The New Question Haunting Adoption

At a glance, America’s shortage of adoptable babies may seem like a problem. But is adoption meant to provide babies for families, or families for babies?

Pictures of babies in a grid layout. Some babies have their face obscured by a light-blue dot.
H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty; The Atlantic

Ever since I entered what can generously be called my “mid-30s,” doctors have asked about my pregnancy plans at every appointment. Because I’m career-minded and generally indecisive, I’ve always had a way of punting on this question, both in the doctor’s office and elsewhere. Well, we can always adopt, I’ll think, or say out loud to my similarly childless and wishy-washy friends. Adoption, after all, doesn’t depend on your oocyte quality. And, as we’ve heard a million times, there are so many babies out there who need a good home.

But that is not actually true. Adopting a baby or toddler is much more difficult than it was a few decades ago. Of the nearly 4 million American children who are born each year, only about 18,000 are voluntarily relinquished for adoption. Though the statistics are unreliable, some estimates suggest that dozens of couples are now waiting to adopt each available baby. Since the mid-1970s—the end of the so-called baby-scoop era, when large numbers of unmarried women placed their children for adoption—the percentage of never-married women who relinquish their infants has declined from nearly 9 percent to less than 1 percent.

In 2010, Bethany Christian Services, the largest Protestant adoption agency in the U.S., placed more than 700 infants in private adoptions. Last year, it placed fewer than 300. International adoptions have not closed the gap. The number of children American parents adopt each year from abroad has declined rapidly too, from 23,000 in 2004 (an all-time high) to about 3,000 in 2019.

Plenty of children who aren’t babies need families, of course. More than 100,000 children are available for adoption from foster care. But adoptive parents tend to prefer children who are what some in the adoption world call “AYAP”—as young as possible. When I recently searched AdoptUSKids, the nationwide, government-funded website for foster-care adoptions, only about 40 kids under age 5, out of the 4,000 registered, appeared in my search. Many of those 40 had extensive medical needs or were part of a sibling group—a sign that the child is in even greater need of a stable family, but also a more challenging experience for their adoptive parents.

At a glance, this shortage of adoptable babies may seem like a problem, and certainly for people who desperately want to adopt a baby, it feels like one. But this trend reflects a number of changing social and geopolitical attitudes that have combined to shrink the number of babies or very young children available for adoption. Over the past few decades, many people—including those with strong commitments to the idea of infant adoption—have reconsidered its value to children. Though in the short term this may be painful for parents who wish to adopt infants, in the long term, it might be better for some children and their birth families. Many babies in the developing world who once would have been brought to America will now be raised in their home country instead. And Americans who were planning to adopt may have to refocus their energies on older, vulnerable foster children—or change their plans entirely. Infant adoption was once seen as a heartwarming win-win for children and their adoptive parents. It’s not that simple.

For much of American history, placing a child for adoption was an obligation, not a choice, for poor, single women. In the decades after World War II, more than 3 million young pregnant women were “funneled into an often-coercive system they could neither understand nor resist,” Gabrielle Glaser wrote in her recent book, American Baby. They lived with strangers as servants or were hidden away in maternity homes until they gave birth, at which time they were pressured into closed adoptions, in which birth mothers and their babies have no contact.

Data on adoption are and have always been fuzzy and incomplete; for decades, no one tracked many of the adoptions that were happening in the U.S., and not all states reported their adoption figures. “There are no valid numbers from the ’40s and ’50s” because “just about all of these transfers existed in a realm of secrecy and shame, all around,” the historian Rickie Solinger told me. Still, adoption researchers generally agree that adoptions of children by people who aren’t their relatives increased gradually from about 34,000 in 1951 to their peak of 89,000 in 1970, before declining to about 69,000 in 2014—a number that includes international adoptions and foster-care adoptions. Given population growth, the decline from 1970 indicates a 50 percent per capita decrease.

What happened? Starting in the ’70s, single white women became much less likely to relinquish their babies at birth: Nearly a fifth of them did so before 1973; by 1988, just 3 percent did. (Single Black women were always very unlikely to place their children for adoption, because many maternity homes excluded Black women.) In 1986, an adoption director at the New York Foundling Hospital told The New York Times that though “there was a time, about 20 years ago, when New York Foundling had many, many white infants,” the number of white infants had “been very scarce for a number of years.”

Still, throughout this era, American families adopted thousands of infants and toddlers from foreign countries. In the ’50s, a mission to rescue Korean War orphans sparked a trend of international adoptions by Americans. Over the years, international adoptions increased, and Americans went on to adopt more than 100,000 kids from South Korea, Romania, and elsewhere from 1953 to 1991. In 1992, China opened its orphanages to Americans and allowed them to take in thousands of girls abandoned because of the country’s one-child policy.

But to many American evangelical Christians, these numbers were still too low to combat what they considered to be a global orphan crisis. During the ’90s, evangelicals in particular kindled a new foreign- and domestic-adoption boom, as the journalist Kathryn Joyce detailed in her 2013 book, The Child Catchers, which was critical of the trend. In the late 1990s, Joyce reported, representatives from Bethany Christian Services and other adoption agencies occasionally pressured single women to relinquish their babies, gave them false impressions about the nature of adoption, and threatened them when they changed their mind. (Bethany cannot verify the negative accounts of its practices that appear in Joyce’s book, Nathan Bult, the group’s senior vice president of public and government affairs, told me. In an interview, Joyce stood by her reporting.) A major 2007 meeting of Christian groups led to a “campaign to enroll more Christians as adoptive and foster parents,” the Los Angeles Times’ Stephanie Simon reported that year. The practice of adoption was seen as parallel to evangelical Christians’ “adoption by God” when they are born again. American Christians went on to adopt tens of thousands of children from other countries. “Early on, there was a strong belief that adoption could often be the best outcome for a child whose mom may have felt unable to parent,” Kris Faasse, who ran several of Bethany’s programs from 2000 to 2019, told me.

In recent years, though, international adoption has slowed to a trickle because of changes abroad and within American adoption agencies. During the foreign-adoption boom, most of the children adopted from abroad found happy homes in the U.S. Some, however, turned out to not really be orphans, but instead children placed in orphanages temporarily by their impoverished parents. This sparked reforms and had a chilling effect on their home countries’ policies. Some of the most popular source countries for adoptable children—including Russia, Guatemala, and Ethiopia—shut down their adoption programs years ago because of corruption scandals or tensions with the U.S. government. China expanded its domestic-adoption program and reversed its one-child policy in 2015, dramatically reducing the number of girls who were relinquished for adoption.

Then, last year, Bethany closed its international-adoption program, instead focusing on its in-country foster-care and adoption programs. (In other words, Ethiopians, not Americans, will adopt Ethiopian children.) The Christian Alliance for Orphans, which helped launch the American Christian adoption boom 14 years ago, now says that the priority in international adoption should be keeping a child with her family or, failing that, placing her with a stranger in her home country, and taking the child abroad only if the first two options aren’t available. “And always, always, in that order,” Jedd Medefind, the president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans, told me recently.

Even Joyce, the Child Catchers author and a critic of the evangelical adoption movement, says the groups have changed. About four years ago, Joyce appeared on a Christian Alliance for Orphans panel, and even then she noticed more talk of family preservation. The adoption movement had seemingly grappled with the criticism, she told me. Plus, there are now so few international adoptions that, “on a practical level, it probably just doesn’t make as much sense to have a movement that is advocating for that so hard.”

As international adoptions have declined, parallel cultural changes have led to a reduction in American babies who would, in an earlier era, likely have been relinquished. The American birth rate is at an all-time low. Teens, who are less likely to be ready to raise children than older women, are getting pregnant at the lowest rates ever. Single motherhood is less taboo, so although unwed women, who were once more likely than married people to place their children for adoption, are now having 40 percent of all babies, for the most part they are choosing to raise their children themselves.

Some imagine that outlawing abortion might create a rise in adoptions, but that’s unlikely. In one study, only 9 percent of the women who were denied an abortion chose adoption. Even as single parenthood has become less stigmatized, placing a child for adoption has become more so. Adoption is “an extremely rare pregnancy decision,” Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist at the University of California at San Francisco, told me.

And in addition to rethinking international adoption, some groups are also reconsidering whether single, poor American women should be encouraged to place their babies for adoption. They seemed to have absorbed the growing concern that people of color are surrendering their children to white adoptive parents, the bad press about families who weren’t equipped to raise their newly adopted children, and the idea that “families belong together” should apply to poor people too. Over the past 20 years, “there was a shift,” Faasse, the former Bethany staffer, told me, “toward ensuring that mom was fully informed of her options ... ‘Let’s not just look at what your decision is today, but what will it look like in the future?’”

Bethany is now trying to help struggling American birth mothers parent their own children, as growing numbers of single women aim to do. In 2019, the group created a special program for drug-addicted birth moms intended to help them stay with their babies. Another program connects struggling birth parents with supportive families, with the aim of preventing the removal of the birth parents’ children. “At Bethany, we want to do all we can do, first and foremost, to keep kids with their birth families when it is safe and possible to do so,” Cheri Williams, Bethany’s senior vice president of domestic programs, told me. The next best choice after that, she said, isn’t adoption by strangers, but rather by the child’s relatives.

These changes won’t eliminate abuses within the adoption industry. A process that involves people surrendering their biological children is bound to be fraught. Still, a single, pregnant woman is likely to have a different experience with an organization like Bethany today than she would have decades ago. “Expanding the numbers of children who are adopted domestically, for the sake of expanding the numbers of children who are adopted domestically, is not something that we want to be doing,” Bult, at Bethany, told me. “An expectant mom should never be coerced into making an adoption plan for her child,” he added.

To adoption reformers, the practice is now largely seen as a way to provide families for older, special-needs children rather than a way to provide healthy babies to people who want to parent. The result is often a difficult, expensive process for couples who want to adopt a baby or toddler. Adopting a newborn can cost $45,000 or more. “There is increasingly an advertising bid war to find birth parents,” Daniel Nehrbass, the president of Nightlight Christian Adoptions, told me. A cottage industry of adoption “facilitators” has sprung up that “may charge $25,000, which is basically an advertising fee to the family in order to find the birth mom.”

Though adoption experts told me that most people who pursue infant adoption are ultimately successful, some spend their savings to do it or wait years to adopt: One survey found that 37 percent of adoptive families wait longer than a year. Others encounter scams or birth mothers who change their mind. The journalist Erika Celeste had been trying to adopt a baby girl for years when she was tricked by Gabby Watson, a notorious adoption scammer who posed as a pregnant woman and strung along hundreds of hopeful families. Nearly every adoptive parent I interviewed for this story said that the grueling process was worth it in the end—even though “the end” invariably came after an emotional spin cycle.

But aspiring adoptive parents who are disappointed by a difficult system might not get the chance to see the other side of these changes—the one in which poor, single women get to parent their own babies, even if they never thought they could. Bult introduced me to Brijon Ellis, a 24-year-old in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who exemplifies this shift. When Ellis got pregnant at 15, she told me, a family member pressured her into placing her daughter into a closed adoption through Bethany. After signing the adoption paperwork, Ellis remembers crying so hard in the hospital that her face swelled.

Three years later, at 18, Ellis got pregnant again, this time with twins. Ellis called Dawn, the same Bethany social worker who had arranged her daughter’s adoption, to learn about her options. But this time, whenever Dawn mentioned adoption, Ellis grew teary-eyed and equivocal. Dawn picked up on her reluctance, Ellis said.

Instead, Dawn told her about Safe Families, a Bethany program that gives struggling birth parents clothes, food, child care, and other support. Ellis carried her twin boys to term, and they are now 5 years old and living with her. “As soon as I figured out and made a decision that I was going to have these boys, my mindset changed,” Ellis told me. “I became more wise. I had this wisdom just fall over me.” She seemed pleasantly surprised at her own ability to be a mother, once she finally got the chance.