IS IT BETTER TO GIVE WHEN YOU CONCEIVE?
LOOKING AT THE ADOPTION OPTION FOR PREGNANT WOMEN
Amy Lynn Santos
B.A., Western State College, 1998
A thesis submitted to the
University of Colorado at Denver
in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Master of Arts
This thesis for the Master of Arts
Amy Lynn Santos
has been approved
Cp.m_QeA (o ^)OCS
Santos, Amy Lynn (M.A., Sociology)
Is It Better to Give When You Conceive? Looking at the Adoption Option for
Thesis directed by Professor Candan Duran-Aydintug
The adoption of children has been a global process for many centuries. The
earliest records of adoption are recounted in the Bible and throughout the
Roman Empire. A negative social stigma has often been attached to unwed
motherhood throughout time and across continents. This feeling has
changed in many places as people have begun to accept alternative methods
of forming families. In the United States, the number of pregnancies coming
to full term has declined since the 1950s due to increased education and use
of contraceptives and the legalization of abortion. The stigma of unwed
motherhood allowed many women faced with unplanned pregnancies to
choose adoption as an alternative to termination of their pregnancy by
abortion. Today, many women still choose to parent the child conceived out
of wedlock. There are distinct characteristics which describe the group of
women who choose adoption plans for their babies resulting from an
unplanned pregnancy. This paper looks at the characteristics of such a group
of women who placed at least one child for adoption using the 1995 Cycle V
from the National Survey of Family Growth. The paper will describe the
sample of women who have placed a child for adoption using characteristics
such as education aspirations, race, pregnancy wantedness, income, and
This abstract accurately represents the content of the candidate's thesis. I
recommend its publication.
I dedicate this thesis to Caden Hirsch and his parents,
Sally and Dan, all of whom have taught me a lot
about what adoption can mean.
My tremendous thanks goes to Celia Eicheldinger, M.S., for helping me to
make sense of it all. I'd also like to thank my thesis committee for the endless
research, the 3:00 A.M. correspondence and their continued encouragement
to ask the right questions and find the answers. Finally, Id like to thank my
mother, whose never-ending support from the beginning made this whole
How Many Women Place A Child For Adoption?..............6
2. REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE................................7
What Influences The Number Of Children Available For
Who Are The Women Who Place A Child For Adoption? Who
Birthfathers And Extended Family.......................18
Advantages of Relinquishment...........................28
Why Not Adoption?......................................28
Policy And Program Suggestions.........................30
Open Adoption: What Is It And How Might It Affect Adolescents
Decision-making Regarding Unplanned Pregnancy?...32
Saying What We Mean....................................35
6.1 Adoption Language
Adoption is the legal act of permanently placing a child with a parent or
parents other than the birth parents. Adoption bestows on the adoptive
parents all the rights and responsibilities of a legal parent, and gives the child
being adopted all the social, emotional and legal rights and responsibilities of
a family member. Many children are placed for adoption as a result of the
birthparents decision that they are unable to adequately care for a child.
Adoption is not a new phenomenon; in fact it is an old and constantly evolving
institution. Perhaps the earliest known adoption is mentioned in the Bible,
which describes the adoption of Moses by the Pharaoh's daughter. Moses'
mother, in an attempt to save her child from death by the Pharaoh's decree,
placed him in a reed basket at the edge of the Nile River. Found by the
Pharaoh's daughter, Moses was later formally adopted by her. His
birthmother served as his nurse during Moses' infancy (Rothman & Rothman,
1987). The ancient Romans also supported adoption; Julius Caesar
continued his dynasty by adopting his nephew Octavian, who became Caesar
Augustus. Most western societies base their adoption laws on the original
Roman code and experts agree that U.S. adoption law has combined aspects
of Roman law with its own U.S. adaptations (National Adoption Information
Adoption has not always held an honored place in society. While the ancient
Romans and Greeks had elaborate laws for adoptions, by the middle of the
1500s adoption was rarely practiced in the West and was even denounced by
many church leaders. A key problem of the period was that illegitimacy was
seen as evil and a shocking rip in the fabric of socially acceptable behavior
and norms. Many people believed that if they solved the problem of the out-
of-wedlock mother and child by arranging for another family to raise the child,
they were condoning her "sin" and making life easy for her. Instead, it was
believed she should be forced to raise her child, whether she wanted to or
not, an opinion that continues to be held by some people today (Custer,
1993). The severe shunning that Hester Prynne faced in Hawthornes 1906
novel The Scarlet Letter gives an idea of the prevalent view toward women
who bore children out of wedlock and their children.
Illegitimacy was seen as a particularly important issue to the Christian church.
In 355 AD, the Christian Emperor Constantine ordered that children born to
unmarried parents who later married would automatically become legitimate
children (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 2005). Legitimation
was especially important in England because it was bound up in inheritance
and rights. There was no legal way to adopt a child and, thus, legitimation
was the only route for a child bom out of wedlock to be considered an heir.
Records are scarce for any hint of formalizing adoptions in the period
following, although informal adoptions took place. Children who needed
parents were cared for by relatives, friends or others who took pity on them
(Folks, 1902). Sometimes the children fended for themselves, living as
thieves, prostitutes and beggars (Brace, 1859). During the 14th century,
while the Black Death claimed the lives of many thousands of people and
survival was the primary goal, many people couldn't afford to care for their
own children, let alone other peoples children (Dewar, 1968).
The situation for lower-class unwed mothers at that time became desperate.
In Victorian England, poor, unwed mothers were practically forced to give up
their babies. The Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 required parents to either
care for their children or indenture them to others (McCauliff, 1986). At that
time, children literally had no rights of their own.
People in Britain at that time could not adopt children and have parental rights
and obligations transferred to them as adoptive parents. Thus, many children
who were orphaned were placed in foster homes. The concept of parens
patriae, wherein the government acts as a parent, enabled the government to
take such action (McCauliff, 1986). This aspect of British common law has
been incorporated into U.S. law and is part of U.S. child protection statutes
and also of the Indian Child Welfare Act.
Laws giving guidance for adoption and assistance to orphaned children were
non-existent in the United States until 1851 (Parker, 1927). It was not until
then that the first modem legitimate adoption statute was passed, and it was
in the state of Massachusetts: "An Act to Provide for the Adoption of Children"
(Ben-Or, 1976). Adoptions were, however, taking place with regularity in
Texas, Louisiana and other localities long before 1851 (Kawashima, 1982).
Although most law in the United States is based on British common law, the
Unites States was the pioneer in modern adoption. When the English passed
their first adoption laws in 1926, they based such laws on United States
adoption laws (McCauliff, 1986). Prior to the Massachusetts adoption statute,
no judicial review or court appearance was required to adopt a child
(Zainaldin, 1979). As a result, the 1851 Massachusetts statute was
considered to be the first modern adoption law that formally, although
minimally, took into account the interests of the child.
Adoption in the early 20th century was very different from the current practice
of adoption in the United States today. Most adoptions were still informal
rather than legal, and adoption did not become prominent until after World
War II. Unwed mothers routinely advertised their children for sale in
newspapers (Costin, 1985), and there was little or no protection for the
children. Confidentiality of the identities of the birthparents and adoptive
parents was not commonly practiced (Carp, 1998), babies and children were
bought and sold, and the-whole concept of adoption was questioned by many
as to whether or not it actually served a social good (Cole & Donley, 1990).
Around the 1950s, society in the United States began to accept and broadly
sanction the idea of adopting infants, and infant adoptions flourished until the
1970s. In 1951, an estimated 70% of the children adopted in 21 states were
under the age of one year (Kawashima, 1982). Unwed mothers were urged
or pressured to choose adoption over single parenthood. During this period,
there still existed strong social disapproval of premarital or extramarital sex
and out-of-wedlock pregnancies (Cole & Donley, 1990). Unmarried pregnant
women were often expected to keep the impending birth a secret and either
wait out their pregnancies at a maternity home or visit a fictitious "sick aunt"
until the child was bom. Illegitimacy was still a stigma and a problem.
