Polls indicated that Americans overwhelmingly see adoption as a good in society. Yet abortions outnumber adoptions in America 50 to 1.
Why the discrepancy?
The reasons are complex, says Elizabeth Kirk, whose professional work has included studying the factors that lead women facing unplanned pregnancies away from adoption.
And, she says, they are important for the pro-life movement to understand in a post-Dobbs world.
Kirk is the director of the Center for Law and the Human Person at the Catholic University Columbus School of Law, where she also teaches family law. She is an associate scholar at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.
Charles Camosy spoke with Kirk this week about the current moment in the pro-life movement, the “soft stigma” against adoption, and what both the Church and government can do to support women who choose adoption for their children.
Can you tell us more about your background? Especially as it led you to become so active in the space of adoption and foster care? What put you on this path?
My professional background is law. As my bio demonstrates, I have had a rather eclectic career. I like to tell my students that my resume is evidence of all the things you can do with a law degree!
Now, I direct the Center for Law and the Human Person at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law, and I teach family law. Adoption law and policy is a particular interest of mine. But, like many people who are drawn to professional work in the space of adoption and foster care, I have a deeply personal connection as well.
I am an adoptive parent, four times over. My husband and I have adopted three children as newborn infants here in the U.S. and have what are considered “open adoptions.” Our youngest child was adopted through the foster care system, after a year of us serving as his respite care providers and then his foster parents.
Also, I was the child of an unexpected pregnancy and my mom chose life for me and was a single mom until she married a “just man” (your readers will know the reference!) when I was 3 years old and he became my father through adoption. It is my dad’s generous love, his gift of fatherhood, which shaped my views on adoption from an early age – and prepared me to welcome our children.
My experience as a foster mother, an adoptive mother and an adopted child, the state of the current foster care crisis, the horror of abortion, and the urgency with which vulnerable women and children need help compels me to be active on these issues.
So you've been at this for a while in various ways. Can you say something now about the current cultural moment and its challenges, and how they might be different from past moments?
Generally, in my adoption work, I tend to focus on understanding the “soft stigma” surrounding adoption and responding to that challenge in law and policy.
The “soft stigma” is this: 86% of Americans have a favorable to extremely favorable view of adoption. They consider adoption to be a noble institution, one that expresses what Pope Francis has called “radical hospitality” and which responds to a real human need, i.e., providing a home for a child who needs one. But, from the perspective of women with unexpected pregnancies, adoption is the “non-option.” Very few women consider, much less choose, adoption. In 2020, there were 3,613,647 live births and at least 930,160 abortions. The number of infants placed for private, domestic adoption that same year was 19,658. That ratio, of abortions to adoptions, is nearly 50:1. The wildly disproportionate number of abortions to adoptions reveals that most women facing an unplanned pregnancy do not consider adoption at all. It is that paradox that I spend a great deal of time trying to understand and break down.
What is unique about this present cultural moment? Well, in discussing this “soft stigma” in the past, I have often noted how, despite the fact that adoption is rarely chosen, most people across the ideological spectrum think that adoption ought to be part of the response to abortion. Years ago, when President Obama was invited to Notre Dame (to great consternation in the Catholic world) to receive an honorary degree and to give the commencement speech, he listed a number of proposals to reduce the number of abortions, including “Let’s make adoption more available!” For a very long time, adoption has been viewed as “common ground” in the fraught culture wars over abortion, and pro-adoption legislation is often bipartisan.
So, I thought that this present moment, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, would be the moment when adoption might be given more attention across political divisions and promoted for women unable to obtain an abortion, who for whatever reason are unable or willing to parent. And yet, the opposite has been the case. In the wake of Dobbs, there have been numerous attacks on adoption and, like everything else abortion touches, it has become politicized and divisive. I have observed an enormous uptick in anti-adoption voices in academia, the popular press, and in social media.
