Why 'Abortion Or Adoption' Is Not An Equal Choice : Consider This from NPR During oral arguments last week in a major Supreme Court case, Justice Amy Coney Barrett brought up the idea of adoption as an alternative to abortion. But many people who choose not to have a child do not consider adoption and abortion equal and opposite choices, sociologist Gretchen Sisson tells NPR.

Plus, one woman shares her experience of relinquishing her rights as a parent.

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Why 'Abortion Or Adoption' Is Not An Equal Choice

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JOHN ROBERTS: We will hear argument this morning in case 19-1392 Dobbs vs. Jackson Women's Health Organization.


Last week at the Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett had a question.


AMY CONEY BARRETT: Miss Rickelman, I have a question about the safe haven laws.

CHANG: Safe haven laws - essentially, these are laws that allow someone to terminate parental rights to a child by relinquishing that child for adoption.


BARRETT: In all 50 states, you can terminate parental rights by relinquishing a child, and I think the shortest period might have been 48 hours if I'm remembering the data correctly.

CHANG: The suggestion that giving a baby up for adoption is quick and easy, that was a pretty revealing thing for Barrett to bring up, given the context, because this was during oral arguments in a major case about abortion, a case out of Mississippi that we told you about last week. And it could end with the court's conservative majority reversing the constitutional right to an abortion, which was established by Roe v. Wade. And as she considered the case, Justice Barrett, who adopted two of her own seven children, wanted to know, isn't adoption an alternative to abortion?


BARRETT: Both Roe and Casey emphasized the burdens of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don't the safe haven laws take care of that problem? It seems to me that it focuses the burden...

GRETCHEN SISSON: Well, it's very interesting that Justice Coney Barrett focuses specifically on the safe haven laws because this usage is extraordinarily rare. And so her focus on that particularly was surprising to me.

CHANG: Gretchen Sisson is a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

SISSON: But her broader argument about the termination of parental rights is still somewhat surprising because what we have found is that most of them do not end up choosing to place the infant for adoption.

CHANG: And that's, in large part, because that choice can be devastating.

BRI: And it's hard to explain what it feels like when you've been convinced that the only way your child will have a good life is without you in it.

CHANG: This is Bri (ph). She asked us not to use her last name. She had a baby and relinquished it for adoption seven years ago. It was a decision, she told us, that still weighs on her to this day.

BRI: The suggestion that, you know, abortion isn't needed because adoption is there makes it seem like this casual thing, like taking off a sweater and giving it to someone else and just forgetting about it or moving on. And that's not what it is. It's this huge event that you do to yourself and your child, and it changes you.

CHANG: Consider this - for many people who don't wish to have a child, it doesn't come down to some binary choice between adoption or abortion. These are not equivalent options. Coming up, what social science says about why. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Thursday, December 9.


CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. One thing that Bri kept thinking about when she was considering adoption was if only she had a car.

BRI: We lived in a remote area.

CHANG: She was 22 at the time. Her pregnancy was unplanned, and her housing situation wasn't very stable. And even though she had always wanted to be a parent, she didn't feel ready for that yet.

BRI: You don't have a car. How are you going to raise a baby without a car? There's no public transportation.

CHANG: Not having a car was just one more thing that reminded Bri she would be completely on her own while raising a child.

BRI: If I had had the support to parent, then I absolutely would have parented. So when I contacted the adoption agency, I was at the lowest point I had been. I was actually thinking about it and I don't think I've ever told anybody this, but after I made the adoption decision, I was in the doctor's waiting room.


ELLEN DEGENERES: Come on down.


BRI: And "The Ellen Show" was on, and she was giving away free cars.


DEGENERES: So you're going to get a 2014 five-door Mazda 3.


BRI: And I remember thinking, like, if I had a car, I could do this. And I actually emailed "The Ellen Show" a whole bunch, like, to try to get on the show for their Christmas giveaways or whatever. It was about this time of the year. And nothing ever came of that.


DEGENERES: That's your car.

BRI: But I had tried in the ways that I knew how to make the situation work, and it didn't work.


CHANG: She tried researching for help for single parents in her state, and she visited a pregnancy help center that turned out to be run by an anti-abortion group. In the end, she connected with several different adoption agencies that left her feeling like relinquishing her parental rights would really be the best thing for both her and her child.

BRI: You know, the social workers at the adoption agencies were very good at really undermining my confidence as a parent. They never saw me as a parent. They saw me as someone who could provide a baby to one of their waiting couples. So they never encouraged me to parent. They never said, you can do this. You can back out. Like, we're here to help you. A lot of their focus was on, you're doing the right thing. Your baby's going to have such a good life.

