The Adoption Option

Adoption Won’t Reduce Abortion but It Will Expand Women’s Choices

Jessica Arons explains how we can improve the adoption experience for pregnant women.

A 2004 study found that one-third of women with an unplanned pregnancy consider adoption but only half of those women take any action in that direction (istockphoto)
A 2004 study found that one-third of women with an unplanned pregnancy consider adoption but only half of those women take any action in that direction (istockphoto)

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Download to mobile devices and e-readers from Scribd

This memo is the third installment in the Parenting with Dignity series.

Adoption is an institution of critical importance for children, adoptive parents, birth parents, and society. It provides parents for children whose biological parents have voluntarily relinquished their parental rights or had them terminated. It is a way for people to bring a child into their lives. It can establish a legal relationship between a parent and a nonbiological child, such as a stepchild or foster child. And adoption offers an option for pregnant women to place children in a home they cannot provide themselves.

Yet adoption is a pregnancy option that few women choose nowadays. The number of all never-married women who place their children for adoption has hovered around 1 percent and has been statistically zero for black, never-married women for the past 20 years. A 2004 study found that one-third of women with an unplanned pregnancy consider adoption but only half of those women take any action in that direction.

The data on domestic infant adoptions are surprisingly hard to come by, in part because the numbers are so low that they are difficult to track. Annual estimates range from approximately 6,800 to 22,291 unrelated domestic infant adoptions in recent years. But the official number is around 14,000, according the Department of Health and Human Services’ Child Welfare Information Gateway.

The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a leading authority on adoption and apparently the only organization to provide a comprehensive overview of the birth-parent experience, notes that domestic infant adoption is usually the first thing that comes to mind when Americans discuss adoption, but it is in fact the least common type of adoption. When combined with public, intercountry, and kinship adoptions, the number of adoptions ranges from approximately 127,000 to 135,000 each year. Stepparent adoptions aside, the Institute estimates that domestic infant adoptions account for 15 percent of all adoptions compared to 59 percent from the child welfare system and 26 percent from other countries.

Many who oppose abortion—and some who support abortion rights but wish to seek common ground on the heated topic—continue to focus on promoting adoption as a viable method for addressing unintended pregnancy and reducing the abortion rate in this country. Yet the low adoption numbers stand in sharp contrast to the other two options women have available to them when considering what to do with an unexpected or medically complicated pregnancy—abortion or parenting.

Results of unintended pregnancies, annual estimates

There are more than 6 million pregnancies in the United States each year, almost half of which are unintended. Of those, approximately 4 in 10 end in abortion, resulting in roughly 1.2 million abortions in 2005. In 2001, the latest year for which data are available, 44 percent of the 3.1 million unintended pregnancies that year ended in birth. We estimate therefore that approximately 1.4 million women who experience an unintended pregnancy choose to carry their pregnancy to term and raise the child themselves.

Abortion has not caused the low rates of adoption in recent years; rather the low placement rates are a direct result of more single women choosing to parent on their own. Both adoption and abortion rates have fallen in tandem while births to unwed mothers have risen. Even the National Council For Adoption—a prominent, federally funded adoption lobbying group with ties to conservative Christian adoption networks—acknowledges that “[b]irths to unmarried women increased from 1996, while the rate of infant adoption placements by unmarried women decreased.”

Abortion certainly played some role in the initial decline of the adoption rate when it fell from 19.2 percent for white women in 1973 when Roe v. Wade was decided to 3.2 percent 15 years later. But it is the decreasing stigma of single motherhood that accounts for the low adoption rate now. Unmarried pregnant women also are more likely to be in their 20s than their teens these days, and they may therefore feel better prepared to keep their babies and raise them themselves. It should be clear then, as the Guttmacher Institute has pointed out, that promoting adoption is not an effective strategy for reducing the abortion rate—if that is one’s goal. Indeed, some portion of women who choose adoption never consider abortion, in which case those adoption choices have no effect on the abortion rate whatsoever.

Even so, ensuring that adoption remains an ethical and effective option for women facing an unintended pregnancy is a worthwhile goal independent of its potential influence on the abortion rate. The adoption system in place today has undergone significant changes in the past few decades but the public’s impressions of that system are not well-formed and are often based on outdated stereotypes. Moreover, abuses in the present system continue to occur and must be curbed. Reforms are necessary to ensure respect for women’s rights, improved outcomes for children, and increased reliability for adoptive parents.

Adoption involves balancing multiple interests—those of the birth mother, the birth father, the adoptive parent or parents, and the child being placed for adoption. Yet most policy initiatives primarily focus on adoptive parents, addressing ways to streamline the system and make it more accessible and affordable for them. Too little attention has been paid to the needs of the pregnant woman considering adoption.

Policymakers should fully consider the interests of all parties to an adoption before implementing any reforms, but in this series we are exploring how to provide better supports for pregnant women and will focus specifically on them. Specifically, we recommend:

More information about the adoption decision. To best serve the needs of women considering adoption, more research must be done to explore the pressures, motivations, and barriers surrounding that decision, as well to compare the long-term well-being of women who choose abortion, adoption, and parenting.

Fully informed, voluntary pregnancy decisions. States should require that women pursuing adoption be offered nondirective counseling with a qualified professional and an opportunity to consult with independent legal counsel. Congress also should work to ensure that women have access to unbiased and accurate information so that they can make well-informed decisions about their pregnancies.

Adequate relinquishment and revocation protections. States should impose a waiting period of at least 72 hours between childbirth and the time a woman can consent to place a child for adoption and grant birth parents a minimum of one week to revoke their consent to relinquishment without having to give a specific reason. These rules ideally would be uniform in order to discourage agencies or adoptive parents from cherry-picking states with more favorable laws. States should also ensure that birth parents are entitled to a copy of all relinquishment paperwork as well as a copy of the child’s original birth certificate.

Better supports for open adoption agreements. States should recognize the benefits of open adoption arrangements and ensure that birth parents are informed of available mechanisms to implement those agreements. States should also guarantee that affordable clinical mediation services are available when disputes arise over the terms of an open adoption arrangement.

Improved postadoption services. States and adoption agencies should ensure that birth mothers have access to affordable or no-cost postadoption counseling services throughout their lives, but especially in the two years following a placement.

Awareness about the modern adoption system. More information about what adoption entails today and the women who typically choose adoption would help to educate the public and demystify the process so that we can dispense with outdated stereotypes about birth mothers and the adoption process. Congress should provide grants to establish national public education campaigns to accurately inform the public about adoption and its potential benefits for all involved.

We remain committed to the idea that supporting pregnant women by providing the socioeconomic resources needed to parent, to obtain safe abortion care, and to place a child for adoption will serve to expand women’s options, increase their self-determination, and improve the health and well-being of all families.

Jessica Arons is the Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.

Read the full report (pdf)

Download the executive summary (pdf)

Download to mobile devices and e-readers from Scribd

Read other articles from the Parenting with Dignity series:


The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Jessica Arons

Director, Women\'s Health & Rights Program