Adoption is one of the few issues on which Americans of all political stripes seem to agree. According to the most recent survey from the Dave Thomas Foundation, 86 percent of Americans have at least a somewhat favorable view of adoption, with 30 percent having a very favorable view. Nearly 2 in 5 adults say they have considered adoption, up from one-quarter in 2017. Of those, 82 percent considered adoption from the foster-care system, and 70 percent considered private infant adoption. But rather than marvel at the idea that folks in this country (uniquely in the world and in human history) seem willing to care for the vulnerable children of people not even related to them, children of all ages and of races other than their own, the progressive left is determined to tear it all down.

In her new book, Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood, Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at the University of California in San Francisco, argues that our views about adoption are not informed by “lived experience.” And once we listen to the stories of mothers who placed their children for adoption (not adoption as a result of child maltreatment through the foster-care system), we will rethink this positive view and see adoption for the exploitative practice that it is.

She notes that the “racial demographics of relinquishing mothers are changing rapidly, as transracial adoption becomes more common, as the private adoption systems are increasingly intertwined with family regulation systems”—that’s what progressives call child-welfare agencies—“that target Black families and women of color, and as poverty (which given the racial capitalism of this country, disproportionately shapes the lives of people of color) becomes the most common reason for relinquishment.”

In other words, women, and particularly black women, wouldn’t be placing their children for adoption if they had more financial resources and if the government wasn’t concerned about the way they’re treating their other children. Sisson argues that we should provide these mothers with a larger safety net in order to eliminate the need for adoption both through private and foster-care systems.

Sisson begins her history of adoption in the United States with slavery. That might seem odd and off topic, but not for Sisson: “Many of America’s earliest relinquishing mothers were enslaved Black women whose children were often sold away from them…. The practice of separation incentivized a callous indifference to the family relationships of enslaved people, and it continued after the end of the Civil War, when former slave owners argued that liberated Black people could not care for their own families and took their children into forced indentured servitude.”

The idea that private infant adoption today is merely an adaptation of slavery or indentured servitude is offensive and absurd. No one is forcing women to place their children for adoption. No one is even forcing women to bring children to term. A year after the Dobbs decision, abortion—even late-term abortion—remains widely available across the country. And unlike the so-called Baby Scoop era, in which unwed mothers were pressured (and sometimes forced) to relinquish their newborns to save their families from shame, there is no stigma against single motherhood.

Most of the 20,000 or so women who choose to place their children for adoption each year are either nearing the end of their pregnancies (often in denial about their situation) or don’t want to have an abortion. They are typically deciding between raising the child themselves or placing the child for adoption.

Between 1982 and 2014, only 0.5 percent of all births—averaging out to about 20,000 per year—were followed by private adoptions. There were almost a million abortions per year, by contrast. The demographics of the women who do relinquish their children has changed significantly since the mid-20th century. They used to be almost exclusively white women—non-white women who couldn’t care for their children had few options since there weren’t many families who wanted to adopt. And the women giving up their children also tended to be quite young. But with the legalization of abortion and the significant decline of teen pregnancy in the past couple of decades, the women who are giving up children for adoption are not so young anymore. According to the National Council for Adoption, the average age was 26.

Not only were these women clearly adults, but they also had reasonably high rates of education, with 40 percent having some college education, 25 percent having a bachelor’s degree, and 20 percent having a graduate degree. It is hard to make the case that these women are young and uneducated and thus exploited by the system.

But in Sisson’s view, that is exactly what’s happening: “Why, then, are they relinquishing their babies?” she asks. “The answer is clear when we look at the variables that speak to their financial resources: most of them are unemployed; 64 percent reported less than $5,000 in personal annual income. If we look at their health insurance, 88 percent of relinquishing mothers had coverage from Medicaid.” (The complaint used to be that the poor were uninsured. Now that they are insured by the government, what is the complaint? Just that they are not privately insured?)

Sisson adds: “The data provided by one larger agency showed that 28 percent of their birth mothers lived in chronic poverty, and 20 percent were homeless at the time of relinquishment.” Millions of people who live below the poverty line manage to parent their children. Even thousands of homeless parents decide to raise their children. What is different about the parents who place their children for adoption? If the interviews taken from Sisson’s book are any guide, a number of them have or have had problems with substance abuse. Others are suffering from mental-health challenges. It is true that they might be poor, but poverty and homelessness might also be the result of addiction and mental illness.

Still Sisson emphasizes in her interviews with these women that when adoption agencies offer them information about or pictures of families who might be able to adopt their children, many of the women say they want their children to grow up with more financial resources. It’s important to note that most modern adoptions put the mother in the driver’s seat, letting her pick not only whether to place the baby but what kind of family to place the baby with. She can choose race or religion, straight or gay couples, etc. And she can always back out—in some states until a couple of days after the adoption, and in some states up to a month later. In fact, birth mothers, in one sense at least, are holding all the cards. Because there are many more families who want to adopt than there are babies to adopt, the birth mothers can generally find the family they want.

But because these women are more likely to be poor, and about 30 percent identify as something other than white, the system must be unequal in Sisson’s eyes. Even showing mothers pictures of families who live in nice and stable homes is putting a thumb on the scale, says Sisson. But people do not place their children for adoption because they think their kids need nicer vacations and more expensive soccer teams.

Sisson argues that “the United States makes parenting uniquely untenable; parents in other developed countries do not grapple with these challenges in the same way.” She knows this because, in Iceland and Sweden and Norway, mothers are given paid leave so they don’t need to relinquish their children. Given how few mothers choose adoption in the United States and given all the other differences between our country and those Nordic lands when it comes to birth rates, abortion rates, and the like, it is well-nigh impossible to make any sensible comparisons here. It is also not clear that these other countries have the same population of families who want to adopt.

Some of the women Sisson interviews say that their adoptions have not turned out the way they expected. Almost all adoptions are open now, and birth mothers often make arrangements with adoptive parents regarding how much contact they want to have with the children post-adoption. But these contracts are not legally enforceable. And with good reason. The adoptive parents are now the legal parents, and they have the same rights as any other parent to decide who gets to visit or have contact with their children. That being said, most of the women Sisson interviews do have some kind of contact years later with the children they gave birth to.

It is easy to see, though, how the cultural narrative about adoption has seeped into the way these women see their decisions so many years later. Some of the women even continued to act for years as spokeswomen for the agencies or helped to counsel birth mothers. But now that adoption is considered a symptom of structural racism, some are expressing regrets. The memoirs and publicity around adoptive children who feel disconnected—hardly a month goes by without a new one—have probably had some effect on these birth mothers. They thought they were doing something good for their children, but all they hear now are stories of anger and sadness and racial alienation. For years after the adoption, some of these women felt they had made the right decision, but in recent years they have started to rethink it. Maybe they have just changed, but it’s also possible that the change in the culture has begun to influence them.

Some of the women Sisson chooses to highlight have also gone through a political transformation. One woman who grew up going to church and listening to Rush Limbaugh now explains that “self-determination is beyond important for resisting and dismantling the hierarchical systems of value that produce oppression and stratification.” This would be one of those mothers with a graduate degree, I’m sure.

A few years ago, an organization called BraveLove began to highlight the experiences of birth mothers and celebrate them. It hosted dinners in their honor. But BraveLove portrayed the fullness of the birth-mother experience, including the pain that these women experienced even years later. Sisson’s interviewees are offended nonetheless. As one says, “The more people praise birth moms, the more I know they hate us.… They think we’re worthless, that our children need to be saved from us. And they used flattery to cover it up.”

The women Sisson quotes have endured great pain. There is no adoption that does not have its origin in some kind of tragedy. But these women are grown and often educated adults who made a decision and were then subjected to a political narrative about why they were misguided. Sisson says that adoption represents “a refusal to both support and care for American families at the most basic level.”

Sisson insults adoption by calling it a “conservative institution.” She says it is a private solution to a problem that is social and structural. But Americans of all stripes seem supportive of this solution. And it’s not because, as Sisson suggests, they are simply ignorant of the pain involved in this decision. It is because they know that children deserve stable, loving homes and that if a mother decides on her own that someone else would be better to raise her child, there is probably a good reason. In so doing, she has made a choice for her child that in another and less dogmatic age would have been considered noble and even loving.

Photo: AP Photo/David Zalubowski

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