A major factor impacting adoption in the United States during the 1970s was
Roe v. Wade. the U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion
nationwide in 1973. Although it is unknown how many of the babies carried to
term would have been adopted if abortion were still illegal today, it appears
obvious that the abortion decision did decrease the number of babies needing
adoptive parents. Non-relative adoptions declined from a high of 89,200 in
1970 to 47,700 in 1975 (Maza, 1984). Another development in the early
1970s was the change in contraceptive use and effectiveness, particularly the
variety of contraceptive choices and especially the increased availability and
use of the birth control pill, which enabled women to have more control in
avoiding unplanned pregnancies.
Societal attitudes toward adoption-related issues changed radically during this
period. The interplay of civil rights legislation, the feminist movement, and the
broad penetration of television into many of the U.S. households all
contributed to society's collective change of mind about the formerly
perceived problems of illegitimacy. Likewise, the availability of Aid to Families
with Dependent Children made single parenthood by adolescents and never-
married women more acceptable. The changes in attitude became so
pervasive in society that, whereas adoption was earlier considered the
presumed solution for a pregnant single woman, many people in the 1970s
and to date began to believe that single parenting was a preferable answer to
adoption for both the mother and her child.
It is important to understand that adoption laws and practices should be
evaluated based on their functionality and the existing conditions of the time
rather than solely on our contemporary values. The evolution of how
adoption was and is now perceived and actually practiced in society has
depended on a myriad of factors. Social, economic and political conditions;
societal attitudes toward parent-less and deprived children; out-of-wedlock
births; minimum standards of parenting; views on parental rights and
children's rights; views on the importance of property and inheritance as well
as other issues in the social order; the perception of the overriding importance
of blood ties; and religious and moral values are the most notable factors
which have influenced adoption.
How Many Women Place A Child For Adoption?
The percentage of premarital births placed for adoption has decreased since
the 1970s. Analyses of three cycles of the National Survey of Family Growth
show the following trend: from 1952 to 1972, 8.7% of all premarital births
were placed for adoption, from 1973 to 1981, this percentage fell to 4.1% and
from 1982 to 1988, it fell further to 2% (Bachrach, Stolley, London, 1992).
Two percent of unmarried women at any age place their child for adoption
(ChildTrends, 1995). The 1995 National Survey of Family Growth found that
15 percent of recent births to never-married women and 18 percent of those
to formerly married women were unwanted by the mother at the time of
conception (Freundlich, 1998).
Although the research is abundant on people with infertility issues, people
who adopt and adoptees themselves, research is scant on the third member
of the triad: the birthmother. Using data from the 1995, Cycle 5 of the NSFG,
this paper will focus on the characteristics of women who chose to place a
child for adoption. I will look at demographics, socioeconomic status,
religious attendance and educational aspirations as described by the
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Current sociological and psychological studies of adolescents who place their
babies for adoption are inadequate, often with inconclusive results (Geber &
Resnick, 1988). A review of older existing adoption research indicates that
much of the research on adoption is fraught with limitations in sample
selection, design and analysis (Resnick, 1984). Many of the studies are old
and were conducted during a time when the norms regarding adoption vs.
single parenting were quite different. The most comprehensive data was
gathered by the Federally-funded National Center for Social Statistics (NCSS)
from 1957 through 1975, when States voluntarily reported on all finalized
adoptions (National Adoption Information Clearinghouse, 2005). With the
dissolution of the NCSS, only limited statistical information is regularly
What Influences The Number
Of Children Available For Adoption?
Currently the United States is experiencing a decline in the number of women
placing children for adoption. Pregnancy rates declined by 1 percent for white
women and by 5 percent for women of all other races between 1980 to 1991
(National Center for Health Statistics, 1995). The decline in the number of
women placing their children for adoption is primarily due to the declining
numbers of white women placing their children for adoption; rates for minority
women who place their children have remained relatively stable (Bachrach,
Stolley, London, 1992).
