Writing for the majority in Dobb v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. offered a reassurance to those who will now be denied access to abortion: “A woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.” But Alito’s words are unlikely to be comforting or relevant to Americans who want abortions. Research shows that more than 90 percent of people denied access to abortion choose to parent their babies and have no interest in adoption.
Alito cites a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on why so many “suitable homes” are available: “the domestic supply of infants … relinquished at birth or within the first month of life available to be adopted [has] become virtually nonexistent.” In other words: Demand for infants is high and supply is low.
Just as the court ignores the needs of people seeking abortions, through this language of supply and demand, it ignores the power inequities upon which adoption is premised. The demand for infants comes from those with more power, the supply comes from those with less. The adoption market in the United States historically has adapted to accommodate the needs of those with more power, while failing to address the needs of vulnerable women forced to birth and relinquish infants.
The United States has a long and sweeping history of separating children from families — from the days of slavery and Native American boarding schools to the current immigration and family policing system — but none of these removals were focused on infants, and they were rarely about making children available for adoption (though they sometimes did accomplish that).
While slavery, for example, hinged on control over enslaved women’s reproductive rights and forced family separation, the focus was on White enslavers buying older children whose labor could be stolen or sold. In the 1850s, slavery states outlawed separating enslaved mothers from their infants, hoping this meager reform would make the institution of slavery less abhorrent and, thus, more durable. Such changes cost them little, as there was no demand for infants.
At the same time, the New York Children’s Aid Society was shipping poor White children (who nearly always had living parents) out West on “orphan trains,” marketing them as a source of free labor: “Boys. handy and active … could be employed on farms, in trades, in manufacturing … Girls could be used for the common kinds of housework.”
This earlier demand for older children contrasts with the lack of demand for babies. Parents who could not care for their infants paid baby farms modest fees to assume the burden of care. If they could not afford those fees, they were forced to abandon infants at foundling asylums.
The pattern began to shift around the turn-of-the-20th-century, when, because of restrictions on child labor, declining birthrates and changing cultural ideas about childhood, children increasingly became economically useless but sentimentally priceless. Adoption practices shifted rapidly and dramatically. Adopters were no longer fostering laborers; they were buying parenthood, a family, a priceless child. What cost could be too high?
Legal adoption — which involved the full, permanent transfer of parental rights, in contrast to informal fostering or kinship arrangements — became popular. In contrast to the days when desperate parents paid baby farmers to care for their infants, by the 1950s, a healthy baby cost adoptive parents up to $10,000. The value of a child was no longer tied to their ability to work or produce, but to their ability to allow heterosexual married couples a path toward middle class stability in a conformist Cold War society built around the image of the traditional nuclear family. Infants were in high demand.
The “baby scoop” era, a period of coercive and secretive adoptions from the end of World War II through the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, had arrived. More than 1.5 million American infants were relinquished for non-familial, private adoption, often by young, unmarried, White women who were sent away to maternity homes. There, they gave birth in secret and were told by those facilitating the adoptions that they would never see their child again.
A full 20 percent of infants born to unmarried White women were relinquished, but just 1.5 percent of infants born to unmarried Black women. Why? In addition to traditions of kinship support for single mothers in Black communities, almost no agencies or maternity homes would work with Black women.
Divergent meanings of nonmarital pregnancy emerged, which served to create vastly different levels of supply and demand. White women occupied a “state of shame,” from which adoption offered redemption for mother and child, while Black women occupied a “state of blame,” for which they were subjected to stigma and punishment that extended to their “unadoptable” children.
After Roe v. Wade allowed greater access to abortion, the domestic adoption rate dropped precipitously and never meaningfully increased. By the 1990s, the private relinquishment rate for infants born to unmarried White women had dropped to 1.7 percent; for Black women, it was virtually zero.
To ensure a supply of infants, Americans reconsidered the stigmas that made children of color “unadoptable” and pursued adoption through foster care. Correspondingly, the 1990s saw a surge in the policing of Black families via the child welfare system. Congress passed “welfare reform” in 1996, which made the social safety net more fragile — and made more poor families vulnerable to losing children to foster care. This legislation was followed by the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, which intended to double the number of foster-care children who were available for adoption by fast-tracking the termination of parental rights over family reunification.
At the same time, international adoptions peaked. These adoptions almost exclusively involved the transfer of children from poorer or politically unstable countries to wealthier ones, such as the United States. But as countries began to restrict the exports of their children, the supply of adoptable children became, once again, low.
Yet demand remains high. Today, while the numbers of prospective parents are not tracked, the numbers cited in the Dobbs decision suggest there are 45 potential adoptive parents for every infant relinquished for domestic adoption. The number of potential parents is so high, and the number of infants available so low, that one of the largest adoption agencies in the country has stopped accepting applications from people interested in adopting, to prioritize those they already have. Alito cites this demand as a reason that restricting abortion is acceptable, because so many “suitable homes” are available.
What Alito overlooks, however, is that most women who relinquish infants want that suitable home to be their own. My research shows that the most defining characteristic of relinquishing mothers today is their lack of resources. A majority are unemployed, report income of less than $5,000 per year and rely on public insurance, such as Medicaid, for their health coverage. Most of them want to parent but often feel they lack the money and social support to make raising a child feasible. Without a meaningful social safety net for families, many of these mothers make decisions from a place of constraint and deprivation, leading to struggles with grief, regret and trauma.
The blithe language of supply and demand deployed by the Supreme Court brings to crude light what has always been true: The market forces that shape adoption do not prioritize reproductive autonomy, support for families or an investment in the best outcomes for vulnerable pregnant women and other pregnant people and their children. Though the Court isn’t responsible for the lack of an adequate safety net, ignoring these realities is yet another way that the Dobbs decision will inflict harm on American women, their families and generations of adopted people.