Adoption In the Time of Dobbs
I have been asked many times this year how I expect the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization decision will affect the current adoption landscape. When the Supreme Court announced it found no constitutional right to abortion, individuals pursuing or otherwise touched by adoption had good reason to wonder how this might change the lives and decision-making of women experiencing unplanned pregnancies. Many don't expect the ways in which this decision affects some adult adoptees.
I used to provide choice counseling to women presenting with an unplanned pregnancy. It was our policy at the agency at which I worked to present all choices --- abortion, adoption, parenting --- otherwise I wouldn't have worked there. What I found was that once abortion was ruled out, either by legal time limits, funds or the expectant woman's personal feelings about abortion, there was rarely equality between the two remaining choices. For the majority of my clients, from the outset the choice was between abortion and parenting. Adoption was only marginally considered by most even when choice counseling was sought at my adoption agency.
My anecdotal experience has been substantiated by real data from Dr. Gretchen Sisson's five-year "Turnaway Study" out of UCSF. In it she collected data on the situation well known to reproductive choice counselors: the vast majority of women experiencing an unplanned pregnancy and unable to access abortion services will choose to parent. Only 9% of these women will choose to place their babies with adoptive families. This amounts to approximately 10,000 more babies available for adoption in the U.S. annually post Dobbs. The data on waiting adoptive families in America has been notoriously difficult to capture, but the estimates I have seen range between 1,000,000 and 2,000,000 at any given time. Waiting adoptive families are not likely to notice a difference.
What these figures do not capture is the distress felt by two communities in the wake of Dobbs: birth mothers who do choose adoption and adopted people.
Coping with an unplanned pregnancy has become exponentially harder. In my 25 years as a social worker, I have not seen funding for social services increase as reproductive choice has been curtailed. In fact, it is radically more difficult to assist women seeking some kind of access to a social safety net. Women are facing unplanned pregnancies in a land where the waiting lists for Section 8 housing are now often years long, in which SNAP (food stamps) have been reduced because some in government think it is character building to require our poorest citizens to remain hungry for part of every month. We are asking women to make what may well be the most impactful decision of their lives from a place of precarity. The message is less pro-life and more you "give up this baby for adoption" or you must parent this child as punishment and your poverty will be a mark of your shame.
I am also astonished by the ways in which adopted people and their experience are not in any way held in mind by the public arguments around choice and Dobbs. Justice Barrett revealed her lack of sensitivity (one particularly abhorrent in an adoptive parent) when she suggested that safe haven laws make [the problems of unplanned pregnancy] irrelevant" and "obsolete." Embedded in her comment is an assumption that adoption "solves" more than it does, that adoption is a choice without consequence.
The adopted adults in my life have expressed genuine distress at both the assumption they are not pro-choice and at the whitewashing comments such as "she could just give the baby up for adoption" which remove all complexity from the situation. Is it that hard to imagine adoptees having abortions themselves? Do we think the fact that they have been adopted somehow magically excuses them from all the complication of any unplanned pregnancy?
The person being adopted is the one person who has no vote on the arrangement. And the person being adopted is the one who will have to reckon with, make meaning of and integrate the fact of their complicated origins their whole lives. To say "she should just give the baby up..." is to express indifference to the impact of relinquishment on the adoptee and the birth family, to erase that loss. The adoptions with good outcomes are the ones in which the adults involved face that loss squarely and make space for grief and complication as well as the joy of a family created. Adoption is not a singular event. It is a lifetime.
Tara Noone is a therapist currently treating all members of the adoption triad in her private practice. She was formerly an adoption social worker and the Director of Adoptive Parent Services at Adoption Connection in San Francisco. She served on the planning committee for the California Adoption Conference for five years and led workshops at the conferences each of those years. She has taught adoption competency and the evaluation and treatment of the members of the adoption triad to therapists and school psychologists in Northern California. She has served on the board of Weaving Threads, a group that serves first/birth mothers in adoption.