The Adoption Industry Exploits Birth Mothers’ Lives—Then Does Nothing to Change Them

The new book Relinquished dispels enduring adoption myths through interviews with birth mothers and over a decade of research.

The Adoption Industry Exploits Birth Mothers’ Lives—Then Does Nothing to Change Them

In 2006, a young woman named Jaime was sexually assaulted and became pregnant—a fact she only learned about in her second trimester. A local crisis pregnancy center helped connect her with a Christian adoption agency, and Jaime, who grew up in an evangelical home, chose an open adoption with Pamela and Rob, a couple who shared her faith. (Open adoptions allow the birth mother to have varying degrees of contact with their child and their child’s adoptive parents, but there are no legal guarantees about what this actually looks like.) Jaime joined the couple’s church shortly after the adoption and, around that time, spoke glowingly of the experience to sociologist Gretchen Sisson. But a decade later, her outlook had changed entirely: As her political and religious views shifted, a significant rift had formed in Jaime’s relationships with Pamela and Rob, and she clashed with the couple over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018. “Your sexual assault has nothing to do with any of this,” Jaime recounted Pamela telling her at the time, after Jaime posted on Facebook about opposing Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination and disclosed her own assault.

Like nearly all of the birth mothers Sisson interviewed for her new book, Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood (in some cases, twice, 10 years apart), Jaime’s feelings about the adoption had changed over time, after having space to reflect on the circumstances that had prompted them to seek adoption. Some of the birth mothers Sisson interviewed were exiting abusive relationships, homeless, impoverished, or struggling to care for kids they already had. Some of the mothers were young white women whose families declined to help them raise biracial babies. All were drawn to the allure of what wealthy, prospective adoptive parents could offer their children that birth mothers knew they couldn’t. That is, ultimately, what Sisson’s book centers upon: the fundamental economic imbalances that drive the U.S. adoption industry and fuel “the domestic supply of infants” (a gross term Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito used in a footnote in his Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health opinion).

Sisson synthesizes over a decade of research and longitudinal interviews with birth mothers to lay out an extensive history of adoption in the U.S.—which has deep roots in racial capitalism and the state policing of pregnancy and parenting—and to dispel enduring myths about adoption. In a conversation with Jezebel, Sisson said she was especially compelled to write a book about the adoption industry’s impacts on birth mothers because “the Congressional adoption caucus is the largest bipartisan caucus in the United States.” That is, the one thing anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights politicians seem to sweepingly agree on is that adoption is a moral good that can be propped up as an alternative to abortion. However, Sisson points out that this is a false assumption: In her book, she cites surveys that show there’s almost no overlap between people who seek abortion and people who seek adoption. People who sought abortion did not want to be pregnant, period; people who sought adoption often wanted to parent, but simply didn’t have the means. Adoption and abortion are entirely separate outcomes, Sisson argues, but the “perpetual error” that politicians make is lumping the two together.

Courtesy of Gretchen Sisson

Birth mothers’ experiences often follow the same path, Sisson finds. They want to parent, but don’t have the resources. Later, their accepting (or even positive) feelings about the adoption sour over time, as they reckon with the trauma incurred from being separated from their newborn. She points out that, as a culture, we rarely hear about the coercive or dishonest tactics deployed by some adoption agencies; the psychological impacts of adoption on birth mothers; or their continued economic struggles that the billion-dollar adoption industry does nothing to address.

The cost of an average domestic adoption ranges from $20,000 to $45,000, significantly limiting who qualifies to be adoptive parents. In Relinquished, Sisson cites adoption agencies’ business models, including one examined by researcher Elizabeth Raleigh that “spent upwards of 20 percent of its full budget not on care for expectant parents or long-term support for adopted people, but on marketing,” Sisson wrote. According to Raleigh, this figure “brings into stark relief the paradox of private adoption: it is a profession devoted to child welfare but sustained by advertising for children and customers.” Sisson emphasizes that because “the demand for babies is so much higher than the number of infants available,” agencies are required to invest heavily in marketing adoption, particularly to pregnant women considering. (“At the end of the day, we are a business,” says one domestic adoption provider quoted in Relinquished.) In anthropologist Kathryn Mariner’s research of adoption agencies, Mariner found their “cash flow was tied directly to the flow of babies.”

