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By Cheryl Wetzstein
April 12, 2009 / Washington Times
The Oscar-winning movie "Juno" is the story of a wisecracking teen who becomes pregnant and chooses adoption for her baby.
In real life, though, there are very few such teens, wisecracking or not.
The latest federal data show about 6,800 babies a year are relinquished at birth for adoption, a minuscule number out of nearly 3 million unwed pregnancies. Moreover, only white women place their babies for adoption. Since 1989, the number of black babies relinquished at birth has been statistically zero.
"We hoped we would see a 'Juno' effect, but it hasn't happened," said Teresa McDonough, who directs the adoption program at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.
Why is "Juno"-style adoption — an unwed mother places her newborn with a unrelated couple — so rare?
Legal abortion is part of the answer. Some 50 million pregnancies have been erased since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
A new attitude about single motherhood is a factor too — what was once "no way" is now "OK."
Adoption, meanwhile, has become unthinkable.
Infant adoption is a "barbaric" practice, said one of many anti-adoption Web sites. "With abortion, grief has closure. With adoption, the grief intensifies over time," is a common warning.
Even young women who choose adoption, like Julia Thornton and Jessica O'Connor-Petts, find themselves explaining their decisions to friends or family.
"Some of my friends worried about how difficult it would be for me" to place my child for adoption, Ms. O'Connor-Petts said.
"There's a stigma attached to adoption," Ms. Thornton said.
• Part 2: Embryo adoption becoming the rage
Meanwhile, millions of Americans remain willing, even anxious, to adopt, and this number is likely to grow because infertility among men and women is expected to rise due to the epidemic of sexual disease.
Two other kinds of adoption are going relatively strong — about 50,000 children are adopted from U.S. foster care and about 20,000 children are adopted internationally each year.
But domestic infant adoption is dwindling. Can it be revived? Or is it destined to fade away, a choice that is almost never chosen?
Ms. Thornton was in college when she discovered she was pregnant.
Alone and devastated, she sought help from a college counselor, but since continuing the pregnancy would completely upend her academic career and life plans, abortion was the counselor's only serious recommendation.
"I left the appointment feeling frustrated," recalled Ms. Thornton, who has told her story at events sponsored by Feminists for Life. "I wanted to explore all my options."
As morning sickness and other pregnancy symptoms overwhelmed Ms. Thornton, she reluctantly realized she had to drop out of school — at a $10,000 cost to her family.
"I left my friends, my school and my academic career because I didn't have the support necessary to continue my studies," she said. "It was a tremendous price to pay for making the choice I made."
Placing her daughter for adoption was "the most difficult decision I will ever make, but it was the right one," she said.
Today, Ms. Thornton takes great comfort in knowing that the now-teenage girl — she sees her from time to time — is happy, healthy and living "a full life" with her adoptive family.
She thinks infant adoption has fallen into disfavor because of a lack of understanding about the unconditional love and sacrifice inherent in it.
"Speaking personally, there is nothing more humbling than to say, 'I am not good enough for this child,' and often, that's what it comes down to," Ms. Thornton told The Times. "To say, 'There is a better situation in which your child can be raised' - that takes a great sense of perspective and humility."
It was once relatively common for a young, single woman to relinquish her baby at birth for adoption.
Before 1973, nearly 9 percent of never-married women gave up their babies at birth, federal data show. In fact, relinquishment was so common among single, white women that adoption was the outcome for about one-fifth of their children.
But after 1973, this number dwindled to roughly 1 percent, and data from the most recent time period (1996 to 2002) suggest that a total of 48,000 babies were relinquished, or about 6,800 a year, said Jo Jones, a researcher at the National Center for Health Statistics who examined infant adoption data at The Times' request.
In fact, relinquishments are becoming so rare they may not be studied anymore, Ms. Jones said.
There's "rare" and "extremely rare" and "nonexistent," she said, and "with sample surveys, we just don't have enough numbers to produce reliable and stable statistics."
Even the 1996-2002 relinquishment numbers were captured with a wider net, Ms. Jones said.
