By Kathryn Joyce
Ohio Right to Life, a key force behind some of the country’s most strategic anti-abortion legislation, wants to reform adoption. The group is behind a new bill that passed the Ohio state House in January and is under debate in the Senate, designed to make adoption “better.”
At first glance, it’s easy to imagine why. Adoption reform is a hot national topic this year, after stories have flooded the media about international adoption fraud in countries from Guatemala to the Democratic Republic of Congo; a Supreme Court custody battle that pitted a U.S. Indian father and veteran against wealthy, white adoptive parents; scandals of adoptee abuse and murder and the phenomenon of under-the-table adoptee “re-homing“; and even, this month, the unprecedented indictment of four adoption agency staff accused of paying for children in Ethiopia. The Oscar-nominated movie Philomena has highlighted the abusive domestic adoption practices that took place in countries like Ireland and the U.S., when unmarried mothers were sent to maternity homes and coerced into relinquishing their newborns. And the federal government is currently preparing to debate an adoption policy bill that critics say is an attempt to save an international adoption industry that’s going bankrupt in the wake of continuing corruption scandals. Adoption reform discussions are everywhere.
But none of that is what Ohio Right to Life (ORTL) had in mind when they wrote their “adoption reform” bill. By making adoption “better,” the group didn’t mean more ethical or more transparent, but rather easier for prospective adoptive parents—or “better, cheaper and faster,” in the words of the bill’s author, ORTL President Mike Gonidakis. Gonidakis’ bill would reduce adoption wait times from one year to two months, would give adoptive families a state tax break of $10,000 (in addition to existing federal tax credits of around $13,000); would require that all payments for pregnant women’s living expenses be routed through adoption agencies or attorneys, rather than letting women handle their bills themselves; and would reduce by 75% the time that putative fathers have to register with a state agency to be notified of an impending adoption, which allows them to object. Under the bill, putative fathers—meaning those not married to a child’s mother—would have just seven days to put their name on Ohio’s Putative Father Registry, instead of the current 30, event though, as one Ohio man documented, it’s already nearly impossible to access the registry.
By making adoption “better,” the group didn’t mean more ethical or more transparent, but rather easier for prospective adoptive parents.
All the provisions are aimed, Ohio Right to Life says, at increasing the number of babies available for would-be parents to adopt since, as Gonidakis told the New York Times, “There are so many families waiting to adopt.”
What all this has to do with religion is a long story. As I wrote about extensively in my 2013 book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption, the last decade has witnessed the rise of a robust evangelical adoption movement that mobilized around child adoption—domestic, foster or international adoption—as a uniquely Christian imperative. The motivations of the movement were several. In response to claims of a worldwide “orphan crisis” that had allegedly left hundreds of millions of children parentless, Christian leaders urged their followers and congregations to adopt, as a way of living out the biblical mandate to care for “widows and orphans” (though as it would turn out, most of those alleged orphans have parents). Some theologians described adoption as a “Great Commission” activity that follows the Bible’s call to evangelize the nations, and an opportunity for Christians to introduce new children to Christ. Others focused on how earthly, “horizontal” adoption of children mirrored the spiritual, “vertical” adoption of Christians by God.
But an older motivation was abortion, and the idea that anti-abortion advocates could more convincingly claim to be “whole life” by not just opposing abortion, but by opening their homes to unwanted children. The notion of adoption as an abortion alternative has become so prevalent that Democratic politicians regularly talk about increasing adoption as a way to offset support for abortion rights.
That position has become so standard that, in his testimony to Ohio’s General Assembly, ORTL’s Gonidakis declared that “Adoption legislation should always be crafted to discourage abortion,” as though this was an uncontested truth. Elaborating to a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch, Gonidakis made clear that he thinks the reverse is true as well: that creating a climate hostile to abortion rights will translate to more adoptions. “We have made a significant impact, abortion clinics are closing … in our evolution, we believe the next step is adoption,” he said. “More adoptions will lead to less abortions. More women will see opportunities to have their child and keep their child or place their child for adoption.”
The only problem is, adoptions have not been forthcoming, at least not in the numbers that Right to Life groups would like to see. In the last four decades, which witnessed the legalization of abortion and the growing acceptance of single parenthood, healthy newborn babies simply aren’t being relinquished for adoption at the rates they were during the era of compulsory maternity home internment for unmarried mothers. Overall, the number of babies relinquished by never-married white women has fallen from around 19% in 1972 to less than 2% today. (Rates of relinquishment for black U.S. women remain statistically low.)
Studies show that this is not so much the result of women choosing abortion over adoption, but rather women now are more empowered to parent alone. But the open arms of the pro-life movement have not been content to wait for the smaller numbers of women who do seek to relinquish. As I’ve written about in The Nation, crisis pregnancy centers—non-medical anti-abortion clinics that aim to talk women out of having abortions, sometimes through deception—often lean heavily on their pregnant clients to consider adoption, arguing that single parenthood is “not God’s plan for the family.” Anti-abortion extremists like Flip Benham, head of Operation Save America (an Operation Rescue splinter group), partner with religious ministries that claim adoption is “the only WIN-WIN solution a young teen mother can really make.” And conservative policy organizations like the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family’s lobbying arm in DC, have commissioned multiple market research reports dedicated to the challenge of getting crisis pregnancy centers to produce more adoptions—largely by training counselors to present adoption as a means of unmarried mothers’ redemption, and women who relinquish as more mature and loving than those who “selfishly” insist on parenting. More recently, crisis pregnancy groups that conduct outreach in high schools have gone so far as to claim that all children born to single mothers are automatically orphans (since the Bible defines orphans as “fatherless children”) who would be better off adopted.
the open arms of the pro-life movement have not been content to wait for the smaller numbers of women who do seek to relinquish
This focus on numbers gets at a deeper motivation behind the push to increase adoptions. Just as domestic adoption rates fell in recent decades, so too are international adoptions declining. In fact, according to some adoption proponents, they’re falling off an “adoption cliff”: a reference to the fact that the number of children coming into the U.S. for adoption has decreased by nearly two-thirds in the past decade, from a peak of 23,000 in 2004 to a projected 7,000 for 2013 (official State Department figures for last year have not yet been released). But the demand from adoptive parents hasn’t fallen with it, and the industry increasingly finds itself facing a supply and demand problem. Some conservative commentators have responded with alarm, worrying that we’re in “the Last Days of Adoption.” And adoption agencies have gone out of business without enough adoptions to finance their overhead. Internationally, industry lobbyists are seeking to address this by proposing laws that could bring the numbers back up.
Now, in Ohio, we’re seeing them do the same, shored up by testimony of adoption as a divine calling, as advocates testifying in support of the bill reflected they had “felt the call by God to adopt,” or called their children’s birthmothers “angels on earth.”
But how Ohio’s bill will accomplish the stated goal of facilitating more adoptions is something of a mystery, unless they anticipate a boom of adoptions by defrauding biological fathers of the chance to claim custody. As Rampe Thomas of Ohio’s Choice Network told the Columbus Dispatch, “I’m not sure how a bill that is solely focused on making things better for adoptive families will make more women want to choose adoption.”
Marley Greiner, an actual adoption reform advocate who’s long written about corruption in the industry, agreed, writing in the Columbus Free Press that Ohio Right to Life seems not to understand that “creating a climate of adoption” by restricting abortion is unlikely to increase relinquishment rates.
What ORTL fails to note, and every adoption reformer knows, is that there is little relationship between abortion and adoption. After a brief downturn in adoption after Roe, adoption numbers settled and remain steady. The stigma of unmarried pregnancy and motherhood has plummeted and nearly all unmarried mothers keep their children. Women who have abortions don’t want to be pregnant; those who place babies for adoption either can’t or don’t want to parent.
…Ohio Right to Life, either by design or ignorance, has co-opted adoption reform for its anti-abortion agenda, but fails to show how its bill relates to that agenda. Instead of setting realistic adoption goals such as streamlining foster care placement, capping adoption fees and increasing funds for child/mother welfare services and foster care placement, it’s creating imaginary children for thwarted potential adoptive parents.
The absence of foster care from the bill, as Greiner notes, was telling, given that’s one area that could use more adoptive parent interest. But it wasn’t an accident, as Greiner continues, reporting that when a member of Ohio’s House Committee on Health and Aging brought up foster care, bill sponsor Rep. Jim Buchy tersely replied, “That’s obviously a different issue.”
Ohio Right to Life, either by design or ignorance, has co-opted adoption reform for its anti-abortion agenda, but fails to show how its bill relates to that agenda.
Where the bill goes from here is uncertain. On February 26, Gonidakis testified against the Senate’s version of the bill, since it didn’t include his proposed restrictions on putative fathers’ rights. Without limiting fathers’ rights, Gonidakis warned that potential adoptive families would be scared away from the process, and stressed-out pregnant women might decide to abort rather than relinquish for adoption. They’re unlikely threats, in both cases, but illustrative of how one-sided the debate over the bill has been, representing the interests of one party to the “adoption triad” alone.
It’s not just Ohio though. In 2012, Wisconsin State Senator Glenn Grothman, a Republican, introduced legislation that would officially label single parenthood a risk factor for child abuse, and in his promotion of the bill, he lamented that too few out-of-wedlock births had resulted in adoption. In Texas last June, a Senator named Eddie Lucio proposed a bill calling for women who were seeking abortions to undergo three hours of directive adoption counseling—something that is at odds with the neutral, nondirective options counseling suggested by industry best practice.
History shows what can happen when there’s a powerful industry motivated to increase adoption numbers by increasing the number of relinquishments. From the maternity homes of Ireland to the “paper orphanages” facilitating fraudulent adoptions from Ethiopia to U.S. crisis pregnancy centers, efforts to obtain more adoptable children tend to come at the expense of protecting children’s and families’ rights. The answer to that is not an ideological co-option of the language of adoption reform, but the thing itself.
Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement.