solicitation to obtain babies now includes offers to pay “expenses” far beyond pregnancy-related costs. These “expenses” include scholarships, car payments, entertainment, house maintenance, credit card payments, personal loans. How does this compare to soliciting to buy children from families off the streets in Cambodia? THAT is considered criminal!
Yet, in the United States, many people seem to view the promotion of baby abandonment for profit as acceptable. I can’t help but think a child who discovers she/he was sold by her mother or by both parents, will NOT come back later and say “Thanks for considering adoption.”
“Thanks for considering adoption.” is a slogan being promoted in the Infant Adoption Awareness Training funded by the United States government. On October 17, 2000 the U.S. Congress, under Public Law 103-310, amended the Public Health Services Act to authorize specific activities pertaining to Infant Adoption Awareness (title XII, Subtitle A). The legislation requires the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to award grants to adoption organizations to develop and implement programs to train the designated staff of eligible health centers in providing adoption information and referral to pregnant women “on an equal basis with all other courses of action”.
This training and colorful feel-good brochures are being provided to those involved in health care. As short as the training is, it can hardly provide much understanding of the complex life-long issues surrounding the loss of a child to adoption. There is no requirement that this training inform trainees of the life-long emotional consequences of surrender/adoption to mother, child or other family members.
While other mothers are counseled carefully about the importance of a mother spending time with and breast feeding her infant on the child’s well-being, a pregnant mother vulnerable to “giving up her baby” is still being led to believe her child will be better off without his mother. She is called a “birthmother”, giving the impression it is possible to be an ex-mother, to just forget your child and go on with life.
While other single mothers are caring for two or three children and frequently receiving support from their fathers, naïve mothers are led to believe the entire burden of support should be theirs. The parents of these mothers such as these are led to believe their daughter will be better off without her child as well, with the effect of cutting off yet another important source of support for her.
There are so many websites and personal advertisements that cover only advantages of surrendering all parental rights (which they call an “adoption”). Are there really disadvantages for a mother who surrenders her child?
Evelyn Robinson identifies the following effects on mothers in her presentation “Adoption and Loss – The Hidden Grief”:
“[mothers who have lost children through adoption] experience the same outcomes as other people whose grief is disenfranchised and suppressed. They become depressed, they have low self-esteem, they develop emotional disturbances and sometimes physical illnesses. Sometimes they withdraw from society or succumb to substance abuse. Sometimes they have difficulty forming healthy relationships. Their grieving often becomes chronic..”
In “A Keynote Address: Known Consequences of Separating Mother and Child at Birth and Implications for Further Study” Wendy Jacobs, B.Sc., B.A. provides an overview of the effects of separation/adoption that have been known since 1941. Ms. Jacobs states that one reason mothers experience problems following surrender is the trauma of separation from their babies:
” Back in 1941 Florence Clothier wrote about the traumatic psychological effects on the mother of separation from her baby. She said this trauma is inevitable. “
In “Adoption and Loss – The Hidden Grief”, Ms. Robinson wrote:
” Many parents and children who have been separated by adoption are still suffering because they have endured a grievous loss in their lives which has not been acknowledged. Often they also feel guilty and inadequate because they have not resolved their grief. The central issue in dealing with disenfranchised grief is to validate the loss. Family members who have been separated by adoption need their loss to be validated and their grief to be acknowledged.”
The problems are intensified by the secrecy in adoption. To combat the intensification of these ill effects, experts have promoted open adoption, to allow the adoptee to stay in touch with her/his heritage and natural family and allow a mother some contact with her child. Unfortunately, open adoption is now being used as a “carrot” to lure in mothers who would otherwise have kept their child. People who are seeking a child frequently pretend to be interested in open adoption, fully intending to close the adoption as soon as possible. Even when the adoption stays open, the mothers (and other children if they have them) are at the mercy of the adopters as to what kind and how frequent the contact will be.
While open adoption may leave the natural mother feeling used and anguished, other family members expecting continuing contact with their grandchild, niece, nephew or sibling are affected as well.
Many of those who have been “touched” by adoption loss compare adoption to a veneral disease. A woman who lost her granddaughter to adoption put it this way:
“Adoption: the gift that keeps right on giving. Giving Depression, giving misery, giving a complete wreckage of people’s lives, giving an endless torment.”
One mother whom I’ll call Sylvia compared the emotional impact of the loss of her child to adoption to having her child torn out of her arms by enemy soldiers.
“At first, I believed it was my fault. I though it really must be best for my child like I was told. I thought I deserved this harshest of punishments for having a child while still in school, unmarried and unable to support it. Over time, I recognized that the ‘soldiers’ were adoption vultures, which had been hovering, looking for me or any other pregnant woman to exploit.”
Whether Sylvia and other mothers consider themselves responsible for the loss of their child or view it as due to the influence exerted by the adoption “vultures” makes little difference. It’s still incredibly traumatic for a mother to lose her child and have it raised by someone else.
Even if she has been persuaded that it is the best thing for her child, it will still be the most traumatic event of her life and the loss will continue for her throughout her life. If she can stand to face it at all, she will have to look to events like the massacre of an entire group of people in Rwanda or the German concentration camps and extermination program to find something that compares to the horror of it for her. Like the Jews who encounter people who deny the concentration camps that took their loved ones even existed, she will have to face those who deny her motherhood exists – and so deny her the opportunity to experience her very real grief as a mother.
She learns she must repress her grief and never speak of her child. Her very existence, as a mother, is completely unacceptable to society – she might make the adopters feel bad! Anyway, wasn’t this her choice? It’s her own fault.
In The Adoption Reunion Survival Guide, Julie Jarrell Bailey & Lynn N. Giddens, M.A. quote studies that suggest as many as 40-60% of mothers suffer from unexplained secondary infertility (or else cannot bear the thought of having another child) following the loss of a child to adoption.
Of those that do have another child, they find that no other child will ever replace their lost child. They tend to be overprotective of subsequent children, fearing that they too will somehow be taken.
The importance of the mother-child bond and other family bonds is well known to psychologists. Mother-child bonding begins before birth and it cannot be broken. This bond is not the same as the attachment that may develop between an adoptee and the people who have adopted him/her.
In her book Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child (1993), Nancy Verrier wrote of her adopted daughter:
“I discovered that it was easier for us to give her love than it was for her to accept it.”
Those women (and families) who have had a child illegally taken from them and who fight to get their child back face strong opposition from a public that believes the child has “bonded” to the people with whom he/she is currently living. In Journey of the Adopted Self, Betty Jean Lifton, wrote:
“Now therapists are beginning to understand that there are primal strivings behind the adoptee’s need to reconnect in some way with the [natural] family. …. The Argentine psychiatrists were amazed at how easily some of the “disappeared” children, who have been adopted by the military families responsible for murdering their mothers in the late 1970s, had been able to adjust when returned to their original families years later.”
The need for real information in surrender/adoption choice is not just a desire, but a right that women must have. Essentially, in a surrender/adoption situation, a woman should be counseled with the same respect she would be given as a parent considering major surgery for her child. She should required by law to be presented clear, honest information about the long-term effects of separation/adoption on mothers and adoptees. A woman should never be subjected to manipulative lies (Adoption is in a child’s best interests, people with material possessions will love a child better than his/her own parents, “loving” option, etc. ) and mass-produced highly fictional “Dear Birthmother” letters which are actually false advertising and nothing more.
Consider that an honest advertisement from many potential adopters might read something like this:
Our own baby is our dream. But we can’t have one so yours might be our last hope. My wife is willing to settle for the idea and I am going along with it. We can’t understand why anyone would part with their baby and we will never respect you for it. We want only a perfectly healthy white infant and she/he better love us and be grateful after all we’ve been through! Contact our lawyer at xxx-xxx-xxxx.
Can you imagine the uproar if those desiring fetal tissue for research or medicine solicited women with ads similar to those put out by adoption lawyers and agencies?
It’s our dream to complete our research on xxxx and we need fetal tissue to do it! We provide scholarships, pay expenses, etc. You’ll aid people with x, y and z diseases and give them life!
Women should not have to be vulnerable to solicitation for their child. To protect women (and children), there should be no money exchanged by adopters for a child ever, not even to pay for associated counseling services, medical bills or expenses.
