A Shift in Priority: Why Adoption Has Become Rarer, and Why It Shouldn’t Be

Posted on June 20, 2012


Margo Howard’s “Dear Margo” column last Thursday got me to thinking.  LW#2 had written in for advice about her nephew, suffering from a sort of “Cinderella syndrome” following the arrival of his half-sibling.  Well, discussion threads being what they are, segues will occur.  Commenter Davina Wolf wrote:

Too many people have kids just because they can when they aren’t prepared to take care of the kids to adulthood and be decent to them after they are grown.  There has been a lot of destruction from the “everybody has to have kids” school of thought.  There are many, many people who were raised and damaged by inadequate parents.

That put me in mind of even worse cases, where young or ill-equipped or apathetic parents turn to abusing and even killing their children, and I raised the question: When such uncaring, unwilling parents have kids, why don’t they give them up for adoption?  Why keep an unwanted child, only to resent, abuse, and possibly kill him?  Commenter GT answered:

Two reasons:  One, apparently it’s not easy to give your child up for adoption unless you do it right at birth, with the very few exceptions where you can take your baby but not older child to a hospital no questions asked.

Second, if you are a teenager or student and give your child up people will nod in agreement about it being the best thing to do, but if you are say 30 and therefore presumably working, people will judge you as the worst human being ever if you give your baby up for adoption.  Nevermind that finances alone shouldn’t determine if you should raise a child.  And heaven forbid if you are married, didn’t want children and gave a baby up for adoption.  You will be viewed as scum of the earth.

So even though everyone SAYS adoption is preferable to abortion, not so much in the real world.  For older people and married people its either quietly get an abortion or be a resentful crappy parent because you believe abortion is murder.  You’d never hear the end of it from family, co-workers and friends if you were married and put the baby up for adoption.

Is this true?  Has giving a child up for adoption become so stigmatized in the early 21st century, and if so, why?  My guess:  the trend de-stigmatizing and even celebrating single motherhood has had an equal and opposite effect on the practice of giving up one’s child:  it stigmatizes it.  Today we have choices, and I suspect there is an unspoken assumption that because birth control and abortion are generally available, women who carry a baby to term must want to keep it.  Gone are the days when out-of-wedlock pregnancy was an embarrassment resulting in a “vacation to Europe” or some other fiction to cover for a young woman’s shame while she went to a home for unwed mothers to give birth and then sign away her baby to strangers.  This was a nightmare, it was wrongly forced on women, we should be allowed to keep our babies, they should not be sources of shame, and the right to make our own choices in this matter was hard-won.  And so the next logical step is:  What kind of mother wouldn’t want to keep her baby?

This is the height of irony.  Hard-won choices should actually mean choices.  How is it progress to remove the stigma from out-of-wedlock births, only to transfer that stigma to those who choose to give their children up for adoption?  If women have successfully driven home the point that their childbearing choices are no one else’s business, then why is it anyone’s business if a mother chooses to bear a child and give it up?  How is it “better” or more acceptable for a woman to have an unwanted child, keep it just out of concern for some social taboo, and then abuse it, and even murder it?  Was the “proper” choice to abort the child?  Even the “lucky” unwanted children – that is, those who are not outright abused – will suffer the effects of emotional rejection or benign neglect.

I think GT is correct, and this stigma is real.  Adoption statistics are hard to come by, but the trend is indeed downward:  in 1970 – the high point for adoptions – there were about 175,000 adoptions in the US.  More recently, the annual number is around125,000, and that includes greater proportions of transracial and international adoptions.

So, what a great success the past few decades have been.  We have managed to end the suffering of women whose children were torn away from them just because of a social taboo, and replaced it with the suffering of women who are forced to raise children they didn’t want, just because of a social taboo.

Speaking as an adoptee, I would like to see an end to all of this nonsense.  No one has the right to judge a woman for her choice to keep or to give up her child.  I don’t see any of those who sit in judgment on these mothers streaming out of the woodwork to pay her bills, provide child care, change diapers or stay up all night with a colicky baby.  No, they point, judge situations they know little about, establish their little social taboos, then go home to their perfect families, and that’s why they don’t get to choose.  The only people who can choose are the actual parents.