The diminishing stigma of unwed motherhood (Bachrach, Stolley, London,
1992) influences the number of children available for adoption. Custer (1993)
found that the overriding phenomenon of importance regarding placing or
parenting a child is the absence of societal sanctions against adolescent
parenthood, concurrent with reciprocal sanctions against relinquishing a child
for adoption. Essentially, Custer found it is okay to be a single adolescent
mother, but it is definitely not okay to give a baby away. This supports the
adolescent's belief that adoption would not be good for the child. In spite of
identifying positive adoption family models, Custers subjects repeatedly
voiced concern that the child would suffer, not be loved, and therefore hate
The proportion of teens placing their children for adoption has declined
sharply over recent decades (ChildTrends, 1995). When they become
pregnant, very few teens choose to place their children for adoption. In a
1995 survey, 51% of teens that become pregnant give birth; 35% seek
abortions; 14% miscarry. Less than 1 % of pregnant teens choose to place
their child for adoption (ChildTrends, 1995).
The age of unmarried mothers has increased with time, which also influences
the number of children available for adoption. In 1970, half of non-marital
births were to teens; by 1993, the highest proportion of unmarried mothers
were women in their twenties, a significant change. The birth rate for
unmarried teens declined in 1995. Teen mothers, however, continued to
make up the largest single group of all first births to unmarried women
The increased use of contraceptives has also affected how many children are
placed for adoption. Four percent of never-married women relied on their
partners to use condoms in 1982; this number increased to eight percent in
1998 and to fourteen percent in 1995 more than a three-fold increase
(National Center for Health Statistics, 1995). In 1995,10.7 million women
were using female sterilization, 10.4 million were using the birth control pill,
7.9 million used condoms and 4.2 million were using male sterilization as a
contraceptive technique (National Center for Health Statistics, 1995).
Finally, a significant factor influencing the number of children available for
adoption is the recent decline in the abortion rate. The initial drop in
placement rates among white women reflected the increase in abortion rates
after the legalization of abortion in 1973. Although the adoption rate has
remained relatively steady, nationwide abortion rates have continued to
decline since 1990 (Freundlich, 1998). Unfortunately for adoption
researchers, there has been no research showing that women are choosing
to abort their children rather than place these children for adoption.
Who Are The Women
Who Place A Child For Adoption?
The studies of the differences between unwed mothers who relinquished and
those who parented were conducted beginning in the 1950s. The resolution
of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in those years was usually either marriage for
the pregnant woman or relinquishment of her baby for adoption (Grow, 1979).
In the 1950s and 1960s, adoption was far more prevalent among unwed
teenagers (Maza, 1984; Resnick, 1984) but in 1982, only five percent of
infants born to unwed teenagers were placed for adoption (Bachrach, 1986).
With the legalization of abortion and the increased social acceptance of
unwed motherhood, the practice has steadily declined since the early 1970s.
Adoption has traditionally been a highly confidential process making it difficult
or impossible to collect data from relinquishing mothers. Thus, there is little
information regarding the experiences of women who decide to relinquish
their children. Only a few investigators in the literature on adoption have
focused on the decision making of the pregnant woman about adoption.
Although a handful of exceptions exist, researchers have long treated the
decision to place a child for adoption as a fait accompli and have directed
attention to the consequences in life after adoption (Resnick, 1984). The rare
literature that has examined adoption decision-making has sought, for the
most part, to compare retrospectively the characteristics of placers vs.
In their 1996 study, Mosher and Bachrach found that less than three percent
of white unmarried women and less than two percent African-American
unmarried women place a child for adoption. Of African-American women
with premarital births, one and one-half percent placed their children for
adoption from 1952 to 1972, from 1973 to 1981, this percentage fell to 0.2%
and the percentage rose to 1.1% from 1982 to 1988 (Bachrach, Stolley,
In their 1990 study, Sandven and Resnick found that African-American
mothers were less likely to place a child for adoption; 80% of all African-
American mothers in the study parented their babies. The racial differences
found by the authors were posited because African-American birthmothers
had fewer outlets for adoption and single motherhood was less of a stigma
among African-Americans because it was more common. The authors felt
this was probably more a social class than a cultural phenomenon. Bachrach
(1986) and Barth (1987) also linked ethnicity as a predictor of decision,
whereby African-Americans are more likely to parent or to have negative
expectations about adoption.