There is much evidence that a mother’s (and father’s) consent to surrender parental rights as it is being obtained in the United States is not a choice.
- To be a choice, the parents must be informed by having all the effects of separation on adoptees and their natural families plainly spelled out and understood. Honest language that is not discriminatory against natural families must be used.
- To be a choice, parents should understand that a person’s circumstances (financial, marital state, etc) change over time. When a father gets laid off from work, a family should not immediately be thinking of ridding itself of the “burden” of their “adoptable” children and likewise a mother whose resources are slim today should not immediately think it is wrong to obtain help to make it past this temporary situation.
- To be a choice, all resources available should be clearly understood. This includes financial support from the father, government aid, parenting classes, young parents groups, potential sources of low-cost but high quality baby items (garage sales, Salvation Army, etc.). When a mother has chosen to give birth to a child conceived in rape, she should be taken seriously and helped with suggestions when she asks how to answer questions (posed by strangers, friends and the child) about her child’s father.
- To be a choice, family members should never be advised to withhold offers of support if they wish to help. No one should ever be told that it benefits a child to be abandoned by his/her own parents in favor of an “adoption plan”, just because the child’s parents are not married. These things should be illegal.
- To be a choice, there should be no pressure or mention of any kind of the people who are clamoring to adopt. In fact, the choice should be made with the idea in mind that the child may not be cared for at all adequately if surrendered for adoption because there is no guarantee of any kind that it will. Most adopters of infants “pay” for a healthy child that will love them. They will return “the merchandise” if they are not entirely satisfied (and possibly sue the agency for wrongful adoption) and the child could find himself/herself abandoned to “the system”.This is even true in an “open” adoption. Mothers want their child to have some contact with their natural families and know their origins. They frequently “choose” open adoption over keeping their child, when their resources are (to the best of their knowledge) limited. They believe they will minimize the trauma for their child. Naively, they trust the friendly potential adopters and their verbal promises. But, an “open” adoption may become closed at any time without consent of the natural parents and all contact cut off.
- To be a choice, the resources available to parents to keep their child must be known and readily (not begrudgingly) available.
- To be a choice, fathers should be required by law to provide financial support and such support readily obtainable. The United States government should stop blaming and penalizing women who are caring for their children as if they were the ones not taking responsibility. Mothers should not be pushed out into full-time jobs when they have small children to care for. Training and other resources that will help low income women to find higher paying employment should be provided. When children who are living with one parent find that parent absent because he/she must work full-time or more, it’s the children who suffer from this and it’s not right.
Without these protections for women, it can hardly be fair to call the surrendering of parental rights a “choice”. Without these protections, it’s not a protection of a woman’s reproductive rights but an exploitation that ignores her rights. It’s not a protection of children’s best interests, but ignores those interests.
The primary reason for this exploitation is to provide people with the dream of having a child “of their own”. I call this a dream because the reality is that the child is not “their own” even though they may “own” it legally. The lack of acknowledgement of their natural family as a part of their reality is troublesome to adoptees. For adoptees who experience this possessiveness, this desire on the part of adopters to “own” them, it is a problem into adulthood.
Many of you may be learning about adoption loss for the first time today. One of the inherent characteristics of oppression is that the victim’s voices are silenced.
Social workers and others have typically spoken for natural mothers and adoptees. Websites with adoption forums (which give the appearance of being open to all viewpoints) frequently delete unwanted posts, just as they “deleted” the unwanted mothers. When they post adoption stories, only happy, grateful stories will ever be posted. They will never post a story from an adoptee who describes her surrender/adoption (or foster care for those whose adoptions were terminated) as unsatisfactory and questions why her mother was not helped to keep her.
In addition, a language which is negative and discriminatory against the natural family has been generated by the adoption industry. If you can control language you can control people’s thoughts.
