Perspective: Why is the stigma around adoption growing?
A new study suggests more women are being shamed for the decision to place their child for adoption, making a mother’s impossible decision even harder
Over the past half-century, many of American society’s stigmas have fallen away. In most circles, taboos against premarital sex, same-sex relationships, interracial relationships and out-of-wedlock birth — just to name a few — have become almost nonexistent.
But there is at least one that has actually grown, the stigma against placing your child for adoption. According to a new study from the National Council for Adoption, in the 1970s, about 70% of birth mothers “experienced some level of stigma about their decision to place their child for adoption,” compared to more than 90% in the 2010s.
Of course, as the authors note, some women in the 1970s didn’t face a stigma because no one knew about their adoptions. Adoptions were typically closed, meaning “the original birth records were not available to adoptees and contact/relationships between birth families and adoptive families were usually nonexistent or mediated and anonymized by an agency.”
Still, it is worth asking why so many birth mothers today experience strong criticism for their decision.
According to the survey, the most cited source of criticism was other relatives, followed by parents, friends and health care workers. Let’s examine each of these, starting with the last.
Almost a third of birth mothers say health care workers gave them a hard time about their decision to place a child for adoption. It’s tempting to ask: What is wrong with these people? You don’t know all of the difficulty and consideration that led up to this decision. Who are you to tell a birth mother — or even suggest — that she shouldn’t place a child for adoption?
We don’t know what the health care workers would suggest instead, but presumably at least some of them would have pushed abortion. Indeed, the reason private infant adoption is relatively rare these days is neither side is invested in it. The folks who are fine with abortion think that is the best solution for unwanted children. And the folks who are opposed to abortion often take the view that a woman should simply raise the child herself. And thanks to the end of the stigma against out of wedlock birth and single motherhood, well, why not?
The problem is there are many women who don’t want an abortion or who have waited so long into the pregnancy they have effectively chosen not to have one and also don’t feel capable of raising a child.
Of course, the reasons these women don’t feel capable of properly raising a child are different than they were 50 years ago. The number of teen pregnancies has fallen considerably. In fact, the average age of a woman who placed a child for adoption was 29. More than 60% were married and more than two-thirds had a bachelor’s or master’s degree. So the reason they don’t feel equipped to raise a child is not that they are young or uneducated.
These findings echo those of a report released earlier this year by the University of Chicago research organization NORC, regarding the birth mothers who placed through Spence Chapin Adoption Services.
Obviously, the cultural messages telling these women they are not capable of keeping a baby should be examined. Do we tell mothers that a child must always have the highest level of financial support or stability in order to be raised well? Do we tell mothers that it’s impossible to raise a child when they are at a stressful time in their careers? Yes, but getting pushback from health care workers is not going to change that.
What about the other folks who might be stigmatizing birth parents? In addition to family, a surprisingly large number of women said they had experienced stigma from a member of the clergy or religious leader. Making the decision to place a child for adoption is not done lightly in this era. Because it is so unpopular and because others frown on this decision, we have to assume women are considering all their options. One might hope a religious leader would be conscious of this.
The survey also found clear racial differences in how women experienced stigma. While 15% of white women said they experienced none, fewer than 7% of black women said the same. The conversation around transracial adoption in this country has probably influenced this outcome to some degree. Black women experienced lower levels of criticism from clergy, but that was more than made up for by parents, relatives and friends, apparently. Children are too often seen as commodities in our communities, and women who place theirs for adoption can be seen as traitors. In the recent Supreme Court case decided on the Indian Child Welfare Act, tribal leaders who wanted to limit adoption by white families described their children as “resources.” But children are not resources for their communities. They are individuals who deserve love and safety.
As one of the participants in the National Council for Adoption focus group noted, “The thing that had an influence (on my decision to place a child for adoption) was just the desire to care for and love my child in the way that I wanted her to be loved and cared for.” This is not a sentiment deserving of stigma.
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.