The most common depiction of private infant adoption in the United States is that it is a child welfare practice for babies in need of a home, a too-often overlooked choice for people experiencing unplanned pregnancies, and a wonderful way to build a family. Critics describe it as inherently corrupt, a coercive industry pressuring vulnerable parents to relinquish their children, and a money-making venture for adoption professionals who prey on the emotional vulnerabilities of those seeking to adopt.
The truth lies, as it so often does, in understanding adoption as a both/and. Advocating for ethical adoption practices does not mean denying the deep bonds of love that can form in adoptive families. But every adopted child deserves to grow up secure in the knowledge that their first/birth parents, when faced with an unplanned pregnancy or uncertainty about parenting, were able to weigh all options. And every pregnant person deserves to decide on the best course for themselves, without being subject to overt or subtle pressure, trickery, or coercion from professionals with vested interests.
When the system is reliant on money from those who want to adopt, however, their interests become paramount. The adoption market—and it is structured as a market—is skewed by a “surplus” of “consumers” or prospective adoptive parents, as well as a “shortage” of pregnant people relinquishing their children. This leads to competition among those prospective adoptive parents and adoption professionals for a dwindling “supply” of available infants. These trends can be influenced but not entirely controlled, sometimes to the dismay—and even closure—of adoption agencies whose livelihood depends on industry “success.” Adoption as practiced today is mired at the very muddy intersections of money, emotionally invested pre-adoptive parents, pregnant people in crisis, and competition for powerless, vulnerable infants.
Looking at adoption through an economics lens may feel simplistic and even offensive. But there is no denying the reality that adoption is a multimillion-dollar industry, where money flows from prospective adoptive parents with resources to professionals who facilitate the adoption of children born to first/birth parents who are frequently struggling to make ends meet. Money influences who is perceived as capable or worthy of parenting, who is eligible to become a prospective adoptive parent, and how private adoption agencies and attorneys meet their bottom line.
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The problem lies in the fact that we are talking about the supply and demand of human infants, and the way we allow market forces to play a huge role in deeply personal and life-changing decisions about parenting and family formation, not only for the adults involved but also for children who have no voice in the process. This raises many complex questions about how adoption can and should be ethically practiced.
There is no disputing that there are fewer infants available for adoption today than there were several decades ago. What we do not often hear is that the decline in adoption placements reflects positive shifts for women and their families. Increased access to contraceptives, better access to abortion care, and the destigmatizing of unmarried or single parenting are all factors that have contributed to women having more pregnancy and parenting options. As a result, fewer people are placing their children for adoption. Surely these advances should be celebrated—even if as a result, it becomes more difficult for those who want to fulfill their desire to become parents through adoption.
Unfortunately, adoption professionals have not set this tone with prospective adoptive parents. Even as it becomes more difficult to find infants available for adoption in the United States, agencies continue to recruit prospective parents with an impossible promise to find them a baby within a year, contingent upon payment of $20,000 to $45,000 in fees upfront. This despite already long lists of hopeful families, most of whom will wait years to be matched with a potential birth parent.
When these promises fall short, it is not uncommon for pre-adoptive parents to see the problem as a failure of adoption providers to “find birth mothers.” They compare notes about which agency has the better outreach plan to pregnant people, or the more aggressive advertising campaign, or the highest success rates (with success defined as completed placements). But what does it mean to find a birth mother or a baby for a waiting family? What are the moral and ethical implications of attempting to “increase the supply” of human infants available for adoption?
You don’t have to look far to find concerning examples of adoption marketing practices aimed at vulnerable pregnant people and parents in crisis. Advertisements tout relinquishment of a child as the solution to your problems, a way to gain some economic stability, or to find your child a better life.
But if adoption were truly meeting a societal need for child placement and welfare, such aggressive wide-scale marketing campaigns wouldn’t be necessary. It is only necessary if the goal is to increase the supply of infants to meet the demand of people who wish to become parents by adopting. An ethical approach to the current imbalance in adoption points to a need to decrease the demand, rather than increasing the supply—though that is a hard sell for pre-adoptive parents and perhaps more alarmingly, for adoption professionals.
While there is no short, easy path for implementing outreach and counseling standards for adoption providers, there are some ways to identify an ethical agency: Do the strategies a provider uses for “birth mother outreach” seem high-pressure? Are pregnant people being given ample opportunities to fully explore all their options, including abortion and parenting? Would you be comfortable if your sister or friend was the target of these tactics at a vulnerable time in their lives? If you are a hopeful adoptive parent, would you be able to tell your adopted child that the person who gave birth to them was treated kindly and fairly? To what lengths are you willing to go to adopt an infant?
Adoption providers benefit from the false narratives that adoption is always an unqualified good, that it benefits children to be transferred to a family with more resources and preparation, and that there are so many babies in need of good homes. And uninformed prospective adoptive parents buy into it because it is an answer to their vulnerabilities and provides hope. Ultimately, accountability for ethical practices must reside with adoption providers and the state laws that regulate them.
While some adoption agencies already embrace the importance of ethical adoption practices—and could easily handle the volume of adoptions that result from truly voluntary relinquishments—there will always be unscrupulous providers willing to take money from pre-adoptive parents and fill the gap with aggressive and unethical marketing practices. As long as there are people willing to pay thousands of dollars to adopt a child, there will be those in the industry willing to do anything it takes to meet the need. That’s why we need stronger regulation and different discussions about what adoption could look like, in order to protect the interests of pregnant people considering placement, prospective adoptive parents, and the children at the center.
So how can we work toward adoption as a truly child-centered practice, reducing the influence of money and market dynamics on child welfare and family formation?
- Ground our conversations about adoption in the reality that there are far more people hoping to adopt infants than there are infants available, though there are highly variable statistics on this point.
- Shift the national narrative from “so many babies need new homes” to “so many people need our support and resources so they can parent their children.”
- Question our impulse to celebrate the “happy news” of adoption, which centers the conversation on the feelings of adoptive parents rather than acknowledging the very real losses of the adoptee and birth family.
- Reframe parenting as an option rather than an expectation, adoption as a privilege rather than a right, and the possibility of a meaningful life without children.
- Ensure that counseling standards for adoption providers include exploration of all options, referrals to parenting and family preservation resources, and practices that eliminate pressure and coercion to place.
- Strengthen regulations on the advertisement of adoption services to pregnant people; for example, eliminate ads that highlight payment of living expenses while pregnant, or require that for-profit providers disclose their status.
- Strengthen regulations on pricing for adoption services to reduce the financial incentives for adoption professionals as well as allow more people to be considered as adoptive parents.
- Ensure greater oversight from states to truly enforce counseling standards and regulations.
- Systematically reduce the number of adoption providers to better reflect the actual need for adoption placements by prohibiting for-profit adoption providers and limiting the number of new nonprofit providers.