Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood

  • By Gretchen Sisson
  • St. Martin’s Press
  • 320 pp.

Who gets to be a mom in our patriarchal, capitalist society?

Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood

Infertile? Same-sex couple? Evangelical Christian? Zero-population-growth proponent? Too often, the “simple” solution if you fall into one of these categories but want a child is: You can always adopt. But where, exactly, do those babies come from? Typically, they are not, as the popular myth would have it, orphans. They have living mothers and fathers. So, why is it that some mothers give up their children to complete strangers?

The answer, according to Gretchen Sisson’s important new study, Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood, is largely due to money and religion.

When faced with an unexpected pregnancy, women may not have the wherewithal to plan for raising a child on their own. The people who should be giving them support — the father, nuclear families, churches, social welfare institutions — abandon them in their time of need. Sometimes, the only place they can go to is a “pregnancy crisis center,” where they are firmly guided toward adoption.

From “The Blind Side” to “Sex and the City,” adoption is prominently featured in popular culture, yet the story usually centers on the adoptive parents while erasing or demonizing the original ones. This is a reflection of the power imbalance inherent in adoption as it exists today, which takes from the vulnerable to give to the advantaged. Seeking to understand the sociological conditions behind relinquishment, Sisson conducted more than a hundred interviews with American women, most of whom adopted out their babies between 2000 and 2020. She explains:

“While I did not set out to write a polemic, my commitment to listening to the voices of relinquishing mothers and adopted people and my belief in reproductive justice as the best way forward in our post-Dobbs world have both led me to understand the current practices of domestic infant adoption in the United States as anathema to that pursuit of justice.”

Introducing the history of adoption in America, the author touches on the practice of separating enslaved people, Native Americans, and poor whites from their children, and the cultural shift that happened in the 20th century when “a social demand for babies…increasingly involved the full and permanent legal transfer of parental rights.” Soon, demand outstripped supply, and people like notorious baby broker Georgia Tann, director of the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, employed illegal tactics in order to reap financial rewards.

“Over the course of her career, [Tann] would facilitate over 1,000 adoptions and earn over $1 million,” writes Sisson. “To protect herself, Tann facilitated adoptions for prominent celebrities, authors, and politicians, with a client list that included actress Joan Crawford, writer Pearl S. Buck, and New York governor Herbert H. Lehman. These connections made those at the highest levels of society complicit in the secrecy of her work.”

As the monetizing of adoption directed babies from those on the bottom rungs of society to those on the top, adoptive parents and their allies came to dominate the discourse. Celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Madonna have cooperated with tabloids to feature feel-good stories on their transracially adopted children. The publishing industry is rife with adoptive parents committed to protecting their view of adoption, reflected in the many memoirs valorizing adoptive parents and novels by non-adopted people that exploit the adoption trope. Of the nine current Supreme Court justices, three are adoptive parents, with Amy Coney Barrett using her children adopted from Haiti as testament to her character during her Senate confirmation hearings.

While adopted people have been active in refuting these false adoption narratives, relinquishing parents are mostly absent from the conversation. Rectifying this erasure, Sisson centers women who adopted out their children, interleaving chapters that describe her research and the results of her study with the personal testimonies of nine women.

Most of the women quoted in the book were raised in conservative Christian homes steeped in anti-abortion ideology. When they became pregnant, they had no family support and, with a hard deadline of impending birth, little time to come up with a parenting plan. “The reasons for relinquishment were less about acute crises and more about everyday survival,” Sisson observes. “When I asked the women who wanted to parent what they would have needed to do so, it was simple: money. A survey of birth mothers found that over 80 percent cited financial reasons as a reason for relinquishing.”

Sisson notes that anti-abortion centers garner millions in public funding. In 10 states, these dollars come from federal programs designed to help families living in poverty. Additionally, adoption agencies and lawyers profit handsomely by placing the children of vulnerable women into the homes of the more financially successful.

As an incentive to pregnant women, the contemporary adoption industry dangles the promise of “open adoption,” in which the birth mother keeps lifelong contact with her child. But according to the mothers’ testimonies, adoptive parents typically renege on these legally unenforceable agreements. Pointing to the adoptive parents’ ignorance about the complex needs of their adopted children, many women felt that “their child’s adoptive parents were engaging in openness as a ‘favor’ to the birth mother, more than as a real investment in what is best for their child.”

Sisson’s study began as her doctoral thesis, and in writing the book, she was able to re-interview 17 women a decade later. Whatever optimism they might’ve had originally has been replaced by anger and bitterness as they grapple with the way they were manipulated by crisis-pregnancy centers, adoption agencies and lawyers, adoptive parents, and their own families and churches. Many were co-opted as spokesmodels for the very agencies that profited off their relinquishment. It was only in the intervening years that they could look past their own trauma to understand the profound ways in which they were exploited.

Every interviewee who was active in the anti-abortion movement regretted her involvement. While the movement proclaims women will rue their abortions for the rest of their lives, the statistics point elsewhere: Very few women who have undergone the procedure regret it or experience the profound, life-changing trauma inherent in relinquishing a child.

Sisson acknowledges that her study is not fully representative of contemporary adoption. The vast majority of the women she surveyed were white and relinquished their children voluntarily, not via intervention from the state that overwhelmingly targets women of color. Additionally, the 2022 Dobbs ruling will undoubtedly increase the supply of domestic infants, along with the recent activity in state legislatures to craft more adoption-industry-friendly laws, such as funding for Safe Haven baby boxes. Meanwhile, there is a shocking absence of legislation that would help keep families together.

As American women lose reproductive rights long thought sacred, Relinquished is a forceful reminder of who wins and who loses in the making of the modern American family. Gretchen Sisson makes a strong argument that anyone interested in reproductive justice and women’s rights should advocate for adoption reform.

A first-wave Korean adoptee, Alice Stephens is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People. She is still searching for her Korean mother.

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