Nina Easton is Fortune magazine’s Washington columnist and a Fox News analyst.
In today’s America, a single woman facing a surprise pregnancy is likely to consider just two options: abortion or single motherhood. The third choice, adoption, carries such a social stigma that domestic placement of infants has plummeted — even as the number of parents desperate for a baby grows.
Birth mothers choose life, and a family, for their child. But this choice is rarely celebrated. Women routinely face family, friends and even health-care providers who think that adoption equals abandonment, according to researchers and conversations with birth mothers. “Just look at the language people use: ‘She’s giving up her baby,’ ” says Kathy Kunkel, founder of the Utah-based agency A Act of Love. “In fact, a birth mother is choosing a good home for her baby.”
Birth mothers in the United States each year number in only the thousands, compared with approximately 1.2 million abortions performed annually, according to Guttmacher Institute estimates, and 1.4 million unexpected unwed births each year. Women bucking the cultural tide generally do not publicize their choice. They are much more willing to admit they have terminated a pregnancy, adoption advocates say, than to say they have placed a live newborn with loving parents.
This cultural bias infuses the guidance women receive. Just 1 percent of pregnant women who seek counseling, whether at a church-backed pregnancy crisis center or a clinic where abortions are performed, walk out with an adoption referral, according to the National Council for Adoption. And as council President Charles Johnson told me in an interview: “Your decision is only as good as the information you’re given.”
Russia’s recent ban on adoptions by American parents has drawn attention to the troubled state of international programs, but the U.S. adoption system is also in crisis. Reliable data on American babies placed for adoption are difficult to find. Figures from the adoption councilthat are five years old suggest that annually there are about 18,000 children up to age 2. Only some of those are newborns.
A woman’s decision to carry a baby to term knowing that she will not reap the fruits of motherhood should be treated as an act of bravery and selflessness — the ultimate standards of good motherhood. How did it come to be considered an act of shame?
The numbers offer some insights. Domestic adoptions peaked in 1971 at 90,000 a year — and began a dramatic decline after the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade made abortion legal. Whereas abortion silences the trauma of unexpected pregnancy, birth-mothering trumpets it. Carrying a baby to term invites intrusive questions from friends and strangers alike, and admitting that you are not keeping your baby may incite hostility.
Single motherhood, meanwhile, has become socially acceptable. A majority of births to women under 30 now occur outside marriage. Plenty of single moms carry that off, but what of those who end up in a destructive cycle of poverty, government dependency or abusive partners?
The stigma of adoption even extends to some pro-life evangelical quarters, where, Johnson notes, abortion is cause for seeking forgiveness and moving on, but adoption means giving up on your faith — and your baby. During his years training pro-life counselors at pregnancy crisis centers across the nation, Johnson told me, he would invoke the names of inspiring adoptees from the Bible, including Moses, to make his case.
Tears ran down Adria Anderson’s cheeks as she recounted last month — publicly for the first time — her decision to terminate her surprise pregnancy three years ago. She was too young to raise a child on her own, she explained when we met, and abortion seemed the least bad option. Now it’s a decision she will always regret. “No one ever talked about adoption,” she recalled.
Anderson is helping to lead the adoption council campaign geared toward birth mothers, at IChooseAdoption.org. “I want to make sure no one has to feel the pain that I do,” she says. “I want to feel proud about the choice I made.”
A full accounting of adoption as an option would not underestimate its emotional challenges — the grief and loss for birth mothers, the uncertainties for adoptive parents operating under a patchwork of state laws. But commonly held myths about domestic adoption would be dispelled. The super-secret affairs of old are largely gone; rather, birth mothers typically choose the family, and adoptive parents share letters and pictures. The baby’s future does not disappear into a black hole.
Adoption should be an empowering option for young women in crisis, knowing that the people around them — family, friends, church — will respect their choice. On this Mother’s Day, I’ll be celebrating the courage of the birth mother who gave our daughter the gift of life — and gave my husband and me the greatest joy of our marriage.