On Wednesday, as the Supreme Court heard oral arguments from state attorneys seeking to uphold Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, Justice Amy Coney Barrett kept getting at one question: Why was abortion necessary, when women who do not want to be mothers can simply give their babies up for adoption?
As an adoptee myself, I was floored by Justice Barrett’s assumption that adoption is an accessible and desirable alternative for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant. She may not realize it, but what she is suggesting is that women don’t need access to abortion because they can simply go do a thing that is infinitely more difficult, expensive, dangerous and potentially traumatic than terminating a pregnancy during its early stages.
As an adoptive mother herself, Justice Barrett should have some inkling of the complexities of adoption and the toll it can inflict on children, as well as birth mothers. But she speaks as if adoption is some kind of idyllic fairy tale. My own adoption actually was what many would consider idyllic. I was raised by two adoptive parents, Alice and Terry, from the time I was an infant, and grew up in a home where I knew every day that I was loved. A few years ago, I found my biological mother, Maria, and three siblings I didn’t know I had via a DNA test and Facebook.
The first time I spoke to Maria on the phone — she lives in Alabama, not too far from my parents, and I live in Brooklyn — she apologized repeatedly for giving me up and told me she loved me and that I would always be family. “You are blood,” she would say later. I told her, and continue to tell her, every time she brings it up, that the apology is unnecessary. I had a wonderful childhood and I believe she had made the right decision. But she remains heartbroken about the years we missed together.
Damon Winter/The New York Times
Both Maria and my mom, Alice, oppose abortion on religious grounds. My mom is white and Southern Baptist; Maria is Hispanic and Pentecostal. Both like to point to me to justify their beliefs, saying that had Maria gotten an abortion, I would not exist. It’s a familiar argument: The anti-abortion movement likes to invoke Nobel Prize winners who might never have materialized, or potential adoptees who might have cured cancer, if they hadn’t been aborted at eight weeks.
I’m no Nobel Prize winner, but I still resent being used as a political football by the right. I believe that abortion is a form of health care, and that every woman should have access to it if she needs it. But perhaps more than that, I resent the suggestion by people like Justice Barrett that adoption is a simple solution, and I resent it on behalf of Maria, who found the choice she made traumatizing and still feels that pain, 44 years later. Even when an adoption works out well, as it did in my case, it is still fraught.
When I echo Maria in saying that she “gave me up,” the language always rankles adoptive parents, because it introduces an unpleasant complexity — implying that my birth mother was not completely happy with her choice. Or worse, that it made her miserable. But that is sometimes the case, even when adoption is the best option for all involved. Adoption is not always an unalloyed good. It’s a complicated choice in a situation that has no right or wrong answer.
If the court overturns Roe v. Wade, many women will be forced to give birth to children they did not want or did not feel that they could afford to support. While pregnant, they will undergo the bonding with a child that happens by biological design as an embryo develops into a living, breathing, conscious human. And then that child will be taken away.
The right likes to suggest that abortion is a traumatic experience for women — a last resort, a painful memory. But adoption is often just as traumatic as the right thinks abortion is, if not more so, as a woman has to relinquish not a lump of cells but a fully formed baby she has lived with for nine months.
I’m a mother myself, to an adorable 6-year-old self-proclaimed Fortnite expert, and as is often the case, I did not know I was pregnant with him until the usual symptoms appeared a few weeks into the pregnancy. As anyone who has gestated a human will tell you, there is a vast difference between the fourth week of pregnancy and the 40th. By the 40th, you’re familiar with your baby’s regular rhythms of kicking and moving. When I awoke, my son would wake up shortly after and I’d feel him turning and stretching, or less pleasantly, jamming his precious little foot into what felt like my cervix. This is one of the paradoxes of pregnancy: Something alien is usurping your body and sapping you of nutrition and energy, but you’re programmed to gleefully enable it and you become desperately protective of it. It’s a kind of biological brainwashing. And this often happens whether you want to be a parent or not.
Justice Barrett is well aware of the kind of biological brainwashing that occurs during pregnancy; she gave birth to five children. And yet she blithely seems to assume that a mother can simply choose not to bond with the child she’s gestating solely on the basis that she is not ready to be a mother or believes that she is unable to provide for the child. She assumes that the mother will be supported financially and otherwise, throughout the pregnancy, even in a country where maternal mortality statistics are abysmal. And she assumes that children surrendered for adoption will find a home, and not a bed in the foster care system. She probably assumes these things because she cannot fathom being in this position herself. These are assumptions that stem from the privilege of being financially secure, having never needed an abortion, and perhaps the assumption that women who do have done something wrong and must face the consequences.
In my experience, some on the right believe that the trauma adoption inflicts is a consequence of irresponsibility. But unexpected pregnancy is not a de facto function of bad decision making. It can be a failure of contraception, the product of a rape, a mistaken belief that a woman is infertile. There is no justifiable reason to inflict harm on women and the babies they might produce in any of these situations, regardless of judgment.
The trauma doesn’t just affect mothers, either. Researchers have a term for what children who are adopted, even as infants, may suffer from later in life: relinquishment trauma. The premise is that babies bond with their mothers in utero and become familiar with their behaviors. When their first caretaker is not the biological mother, they register the difference and the stress of it has lasting effects.
I probably got off easy in that respect, in part because I did spend a few months with my biological mother before I was adopted, but that had the unintended effect of traumatizing my older siblings, who remember me as a baby who was there, and then suddenly was gone. This was driven home to me by my older sister Bobbi, whose first encounter with me was over Facebook. “All I can say is I remember you,” she wrote. “I have loved you and missed you my entire life.”
What Justice Barrett and others are suggesting women do in lieu of abortion is not a small thing. It is life changing, irrevocable, and not to be taken lightly. It often causes trauma, even when things work out, and it’s a disservice to adoptees and their families, biological and adopted, to pretend otherwise in service of a neat political narrative.