' [Birth Mother] First Mother Forum: Response to The Adoption Option

Response to The Adoption Option

While we have written about The Adoption Option before, we are sending this rebuttal to it to John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

By Lorraine Dusky and Jane Edwards

Making adoption more attractive to women with unplanned pregnancies is a “worthwhile goal,” according to the liberal think tank, The Center for American Progress. A recent publication, The Adoption Option: Adoption Won’t Reduce Abortion but It Will Expand Women’s Choices (October, 2010), argues for  government support for “ensuring that adoption remains an ethical and effective option” while recognizing that increasing voluntary infant adoptions, (approximately 14, 000 a year), would not impact the number of abortions annually (1.2 million).

We vehemently disagree. Yes, some will find their lives easier without the hassles of child care, but that does not take into account the fallout for both the mothers and the children so adopted. Adoptee and birth mother organizations, poignant memoirs from both first mothers[1] and adoptees,[2] as well as numerous psychological studies[3] attest to the enormous pitfalls and life-long consequences for the two individuals at the heart of any adoption: mother and child. That a liberal policy institute, the Washington D. C.-based Center for American Progress, takes such a stand is both shocking and offensive: Women should not be encouraged to part with their children, and certainly the government should not be involved in furthering such a policy.

Instead, the government, or private institutions, should find ways to help those who need assistance to raise their children. Yet the tacit implication of the report is that mothers-to-be are less aware of adoption as an option. This is absurd. Everyone of even modest intelligence is aware that adoption is an option—there are ads for babies in weekly newspapers and penny savers, on restaurant place mats, on numerous websites; television and movies further glamorize adoption. Only a moron would think that the “adoption option” was not readily available.

In spite of this the publication urges Congress to “provide grants to establish national public education campaigns to accurately inform the public about adoption and its potential benefits for all involved.” Quite frankly, we are speechless. The only long term benefit we can see is that adoption agencies, always short of healthy infants available for adoption, will have their orders more readily filled, that middle class women and men will find it easier to get a baby.

The report focuses on a 1997 study, “The Consequences of Placing versus Parenting Among Unmarried Women [4] stating that two-thirds of teen mothers participating in adoptions “reported a feeling of peace about their decision and were very certain they would make the same decision again. This means that a full third of the women were not at peace with their decision to relinquish their children. The report also fails to note that a third of the original participants could not be located to complete the survey four years later, ten percent of the women who surrendered their babies reported a great deal of regret while ninety percent of the women who kept their babies reported no regret. This is a “success” rate only if you are comparing the price of widgets, not emotional impact and subsequent depression.

Furthermore, the mothers in this study were surveyed four years after relinquishment, and for many the full extent of their grief is not realized until years later. Through various social networks, we hear from these women many years later and they write and talk of the emotional devastation that the surrender of their children has wrought throughout their lives. In numerous letters from first mothers collected years after surrender, “there was still the intensity of feeling and the need to describe the pain, still carried within…. Even if the birth parents had become comfortable with the decision [to relinquish] because there were no  viable alternatives, they nevertheless felt loss, pain, mourning and a continuing sense of caring for that long vanished child.”[5]

Because the mothers in this study were teenagers living in a maternity home during their pregnancy, the authors of the original research cautioned that generalizations from the findings should be limited to girls in these circumstances; yet the report suggests the findings would be applicable to all mothers who relinquish.

The report also states that the young women participating in the survey surrendered their children in “open” adoptions; yet nothing in the original study says they were participating in so-called open adoptions. There are no follow-up studies on the success or failure of open adoptions from the first mother’s viewpoint, as no reliable study has been able to find and survey a representative sampling. However, the anecdotal but overwhelming evidence that has come to our attention is that the vast majority of these adoptions close soon after the adoptions are finalized. Adoptive parents deny access to the child, stop sending information and photographs, or simply fade away without leaving a forwarding address or a listed phone number. As for these women? The report admits that these women suffer the “poorest grief resolutions.” In plain English, that means coming to terms with the disheartening and regretful reality that their children are lost to them, no matter what the agreement was with the adoptive parents.

The proposed solution? State-funded mediation services to resolve open adoption conflicts. But the reality is if adoptive parents are unwilling to cooperate or cannot be found, first mothers have little to no recourse since they typically lack funds to hire private detectives to track down the reneging adoptive parents, or hire an attorney to pursue whatever legal recourse they might have, and, in most states, that amounts to none at all

As for the overall mental health of first mothers following surrender, the most comprehensive follow-up survey comes from the British Association for Adoption & Fostering, the primary UK-wide membership organization for all those concerned with adoption, fostering and child care issues. Researchers were able to document the overall devastating impact of relinquishing a child by finding first mothers decades later: “While only an insignificant proportion of birth mothers had been diagnosed with a mental health problem before adoption (three percent), in the time between the parting and contact, 24 percent had psychiatric diagnosis mainly for depression, with half of them having inpatient treatment.”[6]The Adoption Option does cite a 2006 study from the E. B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents, which reiterates these findings: “a significant portion of women who placed children … [in closed adoptions] have experienced chronic, unresolved grief.” [7] However, Jessica Arons, the author of The Adoption Option, ignored  these findings in her attempt to put an upbeat spin on adoption for the first mother.

What the report does not discuss is the most telling of all: the lifelong impact on being relinquished on those so relinquished in infancy to be adopted. It distressingly fails to include that adoption experts unanimously agree that keeping children within their natural families, except in extreme and exceptional cases, is unquestionably in the best interests of the children. We offer a few sources here, expert opinion is emphatic on the point: “The birth family constitutes the preferred means of providing family life for children,” Child Welfare League of America, Standards of Excellent for Adoption Services[8]; “Every society, including our own, accepts that it is generally in the best interests of children to be raised by their biological parents unless they cannot or do not wish to do so,” Donaldson Adoption Institute, Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents[9]; “Every attempt should be made to preserve the family of origin, and when family preservation is not possible, to safely place the child in the extended family,” Anne Babb, Ph.D. Ethics in American Adoption.[10]

The reforms proposed in The Adoption Option are supposedly designed to encourage more women to select the “adoption option.” Reforms are needed but the goal should be to decrease infant adoptions. The United States has a significantly higher adoption rate than Western Europe and Australia primarily because it fails to support families and prevent shoddy, unethical practices of the adoption industry. By way of example how skewed the adoption option is, in the U.S., we have a population about 5.7 times greater than that of England and Wales but more than a hundred times the number of voluntary infant adoptions each year.[11] This is not only unnecessary, but catastrophic.

Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted DaughterThe report stresses the importance of unbiased counseling but it fails to address who should pay for the counseling. Adoption agencies, funded largely by prospective adoptive parents, typically do provide counseling, but as they are looking for "product" for their clients, such counseling obviously has a built-in conflict of interest. Adoption agencies often supply mothers with services such as housing and medical care, but then threaten nearly destitute mothers with having to repay these costs—thousands of dollars-- if they change their minds and keep their babies.

While recommending that expectant mothers have independent legal counsel, the report again ignores the funding question. Currently, mothers’ attorneys are paid by prospective adoptive parents--creating yet another conflict of interest. True unbiased counseling and effective legal services can exist only when funded by an independent source, not connected with the adoption industry.

The Adoption Option recommends mothers have three days after birth before they sign consents to adoption and one week to revoke their consent. While an improvement over the laws of many states, this is still far too short for a mother to recover from hormonal changes after birth fully or reconsider what resources she might find to help her keep her baby. The Donaldson Institute recommends a considerable longer period: “Parents [should] have several weeks after childbirth before an adoption decision becomes irrevocable. Ideally, this would include a minimum of one week after birth before a relinquishment can be signed and then a substantial revocation period.”Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being of Birthparents.[12]

Notably, the report offers no remedies for women who lose their babies through coercion, pressure, or bias. Unless mothers have the legal ability to get their babies back when their rights are violated, there’s little to deter sleazy adoption practices, even at seemingly reputable agencies.  

Being Adopted: The Lifelong Search for Self“Mutual consent registries” and “search and consent laws” are promoted in the report to protect “the minority of women who want to remain secret and do not wish to be contacted. But all evidence points to the fact that sealed records laws were enacted to protect adoptive parents, not first mothers. Birth records of adoptees are sealed upon adoption, not relinquishment. There is no moral reason to deny adult adoptees the right granted to the non-adopted, that is the absolute right to know who gave birth to them, what their life stories are, and how they fit into the tree of life. Without this base of self-knowledge, the best experts in the field agree that adoptees will face a dislocation struggle that may become a source of great disturbance and depression in their lives.

The report concludes by asking “whether it is a legitimate policy goal to seek to increase the adoption rate?

The answer is unequivocally no.

The report continues: “After all, in an ideal world where every woman had the resources necessary to plan wanted pregnancies, cope with unexpected pregnancies, and end unwanted pregnancies or medically complicated pregnancies, even fewer women would likely choose to have a child placed for adoption.”

Increasing the adoption rate should never be a policy goal, and is only a step away on the continuum that leads to the “one-child” only policy of China. The United States should strive for the “ideal world,” a state which already achieved in Western Europe and Australia. Despite the deficit facing the United States today, keeping mothers and children together is well within our capabilities, or should be. It is the humane thing to do. It is the right thing to do. It must be the goal of an ethical, humane society.

Lorraine Dusky of Sag Harbor, New York is an award-winning journalist and the author of Birthmark and several other books. Jane Edwards of Portland, Oregon is an attorney and a contributor to family law publications. Both are reunited first mothers together they write a popular blog, First Mother Forum.

[1] Dusky, Lorraine, Birthmark, (1979); Carol Schaefer, The Other Mother (1991); Moorman, Margaret, Waiting to Forget (1996); Guttman, Jane, The Gift Wrapped in Sorrow (1999); Hall, Meredith, Without a Map (2007); et. al.
[2] Lifton, Betty Jean, Twice Born (1975); Strauss, Jean, Birthright (1994); Green, Tim A Man and His Mother (1997); Saffian, Sarah, Ithaka (1999); et al.
Waiting to Forget: A Motherhood Lost and Found[3] Deykin, E.Y., L. Campbell, & P. Patti (1984) The post adoption experiences of surrendering parents. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 54(2):271-280; Pannor, R., A. Baran, & A. D. Sorosky. (1978) Birth parents who relinquished babies for adoption revisited. Family Process 17:329-337 (Sept); Rynearson, E. (1982). Relinquishment and its maternal complications: A preliminary study. American Journal of Psychiatry 139:338-340; Sobol, M. P. & K. J. Daly. (1992). The adoption alternative for pregnant adolescents: Decision making, consequences, and policy implications. Journal of Social issues 48(3):143-161; Watson, K. (1986). Birth families: Living with the adoption decision. Public Welfare 5-10.
[4] Namerow ,Pearila Brickner, Debra Kalmus, & Linda Cushman, Families and Adoption  (The Haworth Press, Inc) pps. 175-197.
[5] Sorosky,A. D., Annette Baran, & Ruben Pannor The Adoption Triangle (1989) p. 72
[6] Triseliotis, John, Julia Feast, & Fiona Kyle, The Adoption Triangle Revisited (2005), p. 91.
[7] Smith, Susan. “Safeguarding the Rights and Well-Being in the Adoption Process”, (2006) p. 6
[8] (2000), p. 13.
[9]  P. 9.
[10] (1999), p. 138
[11] There were 93 children under the age of one in 2009 and 119 in 2008 compared to approximately 14,000 in the US each year. http://www.statistics.gov.uk/StatBase/Product.asp?vlnk=15049. The population of the US is 310 million; England and Wales, 54 million, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/England_and_Wales.
[12] P. 9