CHANG: The argument for adoption seemed simple, but Bri's pregnancy was not. For much of it, she was really sick. She had complications that required a C-section. She says that she was on pain medication when she signed some crucial paperwork, and she almost didn't realize what she had done until it was too late.

BRI: And, you know, the family I connected with, they were ready and I really believed the better life scenario. So when it happened and I was hit by this grief that I had never experienced before, it threw me completely off. I didn't know what to do with my life anymore.

CHANG: One thing Bri could do was see her son. She entered into an open adoption with periodic visitations. And we do want to mention here, Bri says she had a good relationship with the couple who adopted her son. They didn't know a lot of what she was going through at the time.

BRI: I spent - so many times after visits I would go home and sob. I cried until I busted blood vessels in my eyes. There was a period of time where I would leave visits and throw up. It was my body's reaction to leaving my child again. And it's been seven years almost, and I still feel that grief with me pretty constantly. Adoption has changed the way that I parent. I had another child about 3 1/2 years ago, and I feel like I will never be good enough to parent her.


CHANG: Now, in one sense, Bri's story is not typical. Precisely because the process of adoption can be so hard, for a lot of people considering an abortion, adoption just is not a feasible alternative.

SISSON: I have done a lot of data collection with women who've relinquished over the years.

CHANG: That's Gretchen Sisson, the UCSF sociologist who we had heard from earlier. Sisson was actually the one who connected us with Bri, and she has researched situations like Bri's to better understand the choices people make when they don't wish to have a child. She spoke with Mary Louise Kelly about that work.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: I want to just note for a moment the vocabulary that you and I are both using here, describing when choosing to relinquish a child, deliberately not saying giving up a child because that is hurtful and it speaks to the emotional weight of this decision. Is that right?

SISSON: The language around adoption is very loaded. A lot of people use the language of birth mother when describing these women, and a lot of these women use that language themselves and are comfortable with that term. But some of them very much do not like that because they believe that it reduces their relationship to their child to just having given birth to them.

KELLY: Yeah.

SISSON: And they don't feel like that's representative of their relationship. And it's hard. It's hard to choose your language intentionally in a way that will fit every situation. I try to choose words that people use to describe their own situation.

KELLY: Sure. What are the numbers in terms of Americans who choose to relinquish for adoption versus the number who choose to get an abortion?

SISSON: So the best estimates are that there are around 18,000 to 20,000 private domestic adoptions per year, and these are the adoptions in which a woman makes the decision during or immediately after her pregnancy to terminate her parental rights and place that child for adoption.

KELLY: OK. And do you have the number of people who choose to get an abortion at hand?

SISSON: It's about 900,000 per year.

KELLY: So a much bigger number.

SISSON: Yes, and it's always been a much bigger number. Even if you look back pre Roe v. Wade, there were more illegal abortions happening than there were adoptions happening. And this is when the adoption rate was at its peak and abortions were completely illegal. There were still more abortions than there were adoptions.

KELLY: Why? What would inform that choice?

SISSON: Adoption is a very hard decision, and I think a lot of women know that intuitively, and our research on women who do relinquish their parental rights shows that, that this is not an easy choice and it has a lot of adverse outcomes. We see a lot of grief, a lot of mourning, a lot of trauma for the women who go through relinquishments. And that has not really changed even as the context of adoption practice has changed over the years.

KELLY: Is there also data to suggest that in some cases it is a medically riskier choice to carry a full-term pregnancy and deliver as opposed to abortion, particularly in earlier stages of pregnancy?

SISSON: Of course, but we do not see that most women are choosing between abortion and adoption. Most women who are considering or pursuing adoption have already ruled out or have never really considered having an abortion. So most women who end up pursuing or settling upon adoption very much want to parent at earlier stages in their pregnancy. They often feel pretty bonded with their pregnancies earlier on, and they don't usually consider having an abortion very deeply, if at all.

KELLY: You're saying this isn't a choice so much between abortion and adoption so much as between abortion and parenting.

SISSON: I'm saying it's usually a derailment of parenting plans. It is a plan to parent that is thwarted usually by a lack of financial resources, familial support, partner support. And when parenting feels precarious or untenable, adoption becomes the solution that they turn to.

KELLY: Anti-abortion rights groups would say adoption is a win-win, both for the person who is pregnant and for the child.

SISSON: A lot of people say adoption is a win-win for both the pregnant person and the child. This is sort of a bipartisan issue, right? I think that that framing of adoption glosses over the extent to which adoption is often the result of a lack of power and is made from a position of, for some women, desperation and hardship. And framing adoption as a win-win glosses over the power and privilege dynamics that are very key in understanding why women relinquish infants for adoption.


CHANG: Gretchen Sisson is a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco.



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