Controlling Our Reproductive Destiny: Rethinking Adoption as the Better Option

Originally published in Gazillion Voices magazine on June 9, 2014. The original post may be found here.



I first would like to thank Kevin Haebeom Vollmers, Shelise Gieseke, and the many others who are part of the Gazillion Voices family. I am excited to join the research team.

“Adoption across political and cultural borders may simultaneously be an act of violence and an act of love, an excruciating rupture and a generous incorporation, an appropriation of valued resources and a constitution of personal ties.”

– Pauline Turner Strong[1]

When I taught my students in Introduction to Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies in Spring 2014, we watched A Girl Like Her (2012), directed by Ann Fessler. I paired our discussion of the film with articles that examined the activism within communities of color to guarantee women’s autonomy over their bodies. For some, it was clear that reproductive justice and adoption intersect. For others, it was the first time they were seeing birth mothers as real people, out of the shadows.

Our unit on reproductive rights included a discussion of how this concept has become linked to a singular choice: abortion. Nevertheless, a more expansive definition of choice exists. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee write: “Reproductive choice involves being able to have safe and affordable birth and parenting options; reliable, safe, and affordable birth control technologies; freedom from forced sterilization; and the availability of abortion.”[2] Even as we recognize that choice encompasses multiple options concerning parenthood and reproductive autonomy, the term remains fraught with tension when considering legacies of forced sterilization, removal of children, and promotion of dangerous contraceptives in communities of color.[3] The utilization of a reproductive justice framework is rooted in my desire for a holistic approach to understand how the concept of “choice” is not merely about access to safe and affordable abortion. As SisterSong, a women of color reproductive justice collective, notes:

 The reproductive justice framework – the right to have children, not have children, and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments – is based on the human right to make personal decisions about one’s life, and the obligation of government and society to ensure that the conditions are suitable for implementing one’s decisions is important for women of color…

 … Reproductive Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny. Moving beyond a demand for privacy and respect for individual decision making to include the social supports necessary for our individual decisions to be optimally realized, this framework also includes obligations from our government for protecting women’s human rights. Our options for making choices have to be safe, affordable and accessible, three minimal cornerstones of government support for all individual life decisions.[4]

While Fessler’s film and book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (2006), address the maternity homes of the mid-twentieth century and their impact on young, white women, her message is clear: women lacked control of their reproductive destiny. For women of color, in particular, this message continues into the twenty-first century in the US and abroad. This is not to discount the experiences of white women who also face similar economic, social, and political situations. However, I urge us to consider how the lack of reproductive choice continues to inhibit the ability of black, indigenous, Latina, and Asian women to contemplate the remote possibility that their parental rights will never be challenged, curtailed, or eliminated. These communities traditionally face population control methods that undermine autonomy of their reproductive capabilities.[5]

Which Parents can Assert Reproductive Destiny?

When considering adoption from Asia, it is far too often that birth mothers in particular are either valorized as selfless (i.e. Kim’s “altruistic” suicide in Miss Saigon) or continually rendered as prostitutes.[6] Adoptee memoirs discuss how the trope of birth mother as prostitute is discussed within the adoptive family and amongst one’s friends.[7] Mia Farrow and her supporters also utilized this simplistic caricature during the Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen scandal to weaken her daughter’s credibility.[8] The complex realities of birth mothers and biological parents, more generally, are rarely depicted in far less pathologizing terms in mainstream society. By rendering these individuals as deficient or defective, society undermines the possibility that these women – these allegedly “bad” mothers – from entering our imagination as potential equals to the “good” adoptive mother.[9] Rooted in notions of mothers as reproducing citizens of the nation, white mothers, under the Christian American rubric, are deemed “fit” parents not only in the context of transnational adoption, but also in existing discussions concerning the moral imperative of motherhood in domestic adoption debates.[10] Laura Briggs finds: “Stranger adoption is a national and international system whereby the children of impoverished or otherwise disenfranchised mothers are transferred to middle-class, wealthy mothers (and fathers).”[11] Notions of parental “fitness” underscore the ways in which national and racial hierarchies operate to fuel transnational and domestic, transracial adoptions.

As the narrative of birth mothers and birth fathers becomes complicated and society recognizes the complexities of “choice” in decisions to place children for adoption, it is evident that any decisions concerning adoption are constrained choices. First parents have limited options – whether it is the unwed mother living in a Florence Crittenten maternity home to the Guatemalan mother unknowingly relinquishing her parental rights to the Korean mother facing societal stigma and lacking economic support. This lack of choice was evident in recent cases of domestic adoption from Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013) to Robert Manzanares’ fight to gain legal custody of his biological daughter, who was placed for adoption without his consent.

