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Can adoption replace abortion? Experts say it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds

Scarlett Anderson in front of their home in Austin on Aug. 1, 2022.
Scarlett Anderson, an Austin resident and birth parent who chose adoption for their biological child, said they believe adoption was ultimately the best choice for their now 2-year-old daughter but the decision has weighed heavily on them. “I actively vote pro-choice because [adoption] is not for everybody,” they said. (Credit: Montinique Monroe for The Texas Tribune)

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Since the overturn of Roe v. Wade and the loss of abortion access in many states, some conservative leaders have suggested abortion is unnecessary because of the option of adoption. They argue people do not need to terminate unwanted pregnancies because they can seek adoption placements after giving birth.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to revoke the constitutional right to an abortion, U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Houston, tweeted, “Less abortion, more adoption. Why is that controversial?” In late June, Mike Pompeo, former U.S. secretary of state, tweeted, “Adoption, not abortion. With Roe overturned, we should find ways to make the adoption process in our country easier and safer.”

However, experts on adoption and abortion say offering adoption as a replacement for abortion access misrepresents the reality of the process. Lawmakers must work to provide financial and mental health support for the adoption triad — birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees — before advocating for increased adoptions, they added.

But the most important point that often goes overlooked is that adoption and abortion are unrelated issues, said Malinda Seymore, a law professor at Texas A&M University School of Law who researches and teaches adoption law.

“Women are making decisions about pregnancy when they are considering abortion, and it’s only after they have made a decision to continue the pregnancy that they are making a parenting decision about whether to parent or place for adoption,” she said.

Adoption may relieve birth parents of parenting responsibilities, but it does not resolve the pregnancy, she added.

“Adoption doesn’t do what abortion does,” Seymore said. “It does not end a pregnancy, it does not relieve the burden of pregnancy, it does not avoid the health risks of pregnancy, it does not alleviate the psycho-social harm of relinquishing for adoption. It is not at all a substitute for abortion.”

Gretchen Sisson, ​​a research sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said people who are seeking abortions are rarely interested in the option of adoption. Proposing adoption as an alternative to abortion does not meaningfully address the reasons why people seek abortions in the first place: Many abort because they don’t want to be pregnant anymore, not just because they want to avoid parenting, Sisson said.

Pregnant people can experience a range of health conditions that can create complications, but even without the health risks, a pregnancy can make it difficult to keep a job or provide for already existing children in the family. Being forced to carry a pregnancy to term, even with the option of adoption, does not address those issues.

Family outcomes

Kenna Hamm, assistant director of the Texas Adoption Center, said adoption agencies such as hers are ready to handle a potential influx of expectant parents seeking adoption placements now that abortions are mostly banned in the state. But she said most people who are unable to end their unintended pregnancies will choose to parent the child once they are born, as adoption is a difficult decision.

Seymore pointed to The Turnaway Study, a long-term study at the University of California, San Francisco, that examined the effects of unwanted pregnancies on women’s lives. The team followed about 1,000 women who sought abortions, and about 15% of those women were denied access to the procedure because of gestational limits. Only 9% of those women who were denied an abortion chose to seek an adoption placement; the rest decided to parent.

The outcomes for those families are not as strong as families who decided from the beginning to keep their pregnancies and raise their children, said Sisson, who helped conduct The Turnaway Study. People who were not intending or wanting to have a child are much more likely to live in poverty and to have a hard time bonding with their children, the study found. They are also more likely to stay in abusive relationships, which also keeps their children in situations where they may experience abuse.

“If the only thing that you’re trying to do is just deny access to an abortion and then impose parenting on [people seeking abortions], then mission accomplished,” Sisson said. “But if you’re actually wanting to support families and ensure that children are in loving homes that are capable of caring for them, we need to have a social safety net that is far, far more robust in these states that are limiting abortion access.”

Rory Hall, executive director of Adoption Advocates, Inc., said she also expects most people who are denied abortion access to continue to choose parenting over adoption. However, Hamm said she has recently seen more people in the early stages of their pregnancy contacting the Texas Adoption Center to explore adoption as an option.

Hamm and Hall both agreed that it’s too soon to say whether the end of Roe has led to more adoption placements than before.

Grief and trauma

Choosing to seek an adoption placement is difficult and it’s rarely the first choice for expectant parents.

“It’s very important that people are not saying ‘OK, well there’s no abortion so you should just do adoption,’” Hamm said. “We need to be able to really meet these women where they’re at, understand what they’re going through and have that empathy and compassion for their situation.”

There is no evidence that abortion leads to widespread trauma among those who get one, Sisson said. Meanwhile, those who place their babies for adoption often experience “adoption birth mother trauma,” according to the Texas Adoption Center website. This trauma is the physical or psychological response birth parents feel during or after they place their baby for adoption. It can include feelings of guilt, denial, shame, hopelessness and depression.

Scarlett Anderson, an Austin resident and birth parent who chose adoption for their biological child, said they struggled with the decision. Their ex-husband pressured them into seeking an adoption placement, even though it was their lifelong desire to be a mother. In retrospect, Anderson said they believe adoption was ultimately the best choice for their now 2-year-old daughter because of their financial and physical circumstances, but the choice has weighed heavily on them since.

When their daughter was 5 months old, Anderson attempted suicide. Bearing the guilt and loss from their daughter’s adoption was too much to bear, they said.

“It gets easier, sure. I’m definitely in a better place than I was the first year,” Anderson said. “Does it still break my heart every day? Yes.”

One aspect that has made the experience easier is their daughter’s open adoption. Open adoption is a form of adoption in which the biological and adoptive families have access to varying degrees of each other's personal information and have an option to keep in touch. It allows Anderson to see their daughter once every three months.

When people tout adoption as a replacement for abortion access, they often don’t understand the emotional challenges that birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees experience during an adoption, Hall said. The adoptive parents gain a child, but their joy comes from the birth parents’ pain, she said. As the adoptee grows up, they also may experience a sense of loss and identity crisis from not being raised by or knowing who their birth parents are.

“I just would like for [adoption] to not be talked about as an easy option,” Hall said.

Carrying a fetus for the duration of pregnancy builds an emotional bond between the expectant parent and the fetus, which in turn makes it difficult to relinquish for adoption, Hall said. Almost none of Hall’s clients fully commit to adoption until it is time to sign the legal papers because of how difficult it is to make that decision, she said.

Unacknowledged problems 

Jade, a woman who grew up in an adoptive home and asked to be identified using only her middle name because she was abused and does not want to be recognized by her abuser, said her adoption was highly traumatic. She now feels compelled to speak out about the issues that some adoptees go through, she said.

Jade thinks it’s important that lawmakers and legislators make room for adoptees, adoptive parents and birth parents to have a say in policies and legislation regarding adoption. She said adoptees have a right to speak out and help shape “a system that quite frankly failed us.”

By the time she was 15, Jade had been shuffled through multiple foster homes and was adopted twice through the Texas foster care system. Her experience as a foster child and adoptee was riddled with multiple sexual assaults beginning when she was 6 years old, intense corporal punishments from both foster and adoptive parents and emotional and psychological abuse.

In her first adoptive family, her adoptive brother repeatedly sexually abused her. When she approached her adoptive mother to seek help, she made Jade explain what happened in “painstaking detail” and then promised to “have a talk” with her son. Jade, who is now 32, endured abuse from him for several more years before he was finally caught and eventually convicted.

Even after her adoptive brother was proven guilty of sexually abusing her, Jade remained with her adoptive family for several more years, which led to increased anxiety and trauma. She said Child Protective Services should have been more involved in following up with adoptive families to ensure adoptees’ safety and well-being.

“This shit went on for so long, and just nobody noticed,” she said.

Hall said she’d like to see more people educate themselves about the adoption system and its problems before it’s promoted more.

Studies have shown that adoptees have unique traumas and mental health issues relating to being adopted. About 12% to 14% of adopted children in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 are diagnosed with a mental health disorder each year, according to the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, a program for young adults ages 18-26 who struggle with emotional trauma, addiction or both. Adopted children are almost twice as likely as children raised by their biological parents to suffer from mood disorders like anxiety, depression and behavioral issues.

These mental health issues can be managed with the right resources, but adoptees tend to need a lot more care and understanding than many receive, Seymore said. Some adoptive parents incorrectly believe all their children need is love and fail to provide them with the resources they need to cope with these issues, she said.

“It just would be nice if the entire world was more educated on adoption and what it’s really like,” Hall said. “When they’re not part of the triad or don’t work in adoption, they just really don’t understand all of the grief and loss associated with adoption.”

Sisson said that if lawmakers who oppose abortion want adoption to become a viable alternative, they should first seek to expand Medicaid and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children in their states. They should make sure that children have health insurance and parents have access to basic necessities for raising infants, like baby formula, she said.

Anderson wants to see open adoption become a federal policy. They said birth parents should always have the option to stay connected with their birth children to mitigate the loss and grief.

Birth parents also need increased access to mental health therapy, Anderson said. After their daughter got adopted, they attempted to seek a therapist but couldn’t afford one.

In addition, Anderson wants to see a rigorous, standardized process for vetting potential adoptive parents. People who adopt through foster care are not nearly as vetted as those who adopt through private agencies, they said. This can lead to abusive situations like Jade’s.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, previously told The Texas Tribune that the Legislature would continue to strengthen adoption programs in Texas. State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, said the expansion of safety net programs like adoption would be a “moral response” to the outlawing of abortion in the state. The Tribune reached out to Patrick and Toth’s offices to ask how they planned to expand or strengthen the state’s adoption programs but received no response.

But Anderson said they don’t believe conservative lawmakers care enough about children once they are born to actually work to improve their lives beyond the process of getting adopted. That’s why they believe abortion should always be an option alongside adoption.

“I ‘chose life,’” Anderson said. “But I actively vote pro-choice because [adoption] is not for everybody.”

Disclosure: Texas A&M University School of Law has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.


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