It takes a woman with a special kind of moxie* to choose adoption these days. Across the US, around 1% of women experiencing unplanned pregnancies make and carry out adoption plans. Forty years ago, it was closer to 20%. There are several reasons for the drop in numbers–some of which you may know and others that may be surprises.
Although the expansion of safe and legal abortion services in the ’70s caused the number of women “choosing”** adoption to drop initially, the current low number is just as much or more due to single women opting to parent. Fewer teens are becoming pregnant these days and never-married women in their 20s experiencing unplanned pregnancies are more likely than their grandmothers were to take on the joys and challenges of single motherhood.
Beyond more women choosing to parent, adoption has too many negative connotations for many women to consider. Unfortunately, adoption has become politicized over the years as the “loving alternative” to abortion. (You’ve seen those bumper stickers, right?) The assumption is that only a woman who is morally opposed to abortion would choose adoption. I see that as a false dichotomy. The same woman at different points in her life and in different situations may make different choices when faced with unplanned pregnancies. A woman who chooses adoption at age 16 may choose abortion at 22 and parenting at 3o. A vocal pro-choice activist may choose adoption, while a clinic protestor may choose abortion. (Yes, this happens.) At any rate, it’s not too hard to see how a pro-choice woman going into a conservative adoption agency may not feel like she belongs.
Women choosing adoption today often don’t get the support that they deserve. At best, friends and family may be confused about a woman’s choice to make an adoption plan. Given the 1% statistic, fewer people know someone who has chosen adoption than parenting or abortion. Some folks claim that the woman who chooses adoption is selfish or shirking her responsibilities as a parent. In reality, adoption takes an immense amount of planning–all of which is done with her future child’s wellbeing in mind. Carrying a pregnancy to term is a very visible act so unless she takes a sudden “trip to Europe” before she starts showing, people in her community are going to know that a woman is pregnant, and they’re going to wonder what happened when they see her a year later with no baby. The woman choosing adoption has to be tough enough to put up with the comments, insults, sideways glances, and potential family struggles that come with it.
Unless they’ve had a recent, personal experience with adoption, most Americans have a very outdated understanding of the process. They often think a birth parent “gives up” her baby and never sees her/him again, as it was in the ’50s. They think that adoptees are damaged or not truly accepted by the families that adopt them. These days, with 95% or more of infant adoptions being open to some degree, the woman can choose to have an ongoing relationship with her child and the family she chose for her/him. Rather than losing a family member, she and the parent(s) she chooses are creating an extended family together. Studies have shown that children are not confused by this kind of family structure, and adoptees are no more likely to be emotionally scarred than any other people.
So that gets us back to that teeny percentage. A family like ours that has wanted to adopt from the start (rather than winding up here due to infertility) may seem crazy. Why gamble on a woman from that relatively tiny group choosing us out of all the families hoping to adopt? Why do we support contraceptive access, abortion rights, and single moms when doing so means fewer babies being made available for adoption? Well, we think today’s open adoption is a strong pro-choice option for everyone involved, even if it means we’ve already waited longer than my own parents did when they adopted me. We feel good knowing that today, the 1% of women choosing adoption are doing just that–freely choosing it. They know that abortion is an option (if they find out they’re pregnant early enough), they live in a country where single parenthood is far more normalized than ever before, and they are empowered to choose the family for and relationship with their child through open adoption. What could be cooler than helping a woman carry out her adoption plan, and growing our family at the same time? We’re confident someone out who shares our values will choose us, and you can bet she’s got lots of moxie.
*I tried to use the word “moxie” in the adoption letter/materials that we wrote for our agency to market us, but their folks thought it was too weird a word. What do you think?
**Though not always the case, adoption prior to the 1970s was often not a free choice for the woman involved. Many young women who found themselves pregnant were sent away by family members to maternity homes where they were pressured into adoptions they didn’t want. The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler tells the stories of several such women.