By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
The first time we met our daughter’s birth mother, she was nearly seven months pregnant. Describing her experience with this pregnancy, she explained she hadn’t had money for an abortion. “I could have helped you find the resources for one,” I said, because I am a longtime abortion-rights activist. “There are Abortion Funds around this state.” Suddenly, I felt very awkward. I’d blurted this out. Long ago, I’d helped to start an abortion fund. To support someone with an unintended pregnancy find whatever resolution the pregnant person deems necessary remains a core value of mine.
In that moment, though, things were… complicated. For my part, I was, at once, extremely grateful she had made the decisions she’d made—and that her decisions seemed to be leading us toward welcoming our daughter. I was there as a person who’d had three abortions and carried three, medically safe, yet exceedingly taxing pregnancies to term. In each instance, I’d chosen what was best for me and for my family. I remain grateful that was the case. I believe with a ferocity like little other that every pregnant human deserves this.
Fast forward: our daughter is a fantastic, lively, and incredible human. To have been entrusted with her care remains, for me, a different responsibility than parenting our other kids. I am continually surprised when people frame adoption as somehow selfless, because it seems like such a sacred trust, an honor bestowed upon us that wintry day of her birth. Our daughter brought us a larger, more complex family. Through open adoption, our family grew in an unexpected way. As she joined our family, we were welcomed into her birth mom’s family.
November is National Adoption Month. It’s a time to spread awareness about the realities and intricacies of adoption. During the Supreme Court’s last term, the Dobbs decision reversed a person’s right to an abortion, throwing potential legality or illegality to the states. As November 8th looms near, I’m thinking a lot about adoption and abortion, and the ways adoption and abortion can be entangled. I’m also thinking about the ways they should not be.
My husband and I were in the hospital when our daughter arrived. I was by her mom’s side as her mom gave birth, along with an aunt and a grandmother. Nearly fifteen years ago, abortion was legal and accessible (still is, in my state). I knew that our daughter’s mom had a choice then about her own pregnancy. She decided, for reasons unique to her, to continue that pregnancy, to give birth, and to opt for an open adoption. She had a choice, after giving birth, to make a different decision than she ultimately made. Heart wrenching as that would have been for us, we absolutely would have supported any decision she made.
When abortion was not legal, unintended pregnancies were nearly always stigmatized, hidden. Books like American Baby and The Girls Who Went Away convey the terrible harm done through shame and loss of one’s bodily agency, because adoption was imposed upon a young, pregnant woman. Rather than being her decision, adoption constituted an aggressive and assaultive act of family separation. A post-Roe form of policing families Dorothy Roberts writes about in Torn Apart details how systemic racism imposes aggressive and assaultive acts of family separation upon brown and black families through carceral, punitive leanings of the child welfare system in this country.
Regardless of whether abortion is or was legal, over the past four decades, access to abortion and reproductive health services has shrunk. Restrictions include arresting young people’s access to abortion before turning eighteen, lack of federal funding for services, and the disappearance of abortion clinics in so many counties across the country a person might have to travel many hours to find care. This might well necessitate crossing state lines. For decades, abortion providers and supporters and patients have endured violence and harassment. Post-Dobbs, abortion is inaccessible in nearly half the country. A switch was not flipped in June; for so many people, the Dobbs decision changed little.
To learn more about how limited people’s reproductive choices are, due to profiling, racism, misogyny, and classism is devastating. The more I consider lack of affordable childcare, housing, and access to adequate health care, the more strongly I question framing adoption as a simple response to an unintended pregnancy. It is not. By limiting not only access but legality, even to discuss abortion, another crisis looms, one that punishes people giving birth and the children born to them. Forced situations like the ones we hoped to leave behind when abortion became legal in 1973 are nothing like a fair start to life. If this country valued caregiving and caregivers and children and other vulnerable humans, we could hold these questions inside a more compassionate framework. But families are not prioritized; control over others is.
Our daughter does not consciously recall her birth. She doesn’t remember how difficult those first days and months were for everyone. We knew, as parents, we wanted an open adoption in part so we could talk with her later about how adoption was what her birth mom decided to do out of love. We never hid her adoption. She’s grown up knowing this about herself and knowing her birth mom. She’s asked complicated questions and will ask more. No one gets adoption or anything else related to families “right.” We are doing our best.
I do believe adoption exists more graciously in a society with abortion rights and access. When options exist, there is less chance that someone gets boxed into what feels like an absolute no-win situation. I am certain that every unintended pregnancy is met with thoughtfulness. Some decisions are easier to make than others, or more obvious. To move adoption from decision to default is a cause for my anger, sadness, and fear.
Sarah is a writer, parent to four, and a longtime reproductive justice organizer. Currently, she serves on the board of Collective Power for Reproductive Justice. The places activism and writing bump up against one another are always of great interest, as are the ways we keep learning and growing. To write about adoption feels increasingly difficult and, at this time, complex and critical and very vulnerable.
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