This January, a 21-year-old Utah woman named Jenessa Simons located her birth mother via Facebook by posting a picture of herself holding her adoption information ("Born November 17, 1991...They named me Whitney"). The photo went viral, with more than 160,000 shares, and Simons received an email from her birth mother just two days later. In the three months since, Simons' success has inspired countless imitators, both birth parents and adoptees, clogging Facebook feeds with similar messages.
These posts have brought questions of adoption and its consequences to the forefront. While adoption is usually lauded as a win-win, some say situations like Simons' highlight major problems with the institution, problems which cause suffering for birth parents and adoptees alike.
Claudia Corrigan D'Arcy, a birth mother who reconnected with her son via MySpace in 2006, sees the recent rash of what she calls the "Adoptee Searching Picture Meme" as a sign that the adoption system is badly broken. Adults like Simons, Corrigan D'Arcy says, should have the legal right to documents revealing their biological backgrounds.
"Imagine a world where adult adoptees could access their birth records like EVERY other American and know the name they were given," she writes. "Then they wouldn't have to post pictures of themselves on Facebook holding signs with personal information all over. Then they wouldn't have to beg for strangers for shares in order to find out who they look like and if cancer runs in their family."
Corrigan D'Arcy isn't the only one who believes adoptees should have easier access to information about their birth parents. "Adult adoptees in most of the advanced, industrialized nations of the world have unrestricted access to their original birth records as a matter of right," says the Adoptee Rights Coalition, an organization that fights for more transparency in adoption. "In contrast, adult adoptees in all but six states in the U.S. are forbidden unrestricted access to their own original birth certificates, due to archaic laws that are a legacy of a culture of shame that stigmatized infertility, out-of-wedlock birth and adoption."
The coalition, which was founded in 2007, is holding a rally in Atlanta this August to demonstrate in favor of unrestricted access to original birth certificates.
Others have taken the Facebook search phenomenon as a chance to argue for more openness between birth parents and adoptive parents. While open adoption is rapidly becoming the norm, the definition of "open" is highly subjective, and agreements between birth parents and adoptive parents are not legally enforceable in many states.
"Many women who place their children for adoption agree to do so because they were promised an open adoption," writes Lynn, a birth mother blogger. "Many women make their decision because of these promises and later find out that the adoptive parents have unilaterally closed the adoption, by moving, changing phone numbers or otherwise just disappearing into the sunset."
An adult adoptee criticizes the lack of openness in the adoption process that leads to Facebook searches like Simons's, writing, "Closed Adoption IS a form of emotional and psychological slavery."
Some adoption reform advocates say the culture of shame and stigma around adoption still exists, which is why the system is so closed. Many believe that adoption usually, if not always, involves an element of coercion. They believe that more women would choose to raise their babies if they had support and resources, or were not shamed by their families or religions.
As Corrigan D'Arcy writes in the New York Times:
We want to believe that voluntary domestic infant adoption is a choice made by women for the betterment of their child's life. Often the reality is that mothers who surrender their children do so because of a lack of support. It's not that they do not want or love their babies, but that they do not see a way out from their temporary hardships. They turn to adoption out of desperation, not a true choice.
Anti-abortion activists have long spoken of a "post-abortion syndrome" of lasting depression, guilt and grief, despite the fact that no mainstream medical organization validates this as a genuine phenomenon. But birth parents do often suffer from just these problems, sometimes long-term:
"Placing a child for adoption can cause a sense of loss that is all-encompassing," writes the US Administration for Children and Families, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. "Some birth parents experience longstanding grief, that is, grief that lasts a very long time and may continue to actually interfere with a birth parent's life many years later."
Research suggests that open adoption is better for both birth mothers, who report "less grief, regret and worry, as well as more peace of mind," and for adoptees, who benefit from continued contact with their birth families well into adulthood.
As for Jenessa Simons, she says she was raised by a loving family and simply wanted to get in touch with her birth parents to "thank them for putting her up for adoption."