Opinion As an adoptee, I know: Adoption is not a fairy-tale answer to abortion

20 June 2022

Abortion rights advocates and antiabortion advocates demonstrate outside the Supreme Court after a leak of a draft majority opinion overturning abortion rights on May 3. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Cynthia Landesberg is a Korean adoptee and a lawyer in the D.C. area.

Everyone loves a good adoption story. You know: the rags-to-riches tale of a baby found on the street and placed in a loving home, who becomes a lawyer, or a teacher, and one day has a family of their own. I’m well-acquainted with this story because it’s the narrative people imagine when they hear about my life. But it’s far from the whole truth.

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I’m a Korean transracial adoptee and mother of two Korean adoptees. I’ve seen adoption fables used for entertainment, profit and politics, most recently by the Supreme Court as it debates the constitutional right to abortion — and as some of its members exalt adoption as a righteous and practical alternative.

Those justices are wrong. Adoption should be not an answer to a problem, but a result of two choices: the choice to remain pregnant and the choice not to raise a child.

Both are choices I wish my birth mother had.

My biological mother became pregnant in the 1980s in South Korea, where abortion was illegal except in the rarest circumstances (and remained so until 2021). When she gave birth to me, there was no social safety net to help her.

Although I’ll never know the details of how I ended up on a street at 7 weeks old, I do know my mother’s lack of choice played a large role. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, pregnant people in the United States will face a similarly unconscionable lack of choice. And the consequences could be grievous for them and their children.

In 2019, there were about 630,000 reported abortions in the United States. Now imagine hundreds of thousands of pregnant people forced by new restrictions to give birth. If they choose to raise their children, they will do so in a country devoid of sufficient support, where the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and affordable child-care measures are stalled. If they opt for adoption — a choice that is in fact rare — they still risk long-term physical, psychological and social challenges. This is not a real choice.

Then there are the adoptees. In 2019, there were roughly 115,000 domestic adoptions in the United States. In the same year, more than 122,000 children waited in foster care for adoption; the average wait for a child to be placed in a home was 31 months. By the numbers alone, we are already failing our most vulnerable children.

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Children in the foster system often experience the disruption of multiple placements and are likely to contend with significant mental health problems. Studies have shown that adoptees — who struggle with attachment, identity and the trauma of institutionalization — are four times as likely to attempt suicide as non-adoptees.

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In addition, transracial adoptees like myself often encounter racism and ethnic bullying, and do so without the protective insulation of ethnic socialization. Most adoptive parents are White. Transracial adoptions account for about 40 percent of all adoptions and 28 percent of adoptions from foster care. With laws restricting abortion access more likely to affect people of color, it is not difficult to imagine an increase in non-White adoptees, and thus more children grappling with crises of identity.

When antiabortion advocates ask adoptees who support abortion rights, “Would you rather have been aborted?” the intent is to coerce us into saying no. But for some of us, the answer is yes.

My adoptive parents raised me the way many White parents of transracial adoptees do — as White. The mismatch between my inside and outside, my face and my name, left me disoriented and unmoored.

After a half-hearted attempt to become pregnant, I chose to adopt. When asked my race by the adoption agency, I wrote “American.” I couldn’t write White, but I also couldn’t write Asian. It took four trips to Korea to connect with my birth culture for me to finally be able to declare: I am Korean American.

Later, when I became pregnant with my daughter, the crushing grief of all I had lost — my birth mother, my identity, my history — became too heavy. My mental health suffered.

Perhaps if my birth mother had a real choice, I’d have been aborted, unknowingly absorbed back into the earth. Perhaps she would have raised me, and I’d be navigating the ordinary challenges of life without the adoption baggage.

Or maybe I’d be exactly where I am now — but I would know this was her decision. I wouldn’t be left wondering if I’d been coerced into existence, bought or stolen into adoption. I wouldn’t be left carrying the pain I’m sure she felt.

To those who oppose abortion, I say: Don’t hide behind stories like mine. Adoption isn’t a fairy-tale solution. And adoptees aren’t here to be the balm on your pro-life conscience.