AAC Conference Part 3: Birth Parent Rights

I attended a workshop on “successful adoptions.” The participants were divided into groups representing professionals, birth parents, adoptive parents, extended families, child, etc. We were asked to discuss and define a successful adoption for the entity we represented. In short, connections between relatives and openness in communication about all aspects of adoption seemed to be the main ingredients necessary.

In the next workshop I attended, a panel of birth mothers told their stories. Some of the discussion focused on whether or not pregnant women considering adoption really had a choice in the matter once they contacted an adoption agency or adoption attorney. Marketing to potential birth mothers is very persuasive. Agencies and attorneys are very anxious to work with them and offer “options.” These options may include: (1) you can choose the adoptive parents; (2) you can choose what happens in the hospital; (3) you can choose the amount and type of contact now and in the future, etc. But are pregnant women truly given any option other than adoption?

In my experience, most private or agency domestic infant adoptions are conducted in the following manner:

1. Wait until after the first trimester has passed to counsel or talk to a potential birth mother so that the option of termination is not easily available.

2. Discuss parenting versus adoption with an emphasis on the benefits to the child of a stable home, two parents, financial resources, etc.

3. Empower the woman with the knowledge that she can choose from a large number of prescreened and deserving potential adoptive parents whose profiles, books or letters describe their idyllic lives and their gratitude to the birth mother who selects them.

4. After selecting adoptive parents, the pregnant woman often meets and begins the process of becoming emotionally attached to these wonderful people and their genuine appreciation for her sacrifice.

5. Often, a counselor is assigned to follow the potential birth mother (or birth parents) and her selected adoptive parents through the pre-birth contact, birth, and placement of the child. She may help them write an open adoption agreement defining post-placement contact.

6. The prospective adoptive parents are often at the hospital for the birth of the baby and spend time “bonding” with him or her. Hospital personnel may be prepared in advance to treat the adoptive parents as the “real parents.”

7. At the appropriate time, an adoption agency professional or attorney who has previously advised the biological parents about the legal documents, meets the birth parents in the hospital or another location for the signing.

8. Birth parents and adoptive parents go their separate ways. If all goes well, the adults perform according to their open adoption agreement. Their counselor follows the progress for a few days, weeks, or months. Ultimately, the counselor becomes available on an “as needed” basis.

Sounds straightforward enough, doesn’t it? But I ask you to consider this question: Where’s the money? Follow the money.

All of this process is funded by the potential adoptive parents: the marketing, the intake counselors, the match counselors, the lawyers, the living and medical expenses (in certain cases). Everyone involved in the adoption process is being paid by the people who want the adoption to succeed: the adoptive parents. One would hope that these professionals would have the integrity to halt the process if they sensed a problem. But is “hope” the best we can do? Where is the independent advocate for each birth parent? Where is the person who will safeguard her (or his) rights and interests regardless of the effect on the adoption?

Though any woman who is considering adoption is in crisis, is it possible that the crisis can be managed in some other way than by placing the child for adoption? This is where I get on my soapbox… Potential birth parents need to be advised about all their options, from the moment they discover there is a pregnancy, in a knowledgeable, clear, and unbiased fashion. Example: “For you, [name of pregnant woman or father of the pregnancy], in your particular circumstances, does it make sense to terminate the pregnancy, to parent the child, or to place the child with someone else to parent? What would each of these options look like? How would each of these options feel? What are the resources available to make each of these options a reality? What would be the immediate consequences? What might the long-term consequences look and feel like?” Practical steps also need to be taken, such as creating budgets and identifying family members, friends, and professionals who might help.

As an adoptive parent who cherishes the time pre-birth (after our children’s birth parents had chosen us) as an opportunity for both families to get to know one another, as a time to anticipate potential medical issues, talents, strengths and weaknesses, etc. of the unborn child, and as a time to evaluate what our lifelong commitment to each other might look like, I find it difficult to admit that I have come to wonder whether or not this pre-birth relationship puts too much pressure on the birth parents to place. Arguments can be made on either side. But, if one is serious about creating an environment in which adoption is truly a “voluntary” act by the birth parents, the nature and extent of pre-birth contact needs to be re-considered.

One other thing occurs to me as I consider the issue of birth parent rights and successful adoptions – when adoption is the right choice for the birth parents. Most of the time we think about the advantages of open adoption in relationship to the child. The child will know that he/she has two sets of parents that love him/her. The child will know who he/she looks like and why the adoption plan was made. The child will have access to medical history and be able to communicate and form relationships with birth family members. The parenting skills of the adoptive parents will be enhanced and the child will benefit because adoptive parents will have insight into their child that only the birth family can provide.

But in my experience, the third side of triangle – the side that links birth and adoptive parents – may be just as important in creating successful adoptions. A good relationship between the adoptive mother and birth mother, for example, helps them deal with their losses related to infertility or to placement. If I can share my sadness about not being the biological parent to the child I love and if my child’s birth mother can share her sadness about not being able to do the day-to-day parenting of the child she loves, we can come to appreciate our respective losses and roles in a way that benefits both of us. And in so doing, I believe, we also give our child permission to grieve his/her losses and to live a healthier life.

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