The industry’s emphasis on attracting customers (that is, would-be adoptive parents) means that birth mothers are entirely brushed aside, whether intentionally or not. Their bodies have changed by growing and birthing a child, but their life circumstances—whatever untenable situation compelled them to seek adoption in the first place—have not. “Does the mother’s life, with her afflictions, her vulnerabilities, her flaws, mean so little that if the baby is ensconced in a stable middle-class home, we are able to convince ourselves that the crisis has been alleviated?” Sisson asks. In other words, after the transaction is complete and a wealthier couple now has their child, the “problem” is ostensibly solved. (This pattern is broadly reflected in pop culture; for example, Friends ends with Chandler and Monica successfully adopting twins whose birth mother is simply wheeled down the hall.)

Throughout Relinquished, Sisson stresses that the adoption industry is inextricably shaped by how race and class define conceptions of who is a suitable parent—and who isn’t. As examples, she points to the history of Indigenous children stolen by the U.S. government and given to white families prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act (a law that has remained a source of continued legal conflict); and the ongoing threat of policing from child welfare programs—also called the family regulation system by scholars and activists—which disproportionately target and separate Black families. 

Courtesy of Gretchen Sisson

In her research into adoption agencies’ marketing language, Sisson found birth mothers are traditionally portrayed in one of two ways: as “brave, selfless, making the best sacrifice for their child” if they choose adoption, or as racist, classist caricatures—like the irresponsible drug addict who’d be a danger to her child if she chose to parent. “It’s important to dispel with the idea that poverty means someone lacks the skills to parent or love a child, or this idea of middle-class life as an inherently better family life, instead of thinking critically about the risks and harms of separating families, instead of taking steps to mitigate the conditions that might drive family separation,” Sisson said. “When we talk about giving children a ‘better life,’ what are we saying?”

Toward the end of the book, Sisson introduces us to and advocates for adoption abolition, which, as a movement, seeks to make obsolete the conditions that lead to adoption (poverty, lack of support systems, lack of information about prospective birth mothers’ legal rights).

“No one critical of adoption is saying ‘let’s make it illegal’—it’s about addressing the conditions and inequalities that lead people to giving up children they want to parent,” Sisson told Jezebel. If we’re “meaningfully according people and families reproductive autonomy and abortion access, supporting families the way they need and making parenting feasible for those who want it, then adoption as it’s currently practiced will be rare.”

“Why is permanently severing the legal relationship between parent and child the best way—what else can care look like? It’s about trust, creativity, thinking about what children actually need, what their parents need,” she said. 

As she writes in Relinquished:

All these things can be true: that parental love is full and valid without a biological relationship; that children do not need a “traditional” family to thrive; that children adapt to a range of normalcies and benefit from having many adults who care about them. And all of these things can also be true: that the families made whole by adoption are more visible to us than the families separated by adoption… that the idyllic appeal of adoption is such that it has moved those otherwise very deeply immersed in the work of creating a more just world to overlook the systemic issues of privilege upon which adoption functions, and without which adoption would be inconceivable.

Relinquished deftly wrangles with what can feel like conflicting truths, especially those that have endeared adoption to liberals: how it’s made traditional nuclear families possible for queer parents, and also created interracial families. But this coexists with the innately oppressive, exploitative systems that adoption relies on to guarantee that “domestic supply of infants” in the first place.

When it comes to this tension, “there aren’t clean, easy answers,” Sisson said, “just the bottom line that everyone—anti-abortion, pro-choice—unquestioningly loves adoption. My book is a first step [to] help people think more critically about what it means to participate in this system.”

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