No Debate About It: Adoption & Abortion Both Confront Stigma

As so often happens in abstract discussions about abortion, people opposed to the choice typically assert with breezy certainty that adoption is the simple and morally superior alternative. 

So it was no surprise to hear this refrain in the recent Vice Presidential debate as the two candidates held forth about abortion. 

“Let’s welcome children into our world,” said Republican candidate and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence. “We could improve adoption so that families that can't have children can adopt more readily those children from crisis pregnancies.”

Aside from skipping over the risks and complexities of pregnancy and childbirth, as well as the repercussions for a woman’s future,  this familiar assertion also sidesteps the fact that adoption, like abortion, is burdened with stigma.

Abortion Conversation Projects strive to improve the way people think and talk about abortion and all reproductive experiences in their communities, where true social change begins. That’s why ACP provided funding and resources for one of the first-ever guided exchange session for abortion providers and adoption workers.

The session was titled Towards Understanding: Minnesota’s Reproductive Justice Advocates and the Adoption Community Partnering to Reduce Stigma, and it was a joint project of Family Tree Clinic and Bellis adoption services in Minnesota.

“Our goal was to build community among these professionals,” says Alissa Light, Executive Director of the Family Tree Clinic. “Also, we wanted to build professional skills for providing all-options counseling and to impact misinformation held about both abortion and adoption.”

Before the session, Light says she worried participants would be reluctant to engage. “We had concerns that people working in adoption would not be receptive to abortion information. Some are founded with an anti-choice mission and have explicit policies that prevent discussing abortion.” Likewise, she said, she feared abortion workers would have reservations about talking with adoption communities. “Ultimately, all of our fears were unnecessary,” says Light.

The most successful parts of the day involved values-clarification exercises and sharing stories of birthparents, adult adoptees, adoptive parents, and abortion care providers and those they serve. 

“We know that hearing directly from women and families is a powerful way to lessen stigma and promote empathy and compassion,” says Light.

The 50 participants left their day together more confident in recognizing stigma and setting aside their own biases to make all-options community referrals in an atmosphere of respect and trust.

Like abortion, the stigma around adoption historically has been mired in silence, misunderstanding, and stubborn narratives.

Joni Ogle, a client advocate with Choice Network adoption services in Worthington, Ohio, says the most fundamental misunderstanding traps abortion and adoption in an adversarial duel. “People feel you have to be pro-life, meaning pro-adoption, or you have to be pro-choice, meaning pro-abortion,” says Ogle. “This is not true at all.”

Also, though adoption is framed as preferable to abortion, birth parents can experience far more overt shaming and social pressure than people who end their pregnancies, Ogle says. 

The stigma around adoption begins with the choice, continues throughout the pregnancy, shows up in the hospital during delivery, and can even persist long after the process is history. 

Adoption, similar to abortion, can involve state-mandated ‘counseling’ before pregnant people are permitted to choose adoption, says Ogle. Then, birth parents endure months of increasing stigma as their pregnancy becomes visible. When birth parents are in public, people approach them to ask about everything from the baby’s gender to the identity of the partner. “I have had many cases where women complained that an overbearing neighbor or coworker would pursue them to adopt their baby,” says Ogle.

What’s more, unlike those who choose active parenting or abortion, birth parents face stigma in the medical setting around their deliveries. Hospitals can require social workers to meet with birth parents about their choices, and medical staff might voice unsolicited opinions. 

A birth parent who worked with Choice Network says she experienced heavy shaming in the hospital. The doctor pressured her about birth control, she says, and “the nurses were making things out to be like adoption was probably going to be the worst decision of my life.”

Adding to the stigma are cultural messages in entertainment and mass media that portray adoption as a precursor to grief, depression, and family dysfunction.

Finally, even as the adoption process has evolved to allow a wide range of ways for birth parents and the children to stay in contact — from simply exchanging letters once a year, to having monthly visits —  many people denounce the openness and fear birth parents will want to reclaim the child. 

To combat adoption stigma, Choice Network uses a “strengths-based” approach. “We let clients lead the conversations and we follow their norms,” says Ogle. “We try to instill in them that no topic is unacceptable to discuss.”

The agency also educates about the many options within the adoption process, which include private and public foster care, kinship placements with a friend or relative, and guardianships.

Other organizations are joining the effort to create trust and respect around all pregnancy options, including Backline — a call-in center for people seeking in for pregnancy support — that launched All Options Pregnancy Resource Center in Indiana just last year. The center offers nonjudgmental emotional support as well as resources for unplanned pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, abortion, adoption, and parenting. 

And the ACP-funded Minnesota Project has sparked new collaborations. “We have already started to observe the ripple effect of our work,” says Light of Family Tree Clinic, seeing cross-referrals increasing between abortion care and adoption sites.  

Project leader, Kyle Meerkins reports, "We have definitely experienced an increased sense of urgency around the creation of stronger referral networks and spaces to provide all-options counseling outside of the abortion clinic and adoption agency settings,” especially with the prevalence of crisis pregnancy centers, he explains. 

As a result , Family Tree is implementing a free pregnancy testing and all-options counseling program and will serve as a referral specialist and connection organization for folks who are not able to directly refer to abortion services because of agency restrictions.

Finally, the birth parent from Choice Network sums up the ultimate all-options stigma-eradication approach: “People should just be supportive of whatever the woman chooses for her life,” she says. 

That’s the same sentiment that concluded the abortion discussion in the Vice Presidential debate. After Republican candidate, Gov. Pence said pregnant people in crisis should choose adoption, Democratic candidate and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia replied:

“Governor, why don't you trust women to make this choice for themselves?”

Please join us in this important work to uplift the dignity of people who seek abortion care and the people who provide them. Click here to become part of our community of stigma fighters. Like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @ACPAbortion.

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