Women denied abortion rarely choose adoption. That’s unlikely to change.

Photo for The Washington Post by Allison V. Smith
Crystal, 35, right, and Aaron, 33, play with their two-month-old son Alex in their home in Fort Worth.

In the Supreme Court’s momentous decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. referred to the availability of adoption to women who find themselves pregnant with a child they do not want to parent.

“… A woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home,” Alito said, writing for the majority and summarizing the views of many Americans who oppose abortion. In a footnote, he cited a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report juxtaposing the tiny “domestic supply of infants” in 2002 with the nearly 1 million Americans waiting to adopt.

Amid the furor that followed the court’s 6-3 ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, an important point has been lost: The waiting lists to adopt infants will almost surely remain very long.

“What we’re going to see, I think, is many more people parenting children that they did not intend to have,” said Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist and researcher on abortion and adoption in the Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health program at the University of California San Francisco.

For powerful emotional reasons, she said, “adoption has always been the rarest path to take.”

The number of domestic infants relinquished in private adoptions that did not involve a stepparent has dropped about 2% a year since 2012 to 19,658 in 2020, according to the National Council for Adoption, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for adoption professionals and research. That’s a far cry from the peak of roughly 89,000 nonrelative adoptions in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide.

Sisson estimates that the new abortion bans will make an additional 10,000 infants available to adopt annually. That figure represents 9% of the estimated number of women who will be denied abortion.

The increase will barely make a dent in the adoption waiting lists. Although there is no national source of reliable data, experts estimate the number of prospective parents at between 1 and 2 million. That’s partly because of a decrease in international adoptions, which plummeted about 87% between 2004 and 2019, to 2,971 placements, as foreign governments eliminated or greatly curtailed the practice. The pandemic has accelerated the decline in both international and private domestic adoptions.

Adoption experts and agencies – including many in the 22 states that have banned, will ban or are likely to ban most or nearly all abortions – do not expect that imbalance to change much.

“My view on what [the Dobbs ruling] will do for adoption is probably more conservative than what I’ve been reading out there,” said Mark Melson, president and chief executive of the Gladney Center for Adoption, one of the largest adoption agencies in Texas, which has a near-total ban on abortions. “I believe there may be a little bit of a spike for a few years, and then it’s going to settle back down.”

Abortion access, which at least initially will remain much more prevalent than before Roe, is just one factor in women’s decision-making, he and others noted. The increased societal acceptance of single motherhood is also a big one.

Another: the hard truth that placing a child for adoption is an extremely difficult emotional step for most women to take.

“If you think about human biology, our bodies are built to reproduce,” said Janice Goldwater, founder and chief executive of Adoptions Together, an adoption agency based in Calverton, Md. “You have to override what your body is saying in order to make an adoption plan, and it takes a human being with a certain capacity to be able to do that.”

Even before Roe legalized abortion nationwide, unmarried pregnant women rarely chose adoption. “There were just a magnitude more abortions happening than there were adoptions,” Sisson said, adding that many more women also chose single parenthood over adoption.

In the decades following Roe, many birth mothers and adult adoptees have spoken out about their experiences of trauma and loss related to adoption. Researchers have also documented the reluctance of unmarried women denied abortion access to make adoption plans.

An analysis published in 2017 as part of the five-year Turnaway Study, which found that abortion denial results in more harm to women than the procedure itself, UCSF researchers looked at the frequency with which participants chose adoption and the factors involved in their decisions.

The analysis found that one week after being denied an abortion because of a late-term pregnancy, 14% of 231 study participants reported plans to place the baby for adoption or considered it as an option. Nine percent of the 161 who went on to give birth – 15 women – placed their newborns for adoption. Nine percent of unmarried pregnant women relinquished their babies before Roe, Sisson said.

In interviews with researchers, Turnaway participants gave several reasons for deciding to parent, including finding relatives were more willing to help than they anticipated and the bond they felt with their infants after birth. Last, they said they would feel guilty if they chose adoption “either because they believed adoption was an abjuration of responsibility, or because they believed it meant they’d have no ongoing knowledge of their child,” the report summarized.

Those who chose adoption expressed strong satisfaction with their decisions, but follow-up interviews “revealed mixed emotions,” the report said.

The analysis concluded: “Political promotion of adoption as an alternative to abortion is likely not grounded in the reality of women’s decision making.”

Some of the reasons women do not choose adoption may be based on misconceptions rooted in adoption’s long history of secrecy and coercion, adoption professionals say.

During the “Baby Scoop Era” – the years between 1945 and the early 1970s characterized by an increased rate of premarital pregnancies and newborn adoption -the needs of the birth mother and the adoptive child were usually trumped by the desires of the adoptive parents. In fact, many of the older domestic adoptees who are voicing their trauma now in the media were adopted under the conditions of that era.

While there continue to be some bad actors in the private adoption world, “the adoption landscape has completely changed in the last 50 years,” said Ryan Hanlon, president and chief executive of the National Council for Adoption, which has about 100 member agencies.

About three-quarters of private domestic adoptions are now “open,” involving some degree of ongoing contact between adoptive parents, adoptees and the birth family, according to the nonprofit’s data. Birth mothers are now typically involved in choosing the adoptive parents, who are often required to fill out questionnaires about themselves and provide photos depicting their lives.

Hanlon and other adoption professionals note that the language around adoption in the media – like “real parents” and “gave up for adoption,” implying a hasty decision – as well as outdated popular culture portrayals of adoption, feed the stereotypes.

“We need to do a better job of educating people about what adoption really means,” Hanlon said.

Crystal and Aaron, both in their mid 30s, waited 14 months to adopt their newborn son, Alex, through Gladney. His birth mother chose the couple after viewing their profile book. On the eve of the placement, they met her in person over lunch along with Alex’s birth grandmother.

“We all felt really good about it,” said Aaron, who requested that The Post withhold the family’s last name to protect their son’s privacy.

He and his wife, who live in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, email Alex’s birth mother updates and photos on a monthly basis and hope to expand contact to include regular in-person visits.

“We want him to know who she is,” Aaron said.

The deeper connection will need to wait as Alex’s birth mother grieves. “It was a real difficult time for her, and it still is,” he said.

Adoption involves loss by definition, and there’s an open acknowledgment of that among many adoption professionals. Many agencies offer grief counseling and post-adoption services to help birthparents and adoptees reconnect.

But some point out that adoption’s complexities are often measured against an idealized conception of what single parenting will be like.

The demographics of the typical birth mother have changed over the decades, with increased access to abortion and the decline in the teenage pregnancy rate. Women who relinquish their babies for adoption today are apt to be in their mid-to-upper 20s, unemployed with less than $5,000 in annual income and on Medicaid, Sisson said, citing UCSF data. Most of them also have children already.

Experts expect those who cannot access abortion in the post-Roe era, at least at first, to be mostly low-income and disproportionately of color.

Adoption advocates have expressed concern that one result of decreasing access to abortion will be a spike in the number of children who wind up in foster care.

Many of them, they believe, will be the children of poor African American and Latino women unable to access abortion who will be overwhelmed by the cost and stresses of raising more kids. At the same time, they will be less likely to relinquish their offspring to nonrelatives partly because of cultural and historical reasons.

“Their children will languish in the system, and the cycle will continue,” said Stacey Reynolds, a former longtime board member for the National Council for Adoption.

There are about 400,000 children in foster care in the United States on any given day, a number that has remained fairly steady over the last 10 years, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2019, about 15% were adopted, a third by relatives.

Sisson said it’s possible that there will be more children in foster care, especially if abortion is criminalized in some states, although the Turnaway Study did not show that children were more likely to wind up there.

Antiabortion activists and adoption skeptics often agree on one thing: Poor women who plan to parent their infants will need much greater access to child care, affordable housing, job training and other services and necessities to improve their standards of living.

In Sisson’s view, such assistance would help narrow the socioeconomic gap between high-income prospective adoptive parents and birthparents, who would then feel less pressure to relinquish their infants, Sisson said.

“We make single parenting very, very hard in this country,” she said.

Melson concurs. An adoptive parent of a child who was in foster care, he is among those concerned about an uptick in foster care as women attempt to parent their infants without enough resources.

“But there also needs to be greater resources and support if a woman chooses adoption,” he said. “Everybody sort of stops right there. Well, she’s placed her child. She doesn’t have any of the financial burdens of raising a child. She’s okay. And the reality is she’s not. How can we help this woman who is likely coming from a real hard situation?”

Right now, Texas law prevent agencies from telling pregnant women who are considering adoption about services they offer after the adoption.

He understands the reason for that, he said. The birth mother “has to want to place her child because of the benefits to the child versus the resources we can throw at her.” On the other hand, he said some in the industry are “very transactional,” facilitating adoptions and ignoring the birth mothers’ ongoing needs.

He said Gladney, which is licensed to place children for adoption in several other states, has begun lobbying the Texas legislature to require adoption agencies and others in the industry to provide a “minimal level” of specified services to birth mothers after the adoption, such as grief counseling and help with housing and job training.

Still, he does not believe that improved services for birth mothers will lead to a boom in adoptions. In that, he and the UCFS researchers are in agreement.

“We’re not looking at adoption as an alternative to abortion,” he said. “It’s an alternative as it relates to parenting.”