Even the dissenting justices in Dobbs made a point that adoption should not be considered a meaningful option for women because it doesn’t take care of the problem of pregnancy, stating that “the reality is that few women denied an abortion will choose adoption. The vast majority will continue to shoulder the costs of childrearing. Whether or not they choose to parent, they will experience the profound loss of autonomy and dignity that coerced pregnancy and birth always impose.”
I believe there has always been a soft stigma that prevents adoption from being a meaningful option for women. But now there seems to be a concerted shift to an overt anti-adoption message that will be even more difficult to overcome.
And it was with those challenges in mind, wasn't it, that you organized the recent "Adoption after Dobbs" event at the CUA Law School? (Full disclosure: I was among the participants at the event.) Can you tell our Pillar readers more about what went on? What, if anything, moved you?
Yes! It was a wonderful event.
The goal of the event, “The Role of Adoption in a Post-Dobbs America,” was to bring scholars and practitioners together to talk about the state of infant adoption in the United States, to discuss whether adoption can be a meaningful alternative to abortion, and to develop a creative strategy as to how to best achieve that in law, policy, and culture. The event was sponsored by CUA Law’s Center for Law & the Human Person and supported by The Opt Institute, a new organization dedicated to improving access to and supporting private, infant adoption.
Our participants included:
· Christina Bennett, Live Action News Correspondent
· Charles Camosy, Professor of Medical Humanities at the Creighton University School of Medicine and Moral Theology Fellow at St. Joseph Seminary in New York
· Brenda Destro, senior public health and public policy analyst (ret.)
· Ryan Hanlon, President and CEO of the National Council for Adoption and adjunct professor of social work at the Catholic University of America
· John Knox, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder of The Opt Institute
· Kathryn Jean Lopez, senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review.
· Jedd Medefind, President of the Christian Alliance for Orphans
· Naomi Schaefer Riley, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
· Sarah Zagorski, Communications Director and Adoption Education Director, Louisiana Right to Life
The participants first spent several hours together in a private symposium addressing three main topics: (1) Adoption Stigma and Women’s Decision-Making: Existing Research and Identifying the Gaps; (2) How to Talk about Adoption; (3) Effective Legal Policies and Programs. We then concluded with a public panel discussion.
Like all events of this sort, it was both wonderfully in-depth and wholly inadequate. A common thread throughout all of our conversations was that there was so much more to understand and so much to do. One attendee told me later, “I had no idea adoption was so complicated.” As I told all of the participants, it is my great hope that the connections established and the ideas generated are only the first fruits of a much more bountiful harvest to come.
Finally, what most moved me? Our conversation about the realities of women’s decision-making was very powerful. We touched on many delicate topics like the conflation of infant adoption with the foster care system, the lingering specter of unethical adoption practices and the former “Baby Scoop” era, the role of race, the impact of conditions of poverty, and the influence of substance abuse and addiction. You (Charlie) offered very moving reflections on the role of intimate partner violence and the too-frequent phenomenon that many women are coerced to seek abortions (and thwarted from considering adoption) by their partners. It was a difficult, but necessary, conversation and one which helped me to appreciate even more how necessary it is not simply to think about isolated challenges but to work to build an entire culture of healthy family life.
Where do you think adoption advocates go from here in terms of public policy?
After Dobbs, many people think the pro-life movement is only focused on restricting or banning abortion. But, of course, we have always been about something much larger – building an authentic culture of life. Now we have a precious window to promote laws and policies which not only restrict legal abortion but which address the underlying conditions which cause women to think that abortion is their best or only option. As I wrote elsewhere, overturning Roe “is the opportunity to embrace a model of family law that recognizes that vulnerable women need communities of support — rather than to be abandoned to an isolated, sterile ‘privacy.’”
With respect to adoption specifically, in this moment, it is incumbent upon those who wish to provide alternatives to abortion for pregnant women to think creatively and to advance policies that highlight the unique gifts of adoption in a way that ensures it might become a more meaningful option. In a policy paper published by the Charlotte Lozier Institute, I recommended a number of pro-adoption initiatives that may be appropriate for federal and/or state legislation. Some of those include:
· Improve and fund options counseling to adequately train professionals to counsel mothers who wish to learn about adoption or make an adoption plan;
· Require government-funded education programs to include information about the option of adoption;
· Fund post-adoption support services for birthparents and adoptive parents;
· Enhance informed consent laws in the abortion context to require that women consider abortion be provided with accurate, complete, and non-coercive information about the option of adoption;
· Continued support for the adoption tax credit (and various enhancements of that credit); and
· Federally mandated state reporting and data collection of the numbers of adoption placements and waiting prospective parents.
In order to combat the “soft stigma” against adoption, and the new anti-adoption rhetoric, we can’t focus solely on the moment of decision for a woman in crisis. Rather we should also educate the public, and especially young people, about the option of adoption so people will be better prepared in advance to support friends and family who may consider adoption. Again, we are building a culture.
One very promising initiative I want to highlight is one spearheaded by Sarah Zagorski, one of the symposium participants. Sarah founded Option Hope in response to the Louisiana state law requirement that adoption awareness be included in health education classes in high schools. Option Hope is a beautiful curriculum designed to satisfy this requirement and is a model that could be adapted and scaled to other states.
How do you think the Church can talk about adoption?
Many leaders in the Church have celebrated adoption as a meaningful alternative to abortion.
Pope St. John Paul II said “to adopt a child is a great work of love. When it is done, much is given, but much is also received. It is a true exchange of gifts.”
St. Mother Teresa described the role of adoption in the work of the Missionaries of Charity in her address at the National Prayer Breakfast: “I will tell you something beautiful. We are fighting abortion by adoption — by care of the mother and adoption for her baby. We have saved thousands of lives. We have sent word to the clinics, to the hospitals and police stations: ‘Please don’t destroy the child; we will take the child.’ So we always have someone tell the mothers in trouble: ‘Come, we will take care of you, we will get a home for your child.’”
Pope Francis, in Amoris laetitae, said: “Adopting a child is an act of love, offering the gift of a family to someone who has none. It is important to insist that legislation help facilitate the adoption process, above all in the case of unwanted children, in order to prevent their abortion or abandonment. Those who accept the challenge of adopting and accepting someone unconditionally and gratuitously become channels of God’s love.”
There are also many compelling voices throughout Christian churches about the beauty of adoption. I think in particular of Gilbert Meilaender’s beautiful book, “Not By Nature but by Grace.”
For centuries, churches have been at the forefront of serving the orphan. The child in foster care and the child at risk of abortion are the modern-day orphan. At the practical level, in my experience, churches do a good job of promoting adoption as a way of welcoming children in need of a home. Given the number of children waiting to be adopted from foster care (117,470 in 2020), this is an important focus. Today, churches, faith-based child welfare providers, and faith-based ministries play a critical role in identifying families for placement of adoptive and foster children and in wrapping around them with supportive services.
But I think the Church can do more to combat the “soft stigma” against adoption, and in particular to promote adoption as an option to women experiencing an unexpected pregnancy. Our culture, like the dissenting justices in Dobbs, tells women that an unexpected pregnancy is a coercive constraint on autonomy and that abortion is the appropriate response – one which women need in order to flourish in society. Placing a child for adoption is seen as abandonment and does nothing to “fix” the problem of the pregnancy.
The Church’s vision of the human person and of the family is radically different from this awful, lonely view. Yes – we must admit that pregnancy and childbirth is difficult and that adoption involves suffering. Adoption always occurs in broken circumstances, but it can be the occasion for great beauty and healing. Pope St. John Paul II said “we are at our best, we are most fully alive and human, when we give away freely and sacrificially our very selves in love for another.” It is only in such a culture that it becomes possible for women, who for whatever reason are unable to parent, to have the courage to embrace the difficult choice of adoption which respects both the dignity of motherhood and the life of the unborn child.