The scenario is all too familiar. Jennie is 15 and pregnant. The chances of her obtaining an abortion or electing to parent the baby as a single mother are about even; the odds that she will choose an adoption plan are only about 5 percent.
According to the Child Welfare League of America, about 80 percent of unmarried teenage mothers during the late 1960’s placed their children for adoption. Roughly 15 years later, between 5 percent and 10 percent chose that course.
Why are so few young women turning to adoption as an option for an unplanned pregnancy?
It is not accurate to blame the unpopularity of adoption on the availability of abortion. The rate of illegitimate births to teenagers in the United States is soaring in spite of this factor. In fact, the number of such births has more than doubled since the Supreme Court upheld women’s right to abortion in 1973.
The explanation for the decline in adoptions is far more complex, based in broad shifts of social attitudes and policy. Out-of-wedlock pregnancy no longer automatically stigmatizes a young woman-and it should not. But American society has taken a wild swing on the pendulum toward a Hollywood-style near glorification of pregnancy and single parenting, misleading tens of thousands of teenage mothers into a vicious cycle of poverty.
Once a young woman decides to take her pregnancy to term, she is virtually ostracized if she chooses to release for adoption rather than parent herself. The pressure emanates from several sources-society at large, the family, and the teenage subculture, where the pressure is particularly intense.
According to Lois Melina, publisher of Adopted Child, society unfairly views children placed for adoption as “unwanted” by birth parents. Teenage peers see relinquishing a child as a callous rejection of one’s “own flesh and blood.” Most pregnant teenagers report that peer pressure to parent is “unbelievable,” as friends question how anyone could be so selfish as to “give away” a child.
Ms. Melina notes that grandparents often add to the pressure by suggesting that it is the “family’s responsibility to raise the new member” and the birth mother’s responsibility to “take the consequences of her actions” by keeping the baby. And one of the most damaging myths about adoption sends the mistaken message that to release a child for adoption is to doom him to mental problems.
So intense is the shame attached to adoption that some pregnant teenagers feel compelled to hide the decision. One birth mother, after releasing her baby for adoption, lied to her peers by telling them she had kept the baby, and she even borrowed photos of another child to substantiate her story.
At the same time, various well-intended laws have had the effect of limiting choices for pregnant teenagers. Title IX of the federal education regulations requires that school districts “mainstream” pregnant girls. Certainly these young women should not be involuntarily shuttled off to separate educational facilities, but the closing of maternity homes and the assumption that all young women would choose mainstreaming practically foreclose a confidential adoption decision.
Very little accurate information about adoption is available to young women facing unplanned pregnancies. Many pregnancy counselors assume that unwed teenagers who do not abort want to parent their babies and therefore provide little information about adoption. Several recent studies indicate that at least half of unwed pregnant women wanted more counseling about adoption. When positive counseling was given, the number of women choosing adoption increased markedly. In a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, adoption was not even mentioned as an option in 40 percent of the counseling situations reviewed-and when it was, most of the information was inaccurate.
Few, if any, of the adults with whom teenagers interact are knowledgeable about current adoption practice. Teachers, mental-health workers, doctors, and nurses have almost no training in this area. For example, adoption plans can be as traditional or nontraditional as adoptive and birth parents wish. The latter now have the opportunity to set criteria for selection of adoptive parents and can exchange identifying or nonidentifying information. Some agencies even present birth parents with information, ranging from vignettes to videos, about prospective adoptive parents. But such options are rarely described-or understood- by those providing counseling.
Woefully little is spent on research and counseling about adoption, reflecting its low priority as a public policy. According to the Center for Population Options, in 1988, teenage pregnancy cost American taxpayers about $20 billion. By contrast, only $2 million was spent on presenting adoption as an alternative for pregnant teenagers.
In no area is the stigma of adoption more apparent than in the media. In a recent landmark study of this subject, George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communications found that negative myths about adoption dominate prime-time television’s treatment of the topic.
The media’s message is clear: Adoption is second best. Even their language reflects the stigmatizing, stereotypical image of birth mothers who callously “give away” their babies. We suggest that adoption is a poor alternative when we speak of “real parents” and “adopted kids” decades after adoption has made them a permanent part of a family. Newspapers and magazines routinely mention adoptive status, whether or not it has bearing on a story.
And the media’s emphasis on the issue of search and reunion both distorts reality and deflects other important issues of adoption reform. Studies show that only a small fraction of birth parents and adoptees seek to contact one another in later years, yet Mr. Gerbner found that the media exaggerate this population by 18 times. This overemphasis implies that the legacy of an adoption decision is lifelong grief and loss. Each of the choices facing a pregnant teenager entails some level of loss, be it loss of opportunity and youthful freedom due to the burdens of early parenting or the permanent loss experienced with abortion. Adoption, too, involves sadness and loss, but it also involves security, permanency, and joy.
While legislatures spend an enormous amount of time debating reunion-registry laws, they pay scant attention to the thousands of special-needs children who wait for permanent homes, or to the financial and sociological barriers to adoption. The need of adoptees and their families for complete and accurate preplacement information is neglected; little or no funding is provided to train teachers, counselors, and others about current adoption practices.
The current debate over abortion is also likely to undercut adoption. On the one hand, despite their “pro choice” label, many of those favoring abortion rights have belittled adoption as too painful to be a viable choice for women facing a problem pregnancy. On the other hand, those advocating a “pro life” position have failed to promote the allocation of resources needed to support adoption, especially for hard-to-place children.
Most experts on adoption agree that making abortion more difficult will not result in more women’s opting for adoption; the overwhelming majority will choose to keep their babies. The psychologist Jacqueline Plumez warns that such a policy will lead to a huge increase in the number of “children raising children"--and an even larger number of children raised in miserable circumstances.
If adoption is to be chosen more often, we must begin to present it as the responsible and loving option that it is.
Myths and misconceptions must be addressed. Talk-show sensationalism aside, adoption works very well for the overwhelming majority. Contrary to the myth of birth mothers’ endless grief, for instance, studies find greater life-satisfaction ratings as well as higher educational and financial attainment for relinquishers compared with nonrelinquishers. Data also counter the common notion that adopted children more often suffer mental illness: In fact, children adopted as infants display a more positive world view than nonadoptees, no higher rate of mental-health problems, greater educational and financial attainment, and even greater satisfaction with their parents than nonadoptees.
Educators can do much to help change stereotypes of adoption. Characterizing this choice as a loving option and eliminatmg such negative language as “children of their own,” “real parents,” and “giving away a baby” are good first steps, beginning at the elementary level. Presentations by adoptive parents, birth parents, and adoptees have proven effective tools for dispelling misconceptions. Challenging myths in the classroom can also help students examine the stigma unjustly attached to adoption.
It is ironic that, as the abortion debate rages around us, we are simultaneously closing out the option of adoption for thousands of pregnant teenagers. Adoption is not the sole answer to the problem of teenage pregnancy, but it is a choice. It’s time we treated it as such.
A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 1990 edition of Education Week