Options and Adoptions

January 5, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” single women with unplanned, unintended, unwished-for pregnancies wind up keeping their babies (and presumably live happily ever after). As Ross Douthat says in this NY Times column on Monday, these films make abortion seem “not only unnecessary but repellent.” A few American films, very few, have taken a different view of abortion, notably “The Cider House Rules” and “Dirty Dancing.”*

There’s a third option to unwanted pregnancy – adoption. Douthat sees it as the bridge between infertility and unwanted pregnancies. The trouble, Douthat says, is that because of abortion, fewer babies are crossing that bridge.
Prior to 1973, 20 percent of births to white, unmarried women (and 9 percent of unwed births over all) led to an adoption. Today, just 1 percent of babies born to unwed mothers are adopted, and would-be adoptive parents face a waiting list that has lengthened beyond reason.
Instead, those babies are being “destroyed.”
This is the paradox of America’s unborn. No life is so desperately sought after, so hungrily desired, so carefully nurtured. And yet no life is so legally unprotected, and so frequently destroyed.
Douthat’s article got some strong reaction. Read the comments on the Times website. Or if you prefer blunt outrage, try Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon. She frames the question differently. You can’t just say, “Abortion bad, adoption good.” You have to ask: good and bad for who? Take that closing, somewhat mawkish line of Douthat’s. The mother who is “destroying ”the foetus is obviously not the person who “hungrily desires” it. Nor are the people involved in adoption equals. There’s a social class dimension. Douthat’s abstract prescriptions when applied to the real world mean this: because a middle-class white couple hungrily desires a child, a poor girl must carry her baby to term and give it to them.
to return to an era where being a sexually active, unmarried woman was de facto criminalized so that your labor could be forcibly extracted from you to benefit people who do a much better job than you of keeping up appearances.
Douthat sees the pre-Roe era as one of possibly troubled girls gratefully and happily giving up their happy babies to happy and grateful adopting couples. Marcotte is less sanguine. It was instead an era when
young white women . . . who turned up pregnant were forced to give birth to babies and forced into maternity homes where they were restrained and often subject to torturous behavior so they couldn’t resist when their babies were snatched from them against their wills.
Adoption, in the real world, is not such a simple solution. Maybe that’s why there are so few movies about it. I can’t think of any movies with adoption as an important element of the story. Surely there must be some.** [Update: See Tina’s comment.]

* My favorite American film with an abortion theme is “Racing With the Moon,” (1984) with Sean Penn, set in 1942 – a good film that nobody saw. For more on abortion in the movies see Stephen Farber at The Daily Beast last April.

** I think adoption does enter into soap operas and medical dramas like “Private Practice,” but usually with such complicated entanglements that the basic conflicts and problems of adoption get lost.


tina said...

Adoption was a primary storyline in Juno--the baby she carries to term is adopted by an older woman.

Jay Livingston said...

Ooops. Right. So much for my memory for details, or endings, or anything else. (The best what-to-name-the-baby book I read way back when was called Beyond Jennifer and Jason. I guess my memory skipped beyond Garner and Bateman.)

Anonymous said...

Juno is the perfect example of abortion-bad-adoption-good themes.

robynlicious said...

There's a class element to the abortion vs adoption debate, but there's also a huge racial factor. What about black babies carried to term, which are much harder to place because white adoptive parents want white babies? A friend of mine looking into adoption said that black babies over the age of 2 are considered special needs adoptions because they are unwanted.

Gene said...

Adoptees like myself have strong feelings about this, and yes, being born in '67, I was born near the end of the adoption "golden age." What infuriates me is that adoption does not seem to be seriously discussed as a third option. To me, it is the noblest decision, yet all we seem to see are women wanting to keep "my baby." Adoption recognizes that the pregnant mother does not "own" her baby but is rather its guardian and caregiver during gestation ... and what better way to care for a child than to allow it to be raised by someone else if the mother is unable or unwilling to do so herself.

My birth mother could have very easily aborted me or kept me in her splintered situation. She took the hardest path. We reconnected when I was 30 ... and she still had pains from the adoption ... she wished she'd kept me ... but the fact is that I was better off being adopted, and she was too. She later remarried, and never had to deal with the guilt and pain of abortion.

I'm not saying abortion is the right answer for everyone, but I surely hope that it is discussed as a real option. One of my high school classmates carried her baby to term and placed it for adoption, and I thought the world of her for making such a hard choice when doubtless other female classmates in the mid-80s had secret abortions nobody every knew about ...