The Adoption Consensus?

Anna Clark

When emotions get heated among those who disagree on abortion rights, it can be easy to settle the conversation by calling on adoption as a "compromise." Is treating adoption as a solution to abortion the best way to craft sensible adoption policy?

When emotions get heated among those who disagree on abortion rights, it can be easy to settle the conversation by calling on adoption as a "compromise."

According to the "adoption consensus," whatever one thinks about the justness of abortion or the reasonability of expecting a person to raise a child she’s not prepared for, we can at least agree to support policy that will better facilitate adoption. This is utterly uncontroversial. Right?

There are plenty of inconsistencies in adoption law from state to state, and plenty of ways policymakers could streamline adoption for women who wish to relinquish and parents who wish to adopt. But is any of the legislation that purports to facilitate adoption really going to do that?  And even if it did, would it have any affect at all on the abortion rate?

One of the most heated debates in adoption policy is over original birth certificates, says Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute and author of Adoption Nation. Adults who have been adopted often cannot obtain their original birth certificates because most states keep them sealed. "This is a policy issue that treats adopted people differently from their non-adopted counterparts," Pertman says.

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In some cases, this policy has been reversed.  Since 1996, Alabama, Delaware, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon and Tennessee changed their policies so that adults who were adopted can have access to their birth certificates. Those records in Alaska and Kansas have always been open for adults.

Unsealing records is crucial for adopted adults and, more generally,
for a compassionate and sensible adoption system. It doesn’t, however,
appear to have any particular affect on whether a woman chooses to place her
child for adoption, according to Pertman.

"These are wildly different
states, geographically and politically," Pertman says. "And their
adoption rate is similar to any other state, which indicates that sealing
or not sealing records doesn’t really influence a mother (who is
considering relinquishing her child)."

According to Pertman, the principal argument for keeping birth certificates inaccessible to adopted people is that unsealing records will violate anonymity promised to the birthmother. But, Pertman says, the historical record reveals that’s not the reason records were sealed in the first place; rather, they were sealed to protect the adoptive family from the birthmother, who feared she would show up at their doorstep. A report issued last year by the Donaldson Institute found that states that opened records to adopted persons saw no evidence of negative consequences predicted by opponents of the change, such as stalking by adopted persons or damage to birthmothers.

Abortion is implicated in this policy issue by those who fear that
unsealing birth records will cause more women to choose an abortion
who’d otherwise only place their child for adoption if they were
promised
total anonymity. Pertman says this argument’s popularity is
"diminishing greatly"
because it has "no basis in reality." "From a statistical and
evidence-based point-of-view, it simply is not true," he says. "But
viscerally, it has influence."

That influence begs conflict among those who agree to better facilitate
adoption when some are primarily motivated by a desire to reduce
abortions; improved adoption policy that doesn’t seem to lead to
reduced abortions may not be championed by them. However, that doesn’t
mean that improved adoption policy isn’t essential for its own sake.

"It is important to improve the adoption systems and policies because there are problems with them and they’re not serving any of the parties involved with it as well as they should be," says Jessica Arons, director of the Women’s Health and Rights program at the Center for American Progress. But Arons questions the usefulness of focusing on adoption policy as a "compromise" on disagreements about abortion rights, because improving adoption will have little to no impact on the U.S. abortion rate.

"There are very few women who would’ve given up a child for adoption, but then say to themselves that, ‘oh, well, the system’s messed up, so I’ll go ahead and have an abortion,’" Arons says. "That’s just not the conversation going on in people’s heads."

Democrats for Life say they have a bill that would reduce the
abortion rate by 95% in 10 years (reproductive health advocates
strongly dispute that characterization of the bill). Part of the way
they plan to do that is by increasing the adoption tax credit, and
making it permanent. But would making adoption more affordable for families – undoubtedly a social good in its own right – really affect the decision-making of
American women facing unintended pregnancy?

Regardless of what effect it might have on the abortion rate, much of the work of making adoptions affordable currently falls to charities.  Becky Fawcett, a New York City mother who adopted her son, Jake, co-founded Helpusadopt.org, which offers grants of up to $15,000 to people interested in adopting, with her husband.

"Adoption is not for the faint-hearted, and when you put a $40,000 price tag on it, that’s frightening for people," Fawcett says. "It’s not that people who can’t afford adoption were irresponsible with their money. But who has $40,000-$50,000 in their savings to just write out for an adoption?"

In its first year, Fawcett reports that Helpusadopt.org has met with an extraordinary response. "This need isn’t going away – adoptions can be expensive and difficult and emotionally hard for everyone involved. If we can make it a little easier or people, then I’m proud of that," Fawcett said.

On Rewire,
Cory Richards of the Guttmacher Institute lauds strategies that, like
Helpusadopt.org, make adoption a real and viable option for people. But
he calls out adoption advocacy that’s born of the desire to see the
abortion rate drop.

"Politicians
from both parties frequently promote tax credits and other incentives
to ease the way for adoptive parents to demonstrate that they want to
‘do something’ about abortion," Richards writes. "Facilitating
adoptions, especially of hard-to-place children, deserves our strong
support. But it does nothing to affect the abortion rate. … we know
that very few women actually place their infants for adoption."

Richards
noted that in the US, fewer than 14,000 infants were given up for
adoption in 2003–a less-than-1% rate that’s been consistent for almost
two decades, halting there after a decline that the US Department of
Health and Human Services attributes to the rising social acceptance of
single parenthood.

For those in the 1% who want to place their
child for adoption, for the thousands of children in foster care who
need permanent homes, and for potential parents who want to adopt a
child, we might hope for common sense public policies on adoption.

Yes,
let’s increase the adoption tax credit, and make it permanent. Let’s
ensure birth certificates are accessible for adopted persons, as they
are for any other adult. Let’s ensure that minors who want to give
their child for adoption can do so safely and compassionately, without
undue legal interference. But we shouldn’t pretend it’ll have an effect
on the abortion rate. Policy that’s designed to make adoption a "compromise," implying that adoption will replace abortion or parenting for those with unintended pregnancies, is more than unhelpful: it’s dangerously simplistic.

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