Bachrach, Stolley, London (1992) found that of white women with premarital
births, 19.3% placed their children for adoption from 1952 to 1972, from 1973
to 1981, this percentage fell to 7.6% and it fell further to 3.2% from 1982 to
In her 1971 study, Festinger found that 85% of white birthmothers decisions
whether to parent or place were correctly predicted by using four variables:
long-term relationship with the birthfather; parental approval of retaining the
baby; birthmother was from a single-parent home; and birthfather was white.
Positive values on these variables predicted parenting, negative values
predicted relinquishing. For African-American mothers, Festinger (1971)
found that by using just two variables (long-term relationship with the
birthfather and parental approval of retention of the baby), 77% of the
birthmothers decisions regarding placement of a child were correctly
Stolley (1993) found that women who voluntarily place their children for
adoption are likely to have greater educational and vocational goals for
themselves than those who parent their children. Women making adoption
plans often come from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. These women
come from intact families which are supportive of the placement, and which
have not experienced teenage pregnancies by other family members (Stolley,
Women whose mothers completed at least one year of college were three
times more likely to place their babies for adoption than women whose
mothers did not complete high school (Bachrach, Stolley & London, 1992). In
a study of adoption trends in California, it was found birthmothers who place
their children independently tend to be aged 17 to 30 years old, and have no
more than a high school education (Barth, Brooks, Iyer, 1995).
In her study, Leynes (1980) found that choice of whether a birthmother would
parent or relinquish her child was most highly correlated with the
birthmothers level of functioning followed by birthfather influence, the
birthmothers socioeconomic status, her parents influence, and lastly, the
birthmothers age. Based on Leynes (1980) research, it can be predicted that
adolescent mothers with higher level of functioning and less birthfather
involvement will place their babies for adoption while adolescent mothers
functioning at a lower level and with more birthfather involvement will parent
their babies. Leynes (1980) posits that the connection between parent
involvement and the choice of whether to parent or relinquish a child is that
women who had unrewarding relationships with their parents looked to their
children for need satisfaction. Grow (1979) found that, psychologically, the
birthmothers who parented their children were considered less stable and
more emotionally needy than those who decided upon adoption.
Today, in spite of the increasing acceptance of unwed pregnancy and the
decrease in stigma associated with illegitimate births, it seems that women
with high socioeconomic status still prefer to have their babies adopted
(Leynes, 1980, Cocozzelli, 1989, Stolley, 1993). Grow (1979) found more
education to be implicated in the decision to place for adoption. Better
general functioning (Leynes, 1980) and higher levels of family functioning
(Geber & Resnick, 1988) were also associated with placing for adoption.
Among those teenage mothers who were older, had more parental influence
and had higher socioeconomic status, there was a tendency toward
relinquishing their babies (Leynes, 1980). If the birthmother's father is
employed or if he is a professional, she tends to relinquish (Cocozzelli, 1989).
If her father is an unskilled worker or has fewer years of education, she tends
to choose to parent the baby. Cocozzelli (1989) found that if the birthmother
is receiving public assistance, she tends to choose to parent her baby.
Cocozzelli (1989) also found that mothers who relinquish tend to have life
plans that will be permanently interrupted by premature parenthood and they
have been able to share their feelings and concerns with their siblings and
In their 1991 study, Kalmuss, Namerow and Cushman looked at 430 young
pregnant women in maternity residences and compared those who intended
to place their babies for adoption, those who considered adoption but planned
to parent, and those who never considered adoption. Placers were both the
most advantaged socioeconomically and held the most positive attitudes
toward adoption. Young women who never considered adoption were the
least advantaged and held the least favorable attitudes toward adoption.
Placers consistently reported that their choice to place their babies rather
than parent would increase the likelihood of outcomes such as continuing with
school, having enough money to live comfortably and benefiting the babys
emotional development, while those young women who did not consider
adoption tended to feel that these outcomes would be more likely if they
The background characteristics of placers make educational and occupational
success more likely for them than for women who choose to parent.
Socioeconomic background of those who consider but reject adoption tends
to be lower than birthmothers who choose adoption for their babies but
slightly higher than those birthmothers who never even considered adoption
(Kalmuss, et. al, 1991). On the one hand, these young women may have
considered relinquishment partly because they anticipated more opportunity
costs of early childrearing than those who never considered placing their child
for adoption. On the other hand, they may have chosen to parent because
they perceived fewer opportunity costs associated with this choice than do
intending placers. Placers are more likely to anticipate attending college
while those who never considered adoption are least likely (Kalmuss, et. al,
1991). Placers who come from more advantaged backgrounds than young
women intending to parent may have chosen adoption because they believed
early childrearing would hinder their socioeconomic achievement.
In their 1993 study, Dworkin, Harding and Schreiber studied the predictors of
placement and the processes involved in the decision to place or parent. The
authors note that there are characteristics that have consistently been shown
to predict the selected plan. The characteristics fall into four groups: adoption
knowledge and attitudes, sociodemographic characteristics, social
psychological traits, and social relationships and influence. In their 1990
study, Kallen, Griffore, Popovich and Powell found that adolescents who
relinquished their babies had more positive attitudes toward adoption than did
teens who decided to parent. Barth (1987) found that the decision to place
was positively associated with knowing the benefits of adoption. Women who
placed their babies for adoption were also far more likely to be regular
churchgoers (Grow, 1979).
Grow (1979) noted that variables which distinguished between birthmothers
who parented and birthmothers who chose adoption for their babies included
age and education of the birthmothers, the marital stability of the birthmother's
parents, the birthmothers living arrangements during pregnancy, the student
status of the birthmother, the timing of the birthmother's request for help and
aspects of her relationship with the birthfather. Grow also finds that
birthmothers who parent their children were more likely to come from lower
socioeconomic backgrounds, were younger and had less education than
birthmothers who relinquished. Leynes (1980) found that adolescents who
were psychologically more mature or functioning better tended to place their
babies for adoption while adolescents who were not functioning as well
parented their babies.
In 1956, Meyer, Jones and Borgatta studied the decision of birthmothers to
parent or place their babies for adoption. They found seven variables to be
significantly related to the birthmothers decision to relinquish: (1) the
birthmother was not Catholic; (2) the birthmother attended college; (3) the
birthfather was single; (4) the birthmother's age was under 18; (5) the
birthmother was a student; (6) the birthmothers income came from her family;
and (7) the birthmothers socioeconomic status was white collar, proprietary
or professional. The authors found relinquishers were well described by one
end of the social class factor: white, intact, middle- or upper-class families,
white-collar or professional employment, living in a shelter during the
pregnancy, and had group therapy wile in the shelter. Those who chose to
parent, however, were described by the opposite demographic
characteristics: non-white, working class, without shelter experience and
group therapy, coming from a single-parent home, with domestic, factory or
no work experience.
In their 1991 study, Donnelly and Voyandoff also analyzed differences in
pregnant adolescents who parented their babies and those who relinquished
them using the following factors: the social context of decision making as
indicated by family background and demographic characteristics, opportunity
costs associated with perceived alternatives to early parenting and
expectations of parenthood, and the normative context provided by attitudes
toward adoption, expectations of parenthood and the relationships and
experiences of adolescents.
The adolescent who is most likely to relinquish for adoption perceives that
she has a number of alternatives to early child rearing (Donnelly & Voyandoff,
1996). She is likely to have thought a lot about what she will be doing in the
future, plans to continue her schooling, and believes that ideally women
should become mothers in their 20s. Donnelly and Voyandoff (1991) also
found that women who chose to place a child had significantly more positive
attitudes toward adoption than those who chose to parent.
Birthmothers who place their child for adoption are significantly less likely
than those who parent to state that parenthood is likely to result in the mother
being needed and loving the baby and more likely to think that raising the
baby would be a long-term commitment she would later regret (Dworkin,
Harding & Schreiber, 1993). Placers are also less likely to believe that being
a mother will make her feel more like a grown-up, that mothering will be fun,
and that not raising a child would be selfish.
Previous studies have shown that there is more reason to be concerned
about the adolescent mother who chooses to parent her baby than the one
who opts for adoption (Leynes, 1980). Meyer, Jones and Borgatta (1956)
suggest a class factor is operative in the lives of birthmothers who choose to
parent their babies; birthmothers with what many perceive as having the least
to offer an infant from a socioeconomic standpoint are the ones who are most
likely to choose to parent rather than form an adoption plan. Clapp and
Raab's 1978 study showed that because of her age, lack of working
experience, and, in some cases, her limited educational background, the
adolescent who parents her child is in a particularly insecure position. The
greatest number of women in their study reported that their major source of
income was from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. That
the same finding was obtained from samples drawn in different areas of the
country almost 30 years apart suggests that the original studies examining
this question discovered empirical generalizations that stand the test of time
Birthfathers And Extended Family
The adolescents social relationships with significant others, the attitudes of
those others, and presumably their influence have also been linked to the
decision to place or parent (Festinger, 1971). The results of Dworkin, Harding
and Schreiber (1993) suggest that primary among the influences upon a
pregnant adolescent is the birthfather and secondarily, the teens mother (see
also Grow, 1979; Leynes, 1980; Resnick, 1984 and Herr, 1989). The 1993
study by Dworkin, Harding and Schreiber study found that the most powerful
variable for prediction of placement decision was the birthfathers preference.
For the relinquishing birthmother, a perception that the birthfather would
prefer that the infant be placed for adoption more than tripled the odds that
the teen mother would remain consistent in her choice to place. If the
birthmother has held a long-term relationship with the birthfather and her
parents approve of her parenting the baby, Festinger (1971) found the
pregnant teen parented 77% of the time.
Birthmothers who parented their children were more likely to have received
support from family and friends, and even the birthfather, during the
pregnancy. However, they are younger than those who relinquished their
babies, which might reflect less cautiousness and less awareness of what
childrearing entails than would be true for their relinquishing counterparts
(Grow, 1979). Experts point out that only a very small percentage of
birthfathers historically have taken an active part in the decisions surrounding
adoption, but some agencies report that in recent years, a quarter or more
relinquishments have included active involvement of birthfathers (Freundlich,
In this study the data came from The National Survey of Family Growth, Cycle
5,1995 (NSFG) which is the fifth in a series of periodic surveys of women
between the ages of 15 to 44. Previous surveys (1973, 1976, 1982,1988 and
a re-interview of the 1988 respondents in 1990) used telephone interviews
and gathered information about the month and year of first intercourse,
pregnancy, contraceptive use, marital and cohabitation histories, employment
and occupation, child care, fecundity and sterility, prenatal medical care,
family planning services, birth expectations, ethnicity, education, religion and
income. Cycle 5 interviews included information on event histories of
education, living arrangements during childhood, along with complete marital
and cohabitation histories and sexual partner histories for 5 years prior to the
interview. In this cycle, for the first time, information was also included about
characteristics of male partners, new items on consistency of contraceptive
use, new questions on pregnancy wantedness, and a computer assisted self-
administered section containing questions on sensitive topics such as
abortion and forced intercourse.
In the original study, a national probability sample of 10,847 non-
institutionalized women between the ages of 15 to 44 were interviewed.
Trained female interviewers conducted the interviews in person using a
procedure called computer-assisted personal interviewing (CAPI). These
interviews lasted an average of 105 minutes. Additional data were collected
in short, self-administered interviews using a procedure called audio
computer assisted self-interviewing (A-CASI). In this phase, the respondents
heard the questions over headphones and entered their answers into the
notebook computer. During sampling, the aim was to over-sample Hispanic
and non-Hispanic black women and to reduce the variations in the sampling
rates for non-black women in order to increase reliability.
The full NSFG sample includes women of ages fifteen through forty-four.
None of the respondents1 who placed a child for adoption was younger than
the age of twenty at the time the survey was administered. The average age
of a respondent in the sample is 32.8. Although the average age is 32.8, the
ages of the respondents at the time of the survey that had ever placed a child
for adoption ranged from 20 to 44.
While most of the respondents (92.5%) placed only one child for adoption,
7.5% of the respondents placed more than one child for adoption. The
average number of children a respondent had given birth to, including the one
she placed for adoption, is two. 35% of the respondents had given birth to
two children, while 17.5% had given birth to either one or three children.
About three-quarters of all the respondents had given birth to between one
and three children, while 27.5% of the respondents report having between
four and six live births. It appears that most respondents parented at least
one of their total number of children.
Five percent of the respondents never intended to have any children at all.
60% of the respondents intend to have between one and three children while
1 Throughout this section, "respondents" shall refer to a woman in this Cycle of the NSFG
who placed a child for adoption.
12.5% want to have four children. Interestingly, one respondent expressed
the desire to have twelve children.
Three-quarters of the respondents were sixteen or under at the age of first
sexual intercourse. In the four years before the survey, 47.5% of the
respondents reported having intercourse with only one partner. Half of the
respondents reported having between two and five partners. Over half of the
respondents report not receiving any education regarding birth control
methods and 55% of the respondents also report not having any education on
abstinence. However, 97.5% of the respondents report using some form of
birth control method.
Over half of the respondents (60%) were under the age of 18 when they had
their first baby while 22.5% were under the age of sixteen. Almost three-
quarters of the respondents report that their first pregnancy happened too
soon. 10% didn't want their first pregnancy and a one in four report having an
abortion at some time in their life.
Almost half of the respondents were currently married when the survey was
performed. 32.5% were divorced or separated with 20% never having
married. For their first pregnancy, more than three-fourths of the respondents
were never married.
Almost half of the respondents (45%) are high school graduates with 30%
reporting having at least some college education. Twenty-five percent of the
respondents had less than a high school degree. Over half of the
respondents intended to complete or go back to school or college at some
time in the future. Most of the respondents (69%) have mothers who
completed a high school education and 63% have fathers who completed
Of the respondents who placed a child for adoption, 32.5% report an annual
income of between $25,000 and $40,000 at the time the survey was taken. A
quarter of the respondents report an annual income of less than $12,000.
Over half of the respondents report having an intact family consisting of two
biological parents while 42.5% of the respondents describe their family
consisting of something other than both biological parents.
The religious influence on the respondents is interesting in that 95% of the
respondents say that religion is important in their daily life. Of all the religious
groups offered in the survey selection, 42.5% of the respondents describe
themselves as Catholic. Almost half of the respondents (42.9%) claim they
attend religious services at least once a month.
The racial composition of the survey sample is overwhelmingly white: 87.5%
of the respondents are white, 5% are Alaskan native and 7.5% are African-
There has been only one recent effort to compare a large nationally
representative sample of mothers who parent their children and mothers who
chose adoption. That study was based on the National Survey of Family
Growth (NSFG). Even though the NSFG is a large, national sample
(approximately 8,000 women in 1982, 10,800 in 1995), there were just 60
mothers in the 1982 study and only 40 in the 1995 study who had
relinquished at least one child for adoption. Another limitation of the NSFG
data set is the lack of information regarding economic and psychological well-
being in the years following the births.
This paper looks at the characteristics of the women in the NSFG who placed
a child for adoption. Due to time constraints and differences in sample sizes,
the author of this paper did not compare the forty women who placed a child
for adoption with the 6000+ who chose to parent. When a random sample of
forty women who never placed a child was taken, several of the women did
not answer the questions to adequately infer the responses and draw
appropriate conclusions. Thus, the descriptive work undertaken here is
limited to the forty women who placed a child for adoption.
The racial component found in the forty respondents in the current survey is
consistent with the findings of Sandven and Resnick (1990), Bachrach (1986)
and Barth (1987); less than 10% of the respondents in the current study who
placed a child are African-American. Whether this is because there are fewer
outlets perceived for African-Americans in adoption or there is less stigma
regarding unwed motherhood in the African-American community, or other
reasons entirely are opportunities for further research.
Contrary to Barth, Brooks and Iyer (1995) who found that women who place a
child for adoption have no more than a high school education, seventy-five
percent of the respondents in this study report having at least twelve years of
education. Thirty percent of the respondents report having some college
education which is consistent with Meyer, Jones and Borