REVERSE ROBINHOODISM: Pitting Poor Against Affluent Women in the Adoption Industry

REVERSE ROBINHOODISM: Pitting Poor Against Affluent Women in the Adoption Industry
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The following article was written by myself and Bernadette Wright, PhD in 2009. It was originally submitted to a Canadian feminist journal, for a special issue on marginalized mothers, and was published in Conducive magazine Oct/ Nov. 2009 and then reprinted in Granny's Cupboard, April 8, 2011. It is referenced in Intercountry Adoption: Privilege, Rights, and Social Justice, by Fronek et al.

In light of the fact that all online links to are no longer functional, but the content is still just as relevant, I am reprinting it here.


By Mirah Riben and Bernadette Wright, PhD

“It is the poor states that produce the children and the rich that consume them. In this process, poor parents are left behind, serving only as the initial fabricators of other people’s children.” Debora L. Spar, Harvard School of Business (2006)

Adoption abounds with romanticized win-win myths, but the reality is that domestically, as well as internationally, adoption is a multi-billion dollar ($6.3 worldwide; $2-3 in the US annually), largely unregulated business of finding children for clients. To meet the demand, adoption practitioners frequently use unethical and quasi-legal tactics to procure infants from economically disadvantaged mothers. Tactics range from outright kidnapping to more subtle but effective “counseling” that reinforces the myth that the only way a less prosperous single mother can be a good mother is by giving her child to a more well off family. Adoption, which in the past three decades has redistributed over a quarter of a million of the world’s children to the United States, is an integral component and manifestation of global violence against women.

“Thinking of adoption in economic terms is an uncomfortable reality,” concluded an Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute Conference on “The ‘Business’ of Adoption” (1999). The conference recognized, however, the “deterioration of the constraints once put in place to protect members of the [adoption] triad,” of which relinquishing mothers are the most vulnerable, silenced, and stigmatized participants.

Transferring Children from the Poor to the Rich


Adoption, deeply imbued in classism, nearly always transfers children from economically at-risk mothers to adopters of higher socio-economic status. Worldwide, poverty far exceeds abuse, neglect, or abandonment as the reason for adoption surrenders.

Riitta Högbacka of the University of Helsinki, Finland (2006) reported:

“If we look at the direction of this human flow—which countries are sending children, which countries are receiving and who is doing the adopting—then it is very clear. It goes from the South to the North and from the East to the West. The recipients are always the richer countries in North America, Europe, and Australia.”

Finances are also the number one reason American mothers surrender children for adoption. Reuben Pannor, author, researcher, teacher, and past director of Vista Del Mar Adoption Agency in California, reported:

“Most infants placed for adoption come from poor families. …This is a sad commentary on the richest and most powerful country in the world. Even poor married couples are relinquishing their children.”

It is thus not surprising that, as the economic crisis continues and many families are struggling to survive, increasing numbers of U.S. mothers are surrendering their children. Putting a face on this tragedy, a USA Today, May 18, 2009, cover story tells of Renee, a 36 year-old mother of three teens who earns $50,000 a year. Renee relinquished her fourth child, a baby she briefly breastfed because of financial strain on her and her children.

The sexual revolution (late 1950s to early 1970s) that preceded the pill and acceptance of single motherhood for white middle- and upper-middle class women, created an abundant supply of “desirable” babies for adoption. The decrease in the number of relinquishments since that time has created a proliferation of ever more slick and increasingly desperate family deconstruction profiteers with new marketing strategies geared toward mothers teetering on the financial edge. These tactics fall into four categories, described below.

Kidnapping, Lies and Trafficking

Globally, child trafficking for adoption is rampant. Wherever there is war, social or political unrest, or widespread poverty conditions are ripe for corruption. Children are stolen and kidnapped, or their mothers told the lie that they will be taken to the U.S. or other industrialized countries to be educated, and will either return or help their family join them.

Linguistic Manipulations and Myth Promotion

Within the US subtle forms of coercion are employed and enforced by judgmental language. The New York Times recently used the phrase “out-of-wedlock” to report soaring numbers of such births in the U.S. and other industrialized countries to women in their 20s and 30s, many cohabitating, some divorced, but not married. Bonnie Erbe, a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report and host of a PBS weekly news analysis program—responding to the Times report of “out-of-wedlock” births–suggests we “bring back the stigma against unwed mothers.” Erbe laments that “there’s no stigma to unwed parenthood anymore but there should be.”

Erbe is not the only one who seeks a return to the time when single marital status was sufficient reason for a woman to lose a child to adoption. The National Council for Adoption, lobbying arm for adoption businesses, produced a publication entitled “BirthMother, Good Mother” to help its primarily religious-based member agencies promote adoption as “redemption” and a means of “making amends,” as if sex outside of marriage was still a “sin” that can only be exonerated by getting rid of the evidence of one’s indiscretion. Pro-adoption profiteers push adoption as a difficult but loving choice while portraying parenting one’s own child while struggling as selfish. “Choosing adoption,” Good Mother states, “enables birthmothers to see themselves in compassionate, noble, and heroic terms, righting the wrong and correcting the mistake of their unplanned pregnancies.”

Language and newspeak are also used by adoption businesses and practitioners to recruit mothers by describing adoption as a “loving, selfless choice” or “a plan” when it is no more so than divorce or death. “Little girls don’t dream of growing up and giving other people their baby to raise.” Admiration for giving away one’s child is short lived, however, a dichotomy noted by Jim Gritter:

“How curious that one moment these critics admire [a mother’s] contemplation of adoption and consider it a sign of maturity, and the next they consider it a cause for concern. The proposed act that one day was regarded as a ‘loving choice’ is the next referred to as ‘unloading responsibility’.”

Skirting the Laws Against Baby Buying

Although baby buying is illegal, many adoption businesses have found ways to offer pre-birth or post-surrender financial incentives that can place pressure and coercion on mothers in need. Barbara Katz Rothman notes that many liberals don’t “understand the more subtle forms of coercion and persuasion, whether psychological or economic” and often perceive “the ‘choices’ people make out of their poverty or need, choices individuals may experience as being coerced… as being fairly chosen.”

Adoption agencies and other anti-abortion organizations offer a variety of programs to recruit expectant mothers. Job training, for instance, is offered by Council for Life, which preaches abstinence only, and when that fails adoption.

Many such programs come with an agenda to redistribute children of the “unmarried” and “unwealthy” by luring mothers-to-be away from their support systems, exploiting their weaknesses while purporting to care about and help them, and often making such assistance conditional on the relinquishment of a child. AdoptionsFirst recruits expectant mothers by offering “the Red Carpet Treatment” which includes: Round trip airfare from anywhere in the U.S. to California; airport pickup and transfer to your “new home”; sightseeing tours; housing, medical, legal, shopping and other expenses, exceeding the limits of the law which allows for “medical and housing expenses.” AdoptionsFirst does not mention the possibility of a mother deciding to parent her child, though it is estimated 50 to 80 percent of women who considered adoption while pregnant do. Mothers who have accepted offers to have their expenses paid have reported being told that if they decided not to complete their adoption “plan” that they or their families must repay the money.

Some adoption businesses thank women for their babies by offering financial support post-surrender. The GoldenLink Foundation used to offer cash payments to mothers who relinquished children to one of their affiliate agencies. Now, Lifetime Adoption Foundation offers college scholarships to mothers who have surrendered a child.

In many independent adoptions, fees are paid directly by prospective adopters to expectant mothers. Adam Pertman, [former] executive director of the Donaldson Adoption Institute, reports that prospective adopters receive online “instructions about how to use financial incentives to persuade ambivalent pregnant women to relinquish their children.” This has prompted Madelyn Freundlich, director of the Policy Department of Children’s Rights, to question the extent to which such fees “create a sense of indebtedness that may affect her decision-making? Does a birth mother ultimately ‘owe’ it to the prospective adoptive parents to follow through on an adoption because a good deal of money has been expended on her behalf?”

Other Violations of Mothers’ Rights

It is typically the adopting parents’ attorney who “represents” the relinquishing mother creating a conflict of interest causing Susan to note: “There are a lot of sharks out there, manipulating them in every way they know how, and the laws don’t prevent that in most states.”

Vulnerable mothers are denied option counseling, time to bond after the birth, and to reconsider their thoughts about adoption, as well as ample time to revoke consents that can be taken hours after birth. “In many states, you can change your mind about buying a vacuum cleaner or taking out a mortgage within a prescribed time period, but most states do not have a revocation period during which a mother can change her mind about relinquishing her child,” according to a Donaldson Institute report. The report confirmed that “[m]ost states do not have laws that maximize sound decision-making…such as required counseling, waiting periods of at least several days after childbirth before signing relinquishments, and adequate revocation periods during which birthparents can change their minds.”

A Double-Edged Sword

Today, motherhood is sought and acceptable for some women regardless of their marital status or sexual orientation yet reviled when attempted by less advantaged women. It is a relatively recent shift, notes Rickie Solinger—since the Reagan administration—that Americans have begun thinking that unless a woman has enough money and resources, she has no business being a mother.

“[W]omen are often unfairly judged regardless of the choices they make regarding an unplanned pregnancy,” notes Thomas R. Suozzi, Nassau (NY) Executive. “Women who choose to put a baby up for adoption have their maternal instincts questioned and women who carry an unplanned pregnancy to full term when unmarried or financially insecure are often labeled irresponsible. In our culture…women are too often and too readily judged. Our efforts should not be to judge women. Rather, our goal should be to support women.”

Elizabeth C. Hirschman’s “Babies for Sale” calls it a “sacred/profane continuum” with unwritten rules as to who deserves to be a mother, under what conditions motherhood is a blessing, and when it is not. In the battle for babies, mothers without means are seen as undeserving parents who should surrender their children to someone who is “better.” If you have sufficient means, even if you are single, it is socially acceptable and even admirable to take a child from a single mother, here or abroad, through adoption.

To accomplish this goal of obtaining children for women of means, mothers-to-be are matched with prospective adopters with whom they become enmeshed and feel indebted to. Mothers are encouraged to think about the baby they are carrying as being the prospective adopting couple’s, not theirs, as if they were paid surrogates.

Married or affluent women are encouraged to become a mother by whatever means they can afford, often paying tens of thousands of dollars for a child, and are viewed as altruistic. Affluent women are accustomed to hiring the women of lower class as babysitters, nannies, and daycare workers, often paying barely minimum wage. It has, therefore, not been a leap to purchase another’s reproductive labor, ova, or to allow women to suffer the emotional and physical stress of pregnancy and childbirth for their sake. Surrogacy and some aspects of adoption have unwittingly created female chauvinists who objectify and exploit other mothers who are pressured to do the “unselfish” thing and let their child go to a stranger who can provide more (material) “advantages.”

Advocates seek to end the exploitation of sweatshops and undocumented workers, protest female genital mutilation, or help prostitutes leave the business. There is support for women who have been sexually assaulted, survivors of domestic violence, and incarcerated women. There is concern, indignation, and even outrage for women exploited by patriarchy. It is more difficult, however, to face a woman’s violation at the hands of another woman. Adoption, the taking of a mother’s child, leaving her with lifelong, irresolvable grief, ignoring or justifying the exploitation of women’s for ones’ benefit, moves us closer and closer to Margaret Atwood’s fictional Handmaid’s Tale becoming a reality. Adoption pits woman against woman, rich against poor, making it painfully difficult to look at and admit, as Ricki Solinger found, that “adoption only exists on the backs of resourceless women.”

According to Joss Shawyer, “Adoption is a violent act, a political act of aggression towards a woman who has supposedly offended the sexual mores by committing the unforgivable act of not suppressing her sexuality, and therefore not keeping it for trading purposes through traditional marriage. The crime is a grave one, for she threatens the very fabric of our society. The penalty is severe. She is stripped of her child by a variety of subtle and not so subtle manoeuvres and then brutally abandoned.” Some mothers who have been persuaded to surrender a child to adoption have described it as “aborting the mother”. Neither a woman’s marital or financial status alone should warrant a permanent loss to be suffered by her and her child.

Where does Reverse Robinhoodism end? Do we take every child from women under 20 and give them to more mature women? Take children from single mothers and place them with married couples? Do we then move them again if the marriage ends? Should we take children away from the impoverished and give to those in middle and upper middle class? Then why not take all middle class kids and put them with fabulously wealthy families? What priorities do blood bonds, heritage, and kinship hold? Is the right to mother one’s own children not a fundamental human right? Progressive feminism exists to create political, social, sexual, intellectual and economic equality, and to protect women’s rights and interests from discrimination and exploitation. Do the rights of natural mothers’ – of any age or marital status – not lie within the province of feminist concern?

Idealism in a Realistic World

In an ideal world, family separation would be a last resort and struggling parents would get the support they need to keep their children. It is possible to come a great deal closer to this ideal than where we are now, and other countries are already much further ahead.

Australia has almost eliminated the need for any child to be removed from his family of origins by prioritizing families and providing them with the resources they need to remain intact. Even Guatemala, once the “hot spot” for corrupt adoptions has all but eliminated international adoption by enforcing with the guidelines of the Hague Convention on International Adoption and prioritizing family preservation first, extended family kinship care second, out of family placement but within culture next in line, and international adoption only as a last resort. High fees paid by Westerners make it impossible for those within poorer countries to compete. When that outside competition is eliminated, homes are found when needed within a child’s borders.

In Mozambique, when funding ran out for adoption institutions 80 percent of children were able to be reunified with their families. Ninety-eight percent of caregivers given assistance were able to keep their families together until children reached adulthood, and it was more cost effective than institutional care.

In Mozambique when funding ran out for adoption institutions 80 percent of children were able to be reunified with their families.

It is difficult but imperative to face hard truths such as those E.J. Graff articulates in “The Lie We Love”. Graff separates the common beliefs of adoption as “rescuing” “unwanted” orphans from the reality that there are very few young, healthy orphans available for adoption around the world. Orphans are rarely healthy babies; healthy babies are rarely orphaned. “It’s not really true,” says Alexandra Yuster, a senior advisor on child protection with UNICEF, “that there are large numbers of infants with no homes who either will be in institutions or who need intercountry adoption.” UNICEF estimates that 95 percent of the world’s orphans are older than 5. Others estimate that 89 percent of children in orphanages around the world are not orphans but have at least one living parent, as was the case with Madonna’s adoption and attempted adoption. The belief that providing more or “better” material advantages outweighs kinship ties is ethnocentric and considered “cultural genocide” by some, and adds to the “ugly American” image when the end does not justify the means.

Policy changes needed to protect mothers’ rights include:

  • Prioritize family preservation, recognizing mothers’ rights to parent their own child.
  • Fund kinship care as a secondary resource before stranger placements—a privilege not a right.
  • Provide affordable and accessible childcare for all mothers.
  • Provide affordable and accessible health care independent of one’s employment.
  • Increase sex education and access to birth control to reduce unwanted pregnancies.
  • Include infertility prevention in high school curriculum so that young women understand the risks of environmental contaminants, delayed childbearing, STDs, obesity and abortion have on their chances of motherhood.
  • Ensure tax benefits and other adoption incentives are used for the placement of American children who are truly orphaned or who have no family whatsoever able to provide safe care for them, not to find babies to meet a demand.
  • Provide the necessary resources young and less affluent mothers need to keep their families together.
  • Ensure impartial option counseling and separate legal counsel for expectant or new mothers considering an adoption surrender.
  • End profiteering in adoption and enforce accountability for any and all fees paid to adoption service providers to ensure no ethical lines are crossed.
  • Enforce openness, honesty and transparency in all child placements eliminating falsified birth certificates and ensuring equal access to all persons separated by adoption to their true original certificates of birth.

Adoption often provides children with more material advantages, but at what cost? Taking children from their families should always be a last resort after all efforts to keep them safely with their families have been exhausted. Mothers’ rights are women’s rights and all mothers deserve to receive the resources they need, not have their powerlessness exploited to fill a demand.

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