Saturday, the day before Mother's Day, is Birth Mother's Day. It was started in 1990 by a group of birth mothers who had suffered through each Mother's Day feeling an agonizing need to recognize that they, too, had mothered a child even if they did not go on to parent it.
Many people assume, and anti-abortion groups insist, that giving up a baby for adoption is not only an easy choice, but a righteous alternative to abortion. It's not. First of all, it's unusual: less than 1% of women confronting unintended pregnancy today choose adoption. And for the birth mother adoption is difficult, often much more emotionally painful than abortion, according to many studies. With abortion, a woman almost always puts the decision behind her, and moves on; with adoption that can be considerably more challenging.
Yet abortion and adoption have a lot in common too. Just like women who choose abortion, women who make an adoption plan are subject to shame, coercion, misinformation, unfavorable laws, and the politicization of their choice. It is here that the reproductive rights movement may recognize a role for itself.
The pro-choice movement has already helped usher in a new era in adoption. Contraception, legalized abortion and the de-stigmatizing of unwed mothers helped create the environment in which birth mother rights could flourish. Birth mothers could take control of their pregnancy and its outcome. It allowed them to shape the way that their babies go into the world. As Sharon Kaplan Roszia, an open adoption practice pioneer, explains,
"Birth mothers gradually learned that babies for adoption were needed so desperately that they could have more control than ever before over the adoption process. And what many birth mothers wanted was to choose the people who would be raising their children, to meet them, and to stay in touch with them. Agencies realized that if they were to continue to offer adoption services, they would have to offer the same control and openness to birth mothers that other agencies were offering."
Adoption can be a painful choice but much of the difficulty is unnecessary. First, we should get rid of the misperceptions. It's safe to say every woman facing unintended pregnancy these days was born after the 1950s yet these women typically think of adoption in its vintage 50s form instead of its modern, kinder version. In a 2008 study, the Guttmacher Institute reported, "Without being asked directly, several of the women [who chose abortion] indicated that adoption is not a realistic option for them. They reported that the thought of one's child being out in the world without knowing if it was being taken care of or by whom would induce more guilt than having an abortion."
These women clearly had no knowledge of how open adoption works. In an open adoption the birth mother chooses the family with which she places her child, and stays in touch with the child. If a patient were deciding against abortion because of false information, as pro-choice advocates we would see it as our responsibility to give her the facts. We have a chance to do the same with adoption.
There are other areas in which pro-choice groups can lend political power on behalf birth mothers. For example, "Safe Haven" laws, now in effect in 49 states, have been tremendously harmful to birth mothers. Safe Haven laws were intended to prevent situations where birth mothers, at the moment of giving birth, feel so desperate without the financial, physical or emotional means to parent a child, that they inflict harm or cause death to their newborn baby. In practice, however, the law serves to deny women, the vast majority of whom would never consider harming the infant, important information about their options. Instead, women who have not yet given birth to a child and/or who have safely given birth to a child within a hospital setting and have indicated that they do not wish to parent their child are inappropriately encouraged to relinquish their baby to "safe haven" in lieu of being offered options counseling so that they may formulate a plan for their baby. This practice has the unintentional and unacceptable consequence of undermining a birth mother when she is at her most vulnerable by depriving her of information about her options, such as open adoption, and the right to reconsider relinquishing her child should she soon after regret her decision to do so. Alterations to these laws are necessary to address these violations.
Birth mothers are often unknowingly dis-empowered at the most important point of the adoption process. When have you heard of one lawyer representing both sides in a legal agreement? Pretty much never, right? Well, it happens all the time in adoption and birth mothers are always the vulnerable party. The practice has been so widespread that the American Bar Association publicly condemned it. A birth mother typically does not have the resources to retain her own counsel and often wants the adoption to commence as soon as possible but, at the very least, laws should be passed requiring lawyers to disclose to birth mothers this conflict on interest and the inherent risk to her. Reproductive rights groups would provide a valuable service to women by including them in the pro-bono legal work they already do.
The birth mothers who are most victimized are those who placed their children with the understanding that they would have ongoing information and/or contact, but the arrangement was cut off. Such contact and information is the most important factor in facilitating birth parents' adjustment. Only 24 states enforce open adoption agreements. So, in the remaining 26 states, the birth mother has no legal recourse if the day after the adoption is finalized the agreement is completely ignored.
Having a diverse pool of waiting families to choose from should also be considered a pro-choice value in adoption. Many women don't know that the candidate families have been pre-screened based on an agency's ideology or prejudice. Parentprofiles.com, a website that features profiles of waiting families, has been banned from doing business in two states because of discriminatory business practice - it refuses to publish profiles of gay waiting families. Some agencies won't accept single parents or require parents pledge to raise the child in the religion the agency approves.
There is tremendous need for more ethical standards in the field of adoption, just the kind long embraced by the pro-choice movement.
Cristina Page is Co-Director of Spence Chapin's Adoption Access Network. Follow @probirthmom