"To produce those numbers [48,000 relinquished], I had to broaden the time frame" to include babies given up at the hospital and those given up within the first month of life, she said. "It is just such a rare event, both relinquishment and adoption."
In addition, virtually all babies relinquished since 1989 have been born to white women.
The number of black babies relinquished "is so few we can't say anything about it," Ms. Jones said. Statistically, "it's none."
The NCHS doesn't attempt to explain why these numbers are what they are, but other research has found that black families have a strong tradition of using family members and "informal" adoptions to care for babies without parents.
Hatred for adoption pours from Web sites such as www.antiadoption.com and www.keepyourbaby.com. "No one wants to be an adoptee," they warn. "No mother who has lost a child [to adoption] fully recovers."
"The adoption system is now virtually a North American phenomena - most other countries realize how barbaric it is toward mothers and children," said a Web site for "exiled mothers." Adoption, it said, is "an industry" in which "young, unwed (and thus powerless) parents are persuaded, through force, coercion or outright lies, to transfer parental rights of their children to older, more affluent couples."
"Juno" was a horror show, said Jessica Del Balzo, founder of the adoption-eradication advocacy group Adoption: Legalized Lies and author of "Unlearning Adoption: A Guide to Family Preservation and Protection."
"Taking a character who's supposed to be so savvy and smart — and have her be so detached from her baby and ultimately go through with an adoption — is a very bad portrayal," Ms. Del Balzo said. "I would hate to see other young girls emulate that. … The pop culture is not a reason for women to be separated from their babies."
At Catholic Charities in Arlington, Ms. McDonough has seen adoption practices change over the years.
It's true that decades ago, the social message to unwed pregnant women was "you can't be a single mom because it will disgrace the family," Ms. McDonough said. People made adoption plans with that mindset, and many were handled poorly — young women did have their babies whisked away.
"There was no acknowledgment of [the birth mother's] grief," Ms. McDonough said. "No wonder they couldn't let it go."
Today, birth mothers are "much more empowered" and their acts of adoption are cherished by adoptive families, she said. There's more openness and ongoing contact between birth mothers and adoptive families.
Adoption remains a bittersweet experience for most people, she said, but with better counseling and support services, birth mothers often become settled and at peace with their decision.
"It really is a loving option," she said.
Besides anti-adoption attitudes, both abortion and acceptance of single motherhood have contributed to the "perfect storm" that has beset domestic infant adoption.
Abortion is the outcome for 35 percent of unwed pregnancies. In fact, the first decision a single woman makes when faced with a pregnancy is whether to abort or continue the pregnancy, said Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, a network of 1,200 crisis pregnancy centers.
Abortion can appear to be better than adoption because "the baby doesn't seem that real," Mrs. Hartshorn said. Abortion just means the woman would be "unpregnant."
Abortion also can be perceived as a lesser heartache.
"They will say, 'I know it's killing my baby,' but they still think that it would be worse to have the baby, see the baby, know they have a baby, and then give it away," said Mrs. Hartshorn, who has worked with unwed mothers since the 1970s.
When women have decided to continue their pregnancies, the best time to talk about adoption is when they are about four months along, said Mrs. Hartshorn. "Now the baby is real to them, and the reality of 'How am I going to care for this child?' is sinking in. … They can think more realistically about adoption."
However, young women often start pouring their energies into becoming a mother — maybe even marrying the father of the baby, Mrs. Hartshorn said, and once that happens, "adoption doesn't come up again."
Adoption is offered as an option at the Bowie-Crofton Pregnancy Clinic, which served 1,300 teens and young women last year, said Pamela Palumbo, executive director.
A few years ago, she said, the clinic sent about 25 volunteers for adoption training from the National Council for Adoption (NCFA). The training definitely improved the volunteers' comfort level in talking about adoption, she said, but it hasn't affected the number of girls choosing it.
Instead, the vast majority of mothers — like Andrea Brown, Katie Egender and Amelia Mbuyi — choose to parent their children.
Four years ago when she became pregnant, Ms. Brown thought about abortion but rejected it. She then considered adoption for a while, but "after seeing the heartbeat," she began "leaning more toward parenthood."
