Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s recent questions about adoption, pregnancy and safe haven laws stopped me cold. The case before the court — Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — hinges on a Mississippi law banning nearly all abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Barrett suggested abortion was no longer needed as an option for women seeking to avoid motherhood; that adoption could simply take its place. “It doesn’t seem to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden. And so it seems to me that the choice, more focused, would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at 23 weeks, or the state requiring the woman to go 15, 16 weeks more and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion.”
This is a fairy tale version of adoption. That to simply “terminate parental rights at the conclusion” of a pregnancy frees mother and child from the “burden.” As an adoptee, I live in the real-world version of that story, where termination of parental rights was just the beginning of the burden.
Relinquishing a newborn is trauma for the mother, but also for the baby. The infant experiences the trauma of losing everything that’s familiar, a preverbal loss encoded in the body. This trauma was strangely absent in the questions Barrett asked. Perhaps not surprising, as Barrett views these issues through the lens of an adoptive parent.
That trauma has lived in my body all my life. My adoption was a “good” one. I had a stable life, a good education. But I still grieved a terrible loss and felt a deep longing for a connection to my genetic roots. Mostly I kept that longing to myself, in classic adoptee form, seeking to not hurt anyone else’s feelings. Until recently.
I finally did something about that longing four years ago with a home DNA test. I hoped to find my ethnic heritage. Maybe get a bit of health information so I could fill in a few of those checkboxes on medical forms instead of having to write, “no information — adopted,” in the margins every time. When my results came back, I got all of that, and more.
I was the false start to my parents’ marathon marriage. They’d each been married to other people when I was conceived. They split up. Divorces ensued. Nine months after my birth, my parents reunited, got married and have been together ever since. They also had two sons. So not only did I find my birthparents, I have two full siblings — and two half-sisters.
Adoption isn’t a single choice that’s over and done with, the neat and tidy solution Barrett describes. It’s rippled through our lives for 58 years. It will echo on in my daughters’ lives.
Choosing to relinquish an infant is life altering, for mother, father, child and generations to come. The connection Barrett made is the idea that adoption is an alternative that makes abortion unnecessary. As if those months of pregnancy have no impact on a woman’s life. As if a medical procedure that terminates a pregnancy before there is a child is worse than one that inflicts real trauma on a living infant as well as a mother.
It’s easy to learn more about that trauma, for anyone who is interested. There are podcasts like “Adoptees On” and “Who Am I Really?” There are adoptee memoirs like “You Don’t Look Adopted” by Anne Heffron. “God and Jetfire” by Amy Seek offers a birth mother’s perspective. “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel van der Kolk gives insights into how trauma impacts the physical self.
It’s plain to see, after taking in some of these perspectives, that if the “problem” is pregnancy, the alternate “solution” to abortion isn’t adoption. Adoption will not simply erase nine months of a woman’s life and give her a clean slate. The grief of adoption can linger, sometimes in plain sight, often hidden. The loss can be addressed, but never erased.
Recently, I received an email from my sister with a photo of the baby quilt she’d made for our new grandniece. The colorful collection represents special places, generational memories and wishes for the future, using fabric squares sent by family members. My square is indistinguishable from the others. It’s not a loose piece left in the box. It’s not safety-pinned to a corner. It’s sewn into the family patchwork with neat, even stitches.
Romanticizing adoption as a simple solution to an unwanted pregnancy dismisses the power of the threads that connect us. If women lose the protection of Roe v. Wade and are forced to give birth to children they do not want, they face a terrible choice. Raise that child, or relinquish it. And either way, that child will have to live with the repercussions of that choice. Being honest about the grief and loss that underpin even the happiest of adoption stories is the only way to base decisions on reality instead of a fairy tale.
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