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It's not as simple as abortion v. adoption. Just ask Bri

The idea of adoption as an alternative to abortion was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month as the Supreme Court considered a Mississippi law to restrict access to abortion.
Ian Waldie
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File photo/Getty Images
The idea of adoption as an alternative to abortion was thrust into the spotlight earlier this month as the Supreme Court considered a Mississippi law to restrict access to abortion.

Bri had wanted to be a mom for as long as she can recall.

"I remember in high school, one of my aunts had a large family, so I used to say I wanted five kids like her," she said.

But seven years ago, Bri got pregnant by accident. She was 21 years old and the reality she confronted was very different from her teenage fantasy.

"You don't have a car," she kept thinking. "How are you going to raise a baby without a car?"

Bri, who asked us not to use her full name, was a live-in nanny for a family on the east coast at the time, and wanted to go to community college to work towards her social work degree.

But she became so incapacitated by a severe form of morning sickness that she moved across the country into her mom and dad's home in a remote Alaskan town.

Bri relinquished her infant son for adoption. Seven years on, she says the family raising him is wonderful, but she still carries the grief of her decision.
Bri C / Bri C
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Bri C
Bri relinquished her infant son for adoption. Seven years on, she says the family raising him is wonderful, but she still carries the grief of her decision.

"I kept thinking about the fact that I was living with family and I didn't have a car and that meant that I was a terrible person, and that I would be a terrible mom, because I couldn't even take my baby home from the hospital," Bri said.

"It was these really awful, anxious thoughts ... I just felt completely unequipped to be a parent."

Bri searched online for help for single parents in her state. The first few links that popped up were for adoption agencies. She clicked on them and found profiles of families waiting for babies.

"A lot of them were people with big houses and nurseries, people who could take vacations and do all of the stuff that I couldn't do," Bri said.

"All I saw in our future was me working a minimum wage job and my child being in daycare and not really being able to be the mom I wanted to be. So, when I contacted the adoption agency, I was at the lowest point I had been."

Bri reached out to two agencies that left her convinced that relinquishing her baby at birth would be best.

"A lot of the conversation around adoption back then, and now, is that it's this great thing, it's this selfless decision that you're giving the child a better life," Bri said.

"It's hard to explain what it feels like when you've been convinced that the only way your child will have a good life is without you.

"The social workers at the adoption agencies were really good at undermining my confidence as a parent. A lot of their focus was on, 'You're doing the right thing. You've picked the right family'."

The message Bri heard was clear: She could free herself from anxiety and the immense burden of parenting and her baby would have a wonderful life.

In oral arguments before the Supreme Court over Mississippi's ban on abortion after 15 weeks, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the mother of seven children, two of them adopted, questioned whether pregnancy and then parenthood are part of the same burden.
Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images
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Getty Images
In oral arguments before the Supreme Court over Mississippi's ban on abortion after 15 weeks, Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the mother of seven children, two of them adopted, questioned whether pregnancy and then parenthood are part of the same burden.

It's a similar argument to the line of questioning Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett pursued earlier this month when the court heard arguments in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization over a Mississippi law that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

One of the main arguments the state of Mississippi makes in the case is that many economic and social developments make pregnancy safer and easier than previous decades, so it's no longer as burdensome as when the landmark abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade, came down in 1973.

Barrett wanted to know why safe haven laws – that allow women to relinquish their infants for adoption shortly after birth – don't alleviate people of the obligations of motherhood.

"In all 50 states, you can terminate parental rights by relinquishing a child ... and I think the shortest period might have been 48 hours, if I'm remembering the data correctly," Barret said.

"So it seems to me, seen in that light, both Roe and Casey [the 1992 case that upheld the right to abortion] emphasize the burdens of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don't the safe haven laws take care of that problem?

"It doesn't seem to me to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden."

Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at the University of California San Francisco [UCSF] who examines abortion and pregnancy decision-making, was surprised by Barrett's focus on safe haven laws. Most notably because she said their usage was "extraordinarily rare".