When adoption is presented and often encouraged to adoptive parents at the expense of the reproductive rights of birth parents, we should ask ourselves why. Who decides parental fitness? How is the adoptive parent who re-homes his/her child more fit than the birth parents of lesser socio-economic means? Or, how can individuals at the center of a national racism scandal be able to continue adoption proceedings? While this is not a call to debate parental fitness of prospective and current adoptive parents, it is an appeal for members of the adoption triad and the adoption community to rethink what the end goals are with adoption as a form of family building and family destruction.

A reproductive justice framework thus offers a lens to understand how the ability to control one’s reproductive destiny is challenged in adoption practice. Maternity homes affiliated with an adoption agency raise questions concerning reproductive coercion. Reproductive justice includes an individual’s right to parent children in a safe environment without fear of consequences that could penalize their ability to parent. The work of the Korean Unwed Mothers’ Families Association (KUFMA) in South Korea is one organization that advocates for the rights of unwed pregnant women, mothers, and their children.

When socio-economic inequality, societal stigma, and government understandings of “good” families intersect, barriers are constructed that encourage specific types of families, while undermining the ability of other families to sustain themselves as an intact unit. In her interview with Shannon Gibney, legal scholar Dorothy Roberts comments:

My main contention with the people who support transracial adoption as a solution to the needs of Black children is that, not only are they not looking at the source of the problem and addressing that, but that they also tend to devalue the relationship that Black children have with their mothers and the rest of their family. In fact, to the point where some of them have argued that there should be easier and speedier termination of Black mothers’ rights so that these children can be adopted transracially. I just think that’s a horrific argument that completely demeans Black women and devalues their relationships with their children, and doesn’t account for the harm that children experience when they’re unnecessarily removed from their mothers; it just doesn’t show understanding for the reason for the large number of Black children in foster care. It’s a racist argument when they specifically cite termination of these Black women’s parental rights as a way to have these children adopted into white homes.[12]

Roberts’ discussion of the fast-paced termination of black mothers’ rights is similar to the above-mentioned cases involving birth fathers. Yet, this devaluing of birth parents of color is not limited to the US. Consider the language deployed to discuss birth parents of internationally adopted children. Whether it’s the Asian birth mother as prostitute or the hyperfertile, illiterate birth mother from Latin America, these individuals are considered ready or somehow more willing to sacrifice their parenthood. At the same time, agencies and orphanages have characterized these parents as either altruistic or too morally deficient to function as “good” parents.

Adoptees as Consumer Goods: Overlooking Adoptee and Birth Parent Rights

The pathologized construction of birth parents provides the groundwork that promotes adoptive parents in the US to encourage speedier timelines for transnational adoption completion. Discussing their family’s experiences, an adoptive parent notes:

We waited longer than four years. International adoptions slowed down tremendously when the Hague convention was enacted. There has also been an increased interest and demand in international adoptions, so the process became backlogged. We were waiting to adopt a healthy, young child and there is a long waiting list to do so from China.[13]

The lengthy nature of the adoption process is best illustrated when comparing the average wait times for a child by country of origin. According to Adoptive Families, 53% of parents adopting from China wait a minimum of twelve months for a child referral and then 42% of parents wait an additional three months prior to the child’s entrance into the United States.[14] In total, adoptive parents wait a minimum of fifteen months until adoption completion from China. In contrast to this lengthy process, the minimum wait for a completed adoption from Ethiopia is six months.[15] Even as the timelines for adoption from Ethiopia is markedly shorter on average, an adoptive parent of an Ethiopian child notes: “Unfortunately, we got stuck in the switch over from 1 to 2 trips in Ethiopia, as well as the annual summer court closure. So we were delayed more than we should have been in bringing our son home.”[16] The language utilized by the adoptive parents of Chinese and Ethiopian children positions these delays as personal inconveniences. In particular, when looking at the second adoptive parent quote, it is interesting that visiting Ethiopia twice is considered a hassle versus as an opportunity to learn more about the adoptee’s ethnic background. Further, phrases such as “the process became backlogged” or “unfortunately, we got stuck” demonstrates how adoptive parents locate themselves as consumers, who should receive quality service. This consumer frustration was highlighted in a 2013 article from The Chicago Tribune, which discussed the obstacles of intercountry adoptions.”[17]

Framing adoption as a set of “inconveniences” or “obstacles” to adoptive parents – the consumers within this process – ignores broader sociopolitical concerns over corruption and the black market of children. To this end, adoptive parent Margie Perscheid writes: “We promote institutionalized abandonment by establishing baby boxes and baby hatches, and by creating practices that work around existing law and common sense to allow adoption agencies to hide first parent identities and fabricate them for adoptees.” When the larger concern is which country program will get me a child faster versus which country ensures birth parents are not forcibly coerced to make a fast decision for me to obtain my child, then we have a problem. This is not to say I lack empathy for adoptive parents who hold a strong desire to adopt and form their families. Rather, I ask if a more ethical adoption practice can ever be implemented without encountering charges that these regulations produce a backlog and impediments for adoptive parents.

Situating adoption within the rubric of reproductive justice activism provides space to discuss the tireless work of adoption triad members to support the rights of biological parents. From the work of Ohio Birthparent Group’s founder and director, Kate Livingston, to the efforts of Jane Jeong Trenka, Shannon Heit, TRACK (Truth and Reconciliation for the Adoption Community of Korea), among others, in South Korea, it is clear that we have a arrived to a new moment in adoption history. No longer clouded in secrecy, unacknowledged by mainstream society, individuals working to secure the rights of all members of the adoption triad are coming out of the shadows. For example, TRACK began Single Moms’ Day in 2011 in South Korea, “to challenge the government’s Adoption Day.”[18] TRACK notes: “We were inspired by the First Nations people in the U.S. who celebrate ‘Native American Day’ on Thanksgiving in order to challenge the dominant narrative and draw people’s attention toward a different center of gravity.” Recently, TRACK and the Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association held a two-day event in May 2014 with support from KoRoot, Dandelions, InTree, Korean Single Parent Alliance, Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, Seoul Single Parent Alliance, Seoul Single Parent Support Center, MP Nam Yoon In-soon (Democratic United Party), and MP Hyun Min-ju (Saenuri Party).

Valuing the Rights of All Parents

A reproductive justice lens disrupts narratives of adoption as a form of child rescue and humanitarian practice. It requires adoptive parents to question the ways in which their children arrived into their homes. This is not to elicit white liberal guilt; instead, it is meant to dismantle historical inaccuracies concerning adoption stories. The happy narratives of the stork or the tale that “you were born in someone else’s tummy, but were meant for our family” can no longer function in that we have pulled back the curtain. The great and powerful Oz (the adoption agency in this case) can no longer sell this chicanery of adoption as the better option.[19] The continued deception by Oz has allowed for a singular narrative that promotes adoption as best while simultaneously presenting birth parents and sending countries as pathological, negative individuals and places. The voices of birth parents, adoptive parents, and adoptees counter this deception as they weave a narrative that exposes the complexity of adoption.

If we recognize birth parents’ rights as human rights and in turn recognize reproductive rights as birth parents’ rights, it becomes evident that we must continue to change the conversation to meet our communities’ various needs. We need to acknowledge the multiple and intersecting power arrangements that allow for the continued decimation of communities of color at the benefit of adoptive families.[20] This existing power inequity was recognized at the end of the twentieth century as developing countries increasingly defined international adoption as “imperialistic, self-serving, and a return to a form of colonialism in which whites exploit and steal natural resources.”[21] By characterizing adoptees as “resources,” we become more aware of how adoptees represent lost members of a future generation of their birth country.

This essay aimed to encourage us to have a broader understanding of adoption and the violence it has on families. In doing so, I sought to create space to rethink how adoption is discussed as a reproductive option versus part of the wider reproductive justice framework. While I focused on the experiences of women of color, I recognize that white birth parents are still limited in freely fulfilling their reproductive destiny. Therefore, as more instances of abuse with adoptive families gain media attention, the international and domestic adoption communities must be called to act. The complacency and silence associated with adoption practice in the twentieth century cannot persist for it comes at too high of a price.


[1] Pauline Turner Strong, “To Forget Their Tongue, Their Name, and Their Whole Relation: Captivity, Extra-Tribal Adoption, and the Indian Child Welfare Act,” in Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies, by Sarah Franklin and Susan McKinnon (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 471.

[2] Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee, Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, Fifth ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), 290.

[3] Joel Sillman et al., “Women of Color and Their Struggle for Reproductive Justice,” in Women’s Voices, Feminist Visions: Classic and Contemporary Readings, ed. Susan M. Shaw and Janet Lee, Fifth ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012).

[4] SisterSong, “What Is RJ?,” SisterSong: Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, 2014, accessed May 8, 2014, http://www.sistersong.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=141&Itemid=81.

[5] See: Laura Briggs, Reproducing Empire: Race, Sex, Science, and U.S. Imperialism in Puerto Rico (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002); Salamishah Tillet, “Forced Sterilizations and the Future of the Women’s Movement,” The Nation, July 9, 2013, accessed May 09, 2014, http://www.thenation.com/blog/175175/forced-sterilizations-and-future-womens-movement.