According to the adoption industry, phrases like “own child” must never be used, but must be replaced by “biological child”, giving the impression that a mother is simply an egg donor. The phrase “give up” is also on the list of words, evidently too many natural mothers realized that they did simply “give up” hope and “give in” to the pressure and lies. The word “adoption” itself is taboo and has been replaced by “placement” to give the impression that natural mothers have control. No mention is made of the extra money paid by adopters to get their advertisement in front of some naïve pregnant woman ahead of others’ ads. The term “FOB” (father of the baby) is used on the Gladney Center website to refer to a child’s father. Generalizing and calling fathers FOBs is de-humanizing language similar to but even worse than “birthfather” because it is so close to S.O.B. While some fathers may shirk their responsibilities (and thus merit name-calling) a great many might be pleased and proud to assist mothers in nurturing and taking responsibility for their children if fathers were encouraged (and required) to do so, rather than being shunted off to the side or dispensed with as quickly as possible in the interest of finalizing an adoption.
Natural mothers are quick to point out other misleading phrases. Joss Shawyer, in her column Voices From Exile, wrote about how natural families are “touched by” adoption in her article entitled “Touched By Adoption, With a Blowtorch”.
Mothers who are traumatized, shamed and isolated (and constrained in their thoughts by language carefully chosen by the adoption industry) frequently take decades to face reality. It is initially incredibly painful for a mother to acknowledge that she has been used as baby-making machine to provide a baby for someone else. Once the baby is in possession of adopters the mother becomes a cast-off byproduct of the process.
Many mothers and adoptees are speaking out, via their own personal websites or through groups such as Exiled Mothers and Origins America, Origins Australia, Origins Canada, as well as Adoption Considerations, AdoptionCrossroads.org, AbolishAdoption, Adoption:Legalized Lies and many more. However for the mother who finds the information she needs a day too late, the presence of these websites is no consolation.
To summarize, adoption choice is commonly perceived as a protection for women who truly do not want their babies – an option to abortion. In reality, adoption “choice” as it is being implemented in the United States nearly always ensnares mothers who truly do want their babies and would be wonderful mothers. Most of these women will be married within a few years after their child is born, often to their child’s father.
A pregnant woman who intends to give birth must be viewed as a parent and deserves respect as a parent. She is a parent, not “not-a-parent”. She deserves real information and kindly assistance to help her through a temporary situation.
The “loving” option rhetoric designed to separate babies from their parents should be illegal as should any solicitation for babies or children. Whether the payment offered is money, a television, potential scholarships, or just “feeling good about doing the right thing” the truth is, these people soliciting for babies and children are vultures working to tear children away from the mothers who otherwise would have kept and nurtured them.
No one should ever be allowed to pay money for a child, not even to pay for associated counseling services, medical bills or expenses. No one should ever be paid or provided an incentive for adopting. No one and no organization should be provided a bonus or incentive to get a child adopted rather than returning that child to her/his family.
Let’s stop the exploitation of women. Let’s make surrendering parental rights a real choice, by first calling it what it truly is (surrendering all parental rights, not an “adoption”), by eliminating the money in adoption, by providing real help and real information for mothers, and by removing all pressures on women to surrender their parental rights including the false advertising and solicitation of mothers for their babies.
Copyright © 2003 Laurie A. Frisch
Bailey, J.J. & Giddens,.L.N., M.A.(2001) The Adoption Reunion Survival Guide. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Finnegan, J.P. (Feb 18, 2004), “Help Choose Life Adoption Aid Specialty Plates”; The Illinois Leader [World Wide Web] Available: here.
Jacobs, W. B.Sc., B.A. (2002) “A Keynote Address: Known Consequences of Separating Mother and Child at Birth and Implications for Further Study” [World Wide Web]
Jones, M.B. (1993). Birthmothers: Women who have relinquished babies for adoption tell their stories. Chicago, IL.: Chicago Review Press.
Lifton, B.J. (1994) Journey of the Adopted Self: A Quest for Wholeness. New York: BasicBooks.
Robinson, E.(2001) “Adoption and Loss – The Hidden Grief” (Presented in New Zealand, USA, Canada, England, Ireland, and Scotland) [World Wide Web]
Shawyer, J. (2004) “Touched By Adoption With a Blowtorch” [World Wide Web] from her column “Voices From Exile”.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services , Administration for Children and Families. (no date given) “Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program Guidelines.”
Verrier, N. (1993). The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child. Baltimore, MD: Gateway Press.