With adoption, she said, "I felt like I would be handing the responsibility to someone else" and that didn't feel right. She also felt she could manage single motherhood since she came from a strong family that was ready to back her up.
Being a single parent isn't easy, said Ms. Brown, who works in the health industry in Maryland, but having her daughter has helped her make many good choices. "She is a daily reminder to me to think twice" about doing things, she said.
When Ms. Mbuyi became pregnant last year, she too thought about abortion and adoption. After deciding against abortion, she went to a pregnancy clinic for support.
The clinic workers "really pushed" adoption, she said, "but I was 21. I had a good job and had lived on my own already. So I pretty much had it set in my head that I was going to be a parent." Also, she said, "I didn't want to carry her for nine months and then say goodbye."
For Mrs. Egender, parenthood was the only choice for her when she became pregnant three years ago.
"I knew from the moment I got pregnant, I intended on keeping my baby," said the Loudoun County mother. "I was attached to it; it was a life."
The pregnancy brought her and her boyfriend closer together, and they "went from dating, to marriage, to parenthood in a year," she said. Today they have a second child - and no regrets.
Wishing for a child
Interest in adopting a baby remains high.
An estimated 10 million American couples "would likely attempt to adopt an infant domestically if they felt they had a realistic opportunity to do so," pollster Richard B. Wirthlin said in the "Adoption Factbook IV," issued in 2007 by NCFA, a trade group for adoption agencies.
The number of infertile couples is also likely to grow. Chlamydia, "the silent disease," is spreading through the young population, and already 100,000 young women a year are experiencing severe damage to their reproductive organs due to complications from these infections.
Pro-life groups are also determined to keep the "adoption option" alive and well.
Feminists for Life, for instance, is urging Congress to push colleges to offer services for pregnant and parenting college students, such as those offered at Georgetown University.
Campus officials too often steer young women to abortion, saying, "Well, you can't graduate if you have the baby," said Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life. But what's the use of being pro-choice if there aren't any choices, she asked.
Another way to encourage adoption is to hold a dedication ceremony as part of the adoption, said Ms. O'Connor-Petts, who placed her child for adoption more than a decade ago.
When she gave her baby to his adoptive parents, for instance, it was in a Catholic church. A priest presided over the "entrustment ceremony" and blessed all the participants. Afterward, the baby went home with his new parents, and Ms. O'Connor-Petts went home with her parents.
Ms. O'Connor-Petts was a young, single college graduate when she learned she was pregnant. Marriage was not an option, but adoption was.
"We had always talked in my household growing up about abortion, and how adoption was such a natural choice for a woman not ready to parent," she said. "So for me, it wasn't such a long decision process. It was really the first thing that came to mind."
She still toyed with the idea of single parenting.
"Financially, I could have done it," she said. "But I was realistic with myself about what it would have meant for me — my goals, aspirations and what it would have meant for my child, who would have been in day care a lot."
Also, there were many good prospective parents out there, "and it didn't make sense to me to put my son in a situation where he probably wouldn't have everything that I would want for him. He especially wouldn't have the two-parent upbringing that I would want for him," she said.
Ms. O'Connor-Petts initially pursued a "closed" adoption through Catholic Charities, which meant "I wasn't going to know last names, but I would get updates and photos through the agency."
But later, as the baby got older, "we all felt, and expressed to each other through the agency, that we would all be more comfortable with more contact."
Today, she sees her birth son's family a few times a year. He was also the ring bearer in her wedding and her sister's wedding a few years ago.
The boy, who is now 11, has already asked her why she placed him for adoption.
"I was able to answer that, and I think he was happy with the answer," she said. "I basically said that I wanted his parents to be his parents. I told him, 'I thought that was best for you,' since I was quite young and couldn't give him the life I wanted him to have."
Ms. O'Connor-Petts also has a response about the endless grief that is predicted by some birth mothers.
"If you make the decision that you really believe is the best one for you and the child, you will be able to live with yourself," she said. "The only way you won't be able to live with yourself is when you make a decision that you sense is not the best decision for you or your child."
"For some people," she added, the best decision "may not be adoption. But for me, the joy of watching him grow up in his family far outweighs the grief of separating from him."