[6] Kim Park Nelson, “Guest Post: Assisted Suicide: Adoptee Perspectives and Miss Saigon,” Gazillion Voices, 2013, accessed May 08, 2014, http://gazillionvoices.com/guest-post-assisted-suicide-adoptee-perspectives-and-miss-saigon/#.U2kiyESCYgI.

[7] See Jane Jeong Trenka, The Language of Blood: A Memoir (St. Paul: Graywolf Press, 2003).

[8] See Mia Farrow, What Falls Away: A Memoir (New York: Doubleday, 1997).

[9] Discussing how this Madonna/whore complex impacts domestic birth mothers, Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy notes: “Why is it so hard to see a birth mother as a real, live person? Both of the views — the sinner or saint, the Madonna or whore, the selfless or the abandoner — are just so limiting and not real.  Instead, they are parts cast in this play we call “adoption.” They are roles that need to be filled so that the storyline works out, so that at some point the main characters get a happy ending. It is nothing more than a parroting of the carefully honed adoption-marketing message. It is the opening prologue that sets the tone for the adoptee’s life”; Claudia Corrigan D’Arcy, “Between the Extremes,” Gazillion Voices, December 5, 2013, accessed May 08, 2014, http://gazillionvoices.com/between-the-extremes/#.U2o7TUSCYgI.

[10] Nora Rose Moosnick, Adopting Maternity: White Women Who Adopt Transracially or Transnationally (Westport: Praeger, 2004). See also: Barbara Melosh, Strangers and Kin: The American Way of Adoption (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002).

[11] Laura Briggs, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 4.

[12] Dorothy Roberts, “On Stories That Become Policies That Become The Black Family Destroyed; An Interview with Dorothy Roberts: Part I,” interview by Shannon Gibney, Gazillion Voices (audio blog), January 8, 2014, accessed May 8, 2014, http://gazillionvoices.com/on-stories-that-become-policies-that-become-the-black-family-destroyed-an-interview-with-dorothy-roberts-part-i/#.U2o7p0SCYgI.

[13] Adoptive Families, “Latest Adoption Cost and Wait Time Data,” Adoptive Families, 2013, accessed April 07, 2013, http://www.adoptivefamilies.com/articles.php?aid=2161. The Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption aims to standardize adoption practices for countries that signed the agreement. Designed to safeguard “the best interests of the child,” the Convention also seeks to create transparency concerning the adoption process from relinquishment to adoption finalization.

[14] Ibid. Yet, please note The Adoption Guide notes that when adopting from China, “for healthy children, approximately four and a half year from completion of dossier to referral. Waiting time is considerably shorter for special-needs children”; The Adoption Guide, “The Adoption Guide: Getting Started on China Adoption,” The Adoption Guide, 2013, accessed April 7, 2013, http://www.theadoptionguide.com/options/
adoption-from-china.

[15] 53% of parents adopting from Ethiopia wait at a minimum of three months or less for a child referral and then 42% of parents wait an additional three months until the child enters the U.S.; Adoptive Families, “Latest Adoption Cost and Wait Time Data.”

[16] Adoptive Families, “Latest Adoption Cost and Wait Time Data.”

[17] Leslie Mann, “Foreign Adoption Comes with Obstacles, but Parents Advised to ‘stay the Course'” Chicago Tribune, April 1, 2013, accessed April 9, 2013, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/ct-x-foreign-adoption-20130402,0,6301893.story.

[18] TRACK, “The 4th Annual Single Moms’ Day Is Here! – TRACK,” TRACK, April 20, 2014, accessed May 08, 2014, http://www.adoptionjustice.com/4th-annual-single-moms-day/.

[19] In her essay, “Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Learning how to be a critical consumer of adoption research,” JaeRan Kim explores how research is placed upon a pedestal in similar ways to how Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz place the Great and Powerful Oz; JaeRan Kim, “Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain: Learning How to Be a Critical Consumer of Adoption Research,” Gazillion Voices, October 2, 2013, accessed May 08, 2014, http://gazillionvoices.com/pay-no-attention-to-the-man-behind-the-curtain-learning-how-to-be-a-critical-consumer-of-adoption-research/#.U2qDo0SCYgI.

[20] Gretchen Scisson notes: “In adoption, there are always questions of reproductive choice and the potential for coercion…There are families being created, and families being separated – and people adapting to new, lifelong identities in these roles altered by adoption”; Gretchen Scisson, “”I Want In”: Bringing Adoption into Reproductive Justice,” Spectrum, April 30, 2014, accessed May 13, 2014, http://spectrum.yourbackline.org/adoption/i-want-in-bringing-adoption-into-reproductive-justice/.

[21] Howard Altstein and Rita J. Simon, Intercountry Adoption: A Multinational Perspective (New York: Praeger, 1991), 2.

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