If you have spent any time reading the news or browsing social media since the leak of the Dobbs decision earlier this spring, you’ve probably come across the message that, absent easy access to abortion, women’s only option is forced birth followed by a lifetime of maternal servitude. As UC–Irvine law professor Michele Goodwin wrote in the New York Times, Justice Samuel Alito’s failure to find the right to an abortion in the Fourteenth Amendment “craftily renders Black women and their bondage invisible.”
Some abortion-rights advocates apparently believe that, in order to make this narrative true, they must also work to remove the possibility of adoption. As one writer with 30,000 followers tweeted a few months ago: “I would rather get an abortion than have a brown child who ends up being adopted by white evangelicals. It is not a kindness to children of the global majority to give them to people who will traumatize them with self and ancestral hatred. An abortion is an act of love.”
Following the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, Boston University professor and author of How to Be an Antiracist Ibram X. Kendi tweeted: “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.”
So just to be clear: it’s racist when the law requires black women to raise their own children, and it’s racist when white families offer to adopt them. The only thing that is not racist, according to these activists, is aborting black fetuses right up until the moment of birth.
The idea that white parents caring for black children is a form of colonization is not new. Malcolm X said as much more than a half-century before Kendi. In 1938, Malcolm’s mother, Louise Little, suffered a nervous breakdown after her husband was murdered. Six of her children, including Malcolm, were sent to four different foster homes. Malcolm was placed with a white family. In his 1965 book, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which he coauthored with journalist Alex Haley, he lamented that “Judge McClellan in Lansing had authority over me and all of my brothers and sisters. . . . A white man in charge of a black man’s children! Nothing but legal, modern slavery—however kindly intentioned.” In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement taking “a vehement stand against the placements of Black children in white homes for any reason.” The group called transracial adoptions “unnatural,” “unnecessary,” and “artificial,” arguing that such placements were evidence of the continued “chattel status” of African-Americans.
Such views are at odds with the opinions of most Americans today, who find interracial families to be either unremarkable or a generally positive development. A Pew Research Center poll in 2017, for instance, found that “roughly four-in-ten adults (39 percent) now say that more people of different races marrying each other is good for society—up significantly from 24 percent in 2010.” The share saying it’s a bad thing fell from 13 percent to only 9 percent. A 2017 survey of potential adoptive parents by the Dave Thomas Foundation found that almost half had no preference at all about the race of the child they would adopt. It is hard to express just how remarkable that result is, not just in twenty-first-century America but also in the context of history.
Public opinion on interracial adoption is more than just a sign of racial tolerance; it also makes clear the importance that American families place on the well-being of children, even those not their own. Of the respondents considering adoption from foster care (obviously, a small subset of the population), most did not say that they were doing so out of a desire to grow their family. Rather, they noted that children needed “good homes,” that they deserve a “better future,” or that “all children need to know they are loved.” Belief in the need to care for our country’s most vulnerable children has won out over prejudice and even evolutionary instinct.
Despite the positive public view of adoption in general (and transracial adoption in particular), the practice has been declining for a number of years. In a 2019 piece for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan laid out the statistics:
Though exact estimates for all women are hard to come by, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that among never-married women, about 9 percent chose adoption before 1973, when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion. (The figure was higher for white women: 19 percent.) By the mid-1980s, the figure had dropped to 2 percent, and it was just 1 percent by 2002, the last year the CDC data captured. In 2014, only 18,000 children under the age of 2 were placed with adoption agencies. By comparison, there are about 1 million abortions each year.
So what happened? It was not just that abortions became more common; single motherhood had also lost its stigma. Though religious communities are among the most likely to encourage adoption, many crisis pregnancy centers are just as likely to encourage women to keep their babies as they are to place them for adoption. They offer both material and emotional support for women who choose to keep their babies—even if they are wholly unprepared to do so because of age or substance abuse, for instance.
In other words, neither pro-life nor pro-choice advocates had any stake in suggesting adoption to women who are pregnant. This is one reason why so many families are waiting to adopt—between 1 and 2 million, by some estimates. For decades, the demand for adoptive babies in the United States has outstripped the supply.
The number of babies adopted internationally has also been declining. The State Department reported that 5,648 children were adopted abroad in the 2015 fiscal year, down from a peak of 22,884 in 2004. A combination of policies from source countries and from our own State Department, whose employees are not big fans of international adoption, have driven the trend. Contrary to the popular narrative that we colonialists are snatching children from loving parents, many of these kids languish in orphanages, and some have medical or developmental problems that will make it hard for them to find a family in their home countries.
Critics of adoption as an alternative to abortion note that we already have 100,000 kids in the U.S. foster care system waiting for parents. Why would we add to those numbers by restricting abortion? In a recent article for Oprah Daily, Sarah Sentilles—who wrote a memoir about fostering a child—criticizes Justice Barrett for mentioning the safe haven laws that allow mothers to drop newborns off at hospitals or fire stations without fear of criminal consequences. “These abandoned infants enter the foster care system, and Coney Barrett’s casual language about Safe Haven laws reveals her ignorance about the foster care system.” On the contrary, Sentilles’s claims reveal her own ignorance about adoption. Abandoned babies generally do not spend long periods of time in the foster system because there is no one fighting for custody. And, like it or not, many families would gladly adopt an abandoned infant but hesitate to take in a child who has already been abused and neglected by a parent for years before they are freed for adoption by our broken system. Both sets of children deserve safe, loving, and permanent homes, but many more parents feel equipped to care for the first group than the second.
It is not clear what the post-Roe environment will look like for pregnant mothers and unwanted children. Some women will undoubtedly be more careful about contraception or make more use of Plan B. Others will cross state lines to procure abortions in states where they are more readily available. Some mothers will bear a child even if they cannot or do not want to raise one.
It is on this last group that the system should focus its attention, presenting adoption as a viable and even empowering option early on. Though adoption was often coercive in the past, today so many families want to adopt that mothers are presented with—to borrow a phrase—binders full of families to choose from. Birth mothers can decide if they want their children to be raised by Jews, Catholics, or Muslims, black families or white families, gay or straight parents, suburban or urban, and so on. And almost all adoptions are open, so they need not wonder what became of their child, and the child need not wonder what became of his biological mother. Nothing about adoption is ideal; every one starts in some kind of tragedy. But there is also much to celebrate about the families that form in these difficult circumstances, and they are far preferable to situations in which a woman bears a child but then neglects or abuses him.
For mothers whose other children have already been removed, a private infant adoption may be the best way forward. But there is a fine line here. Presented with the choice of having yet another child bouncing around the foster care system or one who is in a safe home with loving parents, many mothers would gladly pick the second option. The choice cannot be coercive, but adoption should become a part of our national conversation again.