"But [Justice Barrett's] broader argument about the termination of parental rights is still somewhat surprising, because what we have found in our research is that most of them [women] do not end up choosing to place the infant for adoption," Sisson said.

Sisson estimates that between 18,000 to 20,000 young infants are adopted privately in the U.S. each year, while about 900,000 women choose abortion annually.

Further, she says her research shows that most women who cannot get an abortion do not end up relinquishing the child for adoption – 91% of the women in her study ended up parenting their child.

"Adoption is a very hard decision, and I think a lot of women know that intuitively. And our research on women who do relinquish their parental rights shows that this is not an easy choice, and it has a lot of adverse outcomes," Sisson said.

"We see a lot of grief, a lot of mourning, a lot of trauma for the women who go through relinquishments."

That was the case for Bri.

"The suggestion that abortion isn't needed because adoption is there makes it seem like this casual thing, like taking off a sweater and giving it to someone else and just forgetting about it or moving on," Bri said.

"That's not what it is. It's this huge event that you do to yourself and your child and it changes you."

Bri said she never considered abortion. Though, she believes it should be an option.

"A lot of people like to suggest adoption to pregnant women experiencing crisis. And I will step in and say things like, I've been there. I'm a birth parent," Bri said.

"If you want to talk about the realities of adoption, let's. But if you believe an abortion is best for you, that's what you should do."

Bri entered into an open adoption with her son, and says his parents are wonderful and good people. Even so, grief hit like she had never experienced.

"It threw me completely off. I didn't know what to do with my life anymore. So many times after visits, I would go home and cry until I burst blood vessels in my eyes," she said.

"There was a period of time where I would leave visits and, as soon as I was out of view, I would throw up. It was my body's reaction to leaving my child again. It's been seven years and I still feel that grief with me constantly."

Those who oppose abortion frame adoption as a win-win for the child and mother.

The case before the Supreme Court represents a long effort by anti-abortion groups to overturn or weaken people's right to seek an abortion, a case Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch calls "a chosen case by God".

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch says the case before the Supreme Court that prohibits most abortions past 15 weeks is the most significant case of her lifetime. She argues that overturning Roe v. Wade will empower women.
Rogelio V. Solis / AP
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AP
Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch says the case before the Supreme Court that prohibits most abortions past 15 weeks is the most significant case of her lifetime. She argues that overturning Roe v. Wade will empower women.

Recently, Fitch said women would be empowered if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. v Wade.

"When they do that, think about the lives that will be touched, the babies that will be saved, the mothers who get a new chance to redirect their lives and the have all these new and different opportunities that they didn't have 50 years ago," Fitch told Eternal World Television Network, a Catholic news network.

That outcome doesn't jibe with Sisson's research – borne of interviews with more than 100 women who have relinquished their babies for adoption since 1962 – that shows people still carry the grief of that decision some 40 years later.

"I think that framing of adoption glosses over the extent to which adoption is often the result of a lack of power and is made from a position of, for some women, desperation and hardship," Sisson said.

Meanwhile, Corrine Rocca, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences also at UCSF, found in a 2020 study that the overwhelming majority of women who obtained abortions continued to believe it was the right decision five years later, even if they had difficulty making the decision initially.

Her research followed more than 600 women who sought abortions at 30 U.S. facilities.

Bri, who relinquished her son for adoption seven years ago, is now raising her young daughter.
/ Bri C
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Bri C
Bri, who relinquished her son for adoption seven years ago, is now raising her young daughter.

For her part, Bri is now going to school for social work, has a 4.0 GPA and a young daughter. She's three years old and "beautiful". Yet, Bri says, "It feels like something broke seven years ago and it feels like it can't be fixed."

"Once you relinquish your child and feel like that child would be better off with someone else, you don't come back from that fully," she said.

"It doesn't matter how good a parent I am, how much gentle parenting and attachment parenting I do. The underlying belief in my mind is that I am not a good parent.

"When people tell me I'm a good mom, there's this little voice in my head that says, you know, good moms don't give away their babies. And it's affected everything I do."

The interview with Gretchen Sisson was produced by Ashley Westerman and edited by Sarah Handel.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.