From the moment I listened to the oral argument in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, I had a sinking feeling that we were about to have a cultural argument about adoption. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who’s an adoptive mother herself, asked Julie Rikelman, the attorney for Jackson Women’s Health, about so-called “safe haven laws”—state laws that permit women to safely surrender custody of their newborn child to the state without fear of punishment or prosecution.
Why did Justice Barrett bring up safe haven laws? For a specific legal reason. Here’s the key excerpt:
[B]oth Roe and Casey emphasize the burdens of parenting, and insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which forced parenting, forced motherhood, would hinder women’s access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it’s also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem? It seems to me that it focuses the burden much more narrowly.
There is, without question, an infringement on bodily autonomy, you know, which we have in other contexts, like vaccines. However, it doesn’t seem to me to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden.
To put the question in plain English, the issue is how much of a burden can the state require a woman to bear. Barrett stipulates that there is an infringement on bodily autonomy in pregnancy, but if no state in the union requires parenting, then aren’t the Roe/Casey emphases on the burdens of parenting misplaced?
She was not arguing that adoption is the answer for abortion. She wasn’t arguing that relinquishing rights to a child was simple or easy or painless. She was making a narrow legal inquiry. But I knew it wouldn’t be read narrowly, and it wasn’t. She faced accusations like this:
Moving beyond the unfair critiques of Justice Barrett, I feared that we’d see a wave of commentary emphasizing the difficulty and trauma of adoption, and we did. At every turn, the hardship of adoption was emphasized. But what about its wonders? What about its joys? The last thing we should take from our nation’s debates about abortion is that adoption is a problem.
As my longtime readers know, I’m an adoptive father myself. Coincidentally, my Sunday newsletter last week told our family’s adoption story. I’m not going to respond out of indignation, however, because there is an important discussion to be had here. Adoption can indeed be traumatic for mother and child, and there has been manipulation and coercion in adoption, especially (though not exclusively) in years past.
But that’s not the end of the story. Far from it. America’s adoptive families are instruments of love. Adoption is a beautiful thing, and it’s a beautiful thing in part because it brings hope and love out of trauma and pain.
Let’s talk first about the trauma and pain. Our pastor told us when we adopted, “Every adoption begins in brokenness.” Every adoption either severs a deep and profound natural bond or is the result of a bond already severed by death, abuse, or abandonment. Yes, adoptive families build their own deep bonds, but because of this brokenness, the adoption movement should treat adoption as a difficult last choice for a mother, not an easy or light first choice.
That’s why it’s worth paying close attention to pieces that describe the reasons why mothers give up their children for adoption and the consequences of that choice. Writing in the Washington Post, Gretchen Sisson emphasizes the sense of “grief” and “resignation” that many women feel after they give up their children for adoption. She emphasizes that the “most common reason for relinquishing children” is “money.”
Sisson also talks about how the cultural shame of illegitimacy was too often used as a cudgel to coerce women into relinquishing their children. An act so momentous—especially if born of shame—can’t help but have a profound and often catastrophic impact on a mother’s heart.
Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Spiers told her own story and described a similar reality. She was adopted into a loving family, but later found her birth mother, a woman named Maria who is “heartbroken” about the years they missed. “Adoption is often just as traumatic as the right thinks abortion is,” she writes, “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.”
All of this can be true. It’s why an ethical, responsible, and compassionate pro-life movement works mightily to make sure that parents can raise their children, and if it’s impossible or imprudent for both parents to be involved, then it works hard to make sure that moms can raise their babies with safety and financial security.
Moreover, the very idea that poverty—in this nation, of all places—could be the factor that causes a mother to part with her child is and should be a clarion call for action, both private and public, designed to facilitate family formation.
And yet, amid all this pain, why is adoption still beautiful? Why is it a great joy in our family’s life? The answer is found in Spiers’ own essay. It contains these interesting sentences:
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.
Note the key words. “Baby.” “Son.” “Precious.” She’s referring to a person, a human being who deserves to live, to be loved, to be cherished—when they’re a “lump of cells,” and when they’re fully formed.
Each and every adoptee, regardless of whether the adoption process has gone as smoothly and happily as possible or whether it’s been marked by layers of profound pain, shares a common characteristic. They are alive. They are here. If that sounds just too basic and trite to celebrate, it’s not. Who can put a value on life itself?
You know from last week’s newsletter that my adopted daughter’s story is full of pain and loss. I wish she did not have to endure those trials. But I can’t imagine our family and our community without her. We love her more than we love our own lives. She is a light.
Nothing about this is utilitarian. It’s not about net benefits. We don’t offer adoption as an alternative to abortion to save the next Jonas Salk or the next Winston Churchill. And we don’t offer adoption as an alternative because the pain of aborting a child is more than the pain of relinquishing a child.
Instead, adoptive parents hold their arms open to children because they love their kids. They are inherently worthy of that love regardless of their gifts and talents. Freely relinquishing a child to new parents is also an act of profound love, and it is worth bearing burdens for those we love.
Adoption stories aren’t about “saving” children. Savior narratives can be dangerous and set up adoptive families for heartbreak. They’re about loving children. Indeed, a pro-life movement that isn’t built on a foundation of love for mother and child isn’t truly a pro-life movement at all.
A credible pro-life movement—one that changes the culture enough to largely end abortion, rather than merely gains enough power to ban abortion—is one that wrestles with all the intense difficulties and challenges of unwanted pregnancies. It recognizes both the fear and uncertainty in the heart of the mom and the humanity of the child.
A credible pro-life movement rallies to the aid of mother and child in the private and public spheres. It thinks creatively about how to use public policy to make it easier for America’s poorest families to raise children without fear or want. It also understands that even the best public policies are imperfect, and there is no true government substitute for the personal care and concern of neighbors and friends.
And it also says, to each mom, if you truly can’t care for your child then without judgment or condemnation, we know there are families who will. In fact, they’ll be privileged to love your child—because your child is created in the image of God, and all God’s children should have a home.
One more thing …
Before the burst of controversy about adoption, I’d planned to write about something very different—deconstruction. It’s a term with many meanings in the Evangelical context, but mainly it refers to the process of critically re-evaluating your faith, often in response to profound pain and harm inflicted by the church.
As we say on the pod, we’re absolutely overwhelmed by your response. Last week the podcast peaked at third in the religion and spirituality category at Apple (briefly passing Joel Osteen!) and even cracked the top 100 overall. I’m incredibly grateful.
If you haven’t listened yet, please give it a try. This episode gets real, as they say, and I hope you find it both enlightening and encouraging.
One last thing …
We’re officially clear of Thanksgiving. It’s Christmas season, and that means Christmas music. I’d love to read your suggestions, but let’s start with a big, popular hymn first. It’s “O Holy Night,” and this is one of my favorite versions: