‘Relinquished’: Gretchen Sisson gives a clear view on adoption

After the Supreme Court overturned it Roe v. Wade in 2022, sociologist Gretchen Sisson struggled to answer frequently asked questions about contemporary adoption. Journalists wanted to know: Why don’t more people give up their babies when faced with an unwanted pregnancy? After all, adoption is a beloved institution and a rare point of agreement between both parties.

“I would respond that women are generally not interested in giving away their children,” Sisson writes in her new book, “Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood.” “Can you explain more? They would ask. I would try, but there comes a point where as a researcher I can’t explain anymore. But as a mother I always wanted to ask them: under what circumstances would you give up your children?”

In “Relinquished,” Sisson draws on more than a decade of research to provide an authoritative look at the reasons why mothers voluntarily terminate their parental rights. Like its groundbreaking predecessor ‘The Girls Who Went Away’ by Ann Fessler, ‘Relinquished’ is based on personal stories of birth mothers who place children for adoption. But while Fessler’s work examined the post-World War II “baby scoop” era, in which millions of frightened young pregnant women lost their babies to forced maternity wards, “Relinquished” focuses on domestic adoption after World War II.Roobetween 2000 and 2020.

The women who spoke to Sisson come from diverse economic, racial and religious backgrounds. But from their stories A disturbing picture emerges of a lopsided adoption industry, in which would-be parents spend thousands of dollars searching for adoptable children while those in crisis pregnancies struggle to pay rent.

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Adoption is almost never a first choice for birth mothers, Sisson’s research shows. But when abortion and parenthood are inaccessible, relinquishment rates skyrocket. Of Roo negated and demand from potential adoptive parents fuels a growing industry, it is more important than ever for Americans to ground their views on adoption in reality.

The days of prison-like maternity hospitals may be over, but Sisson draws on the experiences of real birth mothers and the latest research on adoption to show that a legacy of coercion still exists. For example, eighty percent of birth mothers cite financial pressure as their primary motivator for relinquishment. Other common drivers include a lack of social support and a lack of stable housing. One in five birth mothers is homeless at the time of relinquishment, according to data from a major adoption agency.

Birth mothers repeatedly told Sisson that if they had only had $1,000, $2,500 — even just enough for a car seat — they would have tried to become a parent. Meanwhile, couples who adopted their children often spent tens of thousands of euros on employment agencies and legal services. Adoption agencies and social workers emphasized the “better life” that adoptive families can provide, reminding birth mothers that relinquishment was their baby’s best chance to grow up with two parents in the middle class.

Financial desperation wasn’t the only factor in women giving up. Others turned to adoption agencies early in their pregnancies — often with encouragement from religious families or crisis pregnancy centers — and were quickly matched with hopeful adoptive couples. Birth mothers, especially young women from religious communities, said adoption was the only way to “liberate” themselves from the sin of becoming pregnant before marriage. Sisson points to research showing that pregnant mothers often develop a “filial” dependence on adoptive families, relying on them for medical bills and daily expenses. Adoption agencies routinely withhold information about government benefits and parental rights.

One mother described having second thoughts about adoption after her son was born. But the adoptive parents and “four or five” adoption agency employees had set up camp in her delivery room.

“They don’t encourage you to wait. They don’t encourage you to think about it later. They will be with you at the hospital and have you sign the papers as soon as it is legally possible,” she told Sisson. “If I could go back, I wish I would have waited a few days because I wouldn’t have made the same choice.”

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Perhaps Sisson’s most powerful storytelling tool is the decade-long gap between the participants’ first and second interviews. Although the details of their stories differed, the women’s post-adoption experiences were almost universally marked by a transition from cautious hope to disillusionment. The “open adoptions” that agencies promised rarely materialized. As time passed, adoptive families limited or cut off contact. Birth mothers had few or no legal options. Many were traumatized by childbirth and the loss of their babies, but they could not talk openly about their experiences for fear of further alienating their children’s new families.

Sisson’s analysis gently lifts the scales from our eyes. If adoption is a heartwarming practice, why are birth mothers plagued by feelings of sadness and betrayal that don’t go away with time? If every aspiring parent deserves a baby to love, who are we willing to exploit to meet that demand?

Ultimately, “Relinquished” refutes two widely held assumptions about adoption. The first is that adoption is a transaction, the simple transfer of private property from one parent to another. Children are not property, Sisson writes, and their kinship ties cannot be severed by wishful thinking or legal maneuvers. The second is that adoption is a choice. When people in crisis pregnancies do not have access to abortion and cannot afford parents, adoption becomes an opportunistic transfer of babies, rather than a service to children or parents.

“Handed in” leaves many possibilities unexplored. Sisson did not interview biological fathers, whose involvement often looks very different. Although one of her interview subjects is non-binary, Sisson doesn’t address how femininity and binary gender feed our ideas about who deserves to be a parent. Although Sisson limits her focus to voluntary domestic adoption in the United States over the past two decades, she encourages readers and other scholars to consider the overlap between voluntary relinquishment and the American family policing system. For example, black birth mothers were more likely to voluntarily relinquish a baby for fear of losing custody of their other children.

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This book can be difficult to read, especially for current or prospective adoptive parents. It feels much better to save an unwanted baby than to take one from a mother who would be older if she could only afford a car seat. But, as Sisson writes, if adoption is intended to meet the needs of children and not the “dreams of future parents,” the feelings of adoptive parents cannot determine the future of adoption.

What could that future look like? Sisson draws on decades of work by adoptees and reproductive justice advocates, including many women of color, to present possible alternatives. Perhaps we can give underprivileged children the resources they need without breaking their legal ties to their families of origin. Perhaps struggling pregnant people could place babies in transitional care or kinship care. Perhaps U.S. policymakers can strengthen our social safety net, giving pregnant people access to affordable housing and childcare.

In “Relinquished,” Sisson vividly depicts a world in which children are treated as consumer products and moved “for the sake of others’ family desires and a lucrative industry.” She also dares to imagine a different world in which Americans treat adoption as a matter of justice.

Tatum Hunter is a consumer technology reporter at The Washington Post, based in San Francisco. Her work focuses on health, privacy and relationships in the internet age. She gave her son up for adoption in 2011 at the age of 18.

The politics of adoption and the privilege of American motherhood

St Martin. 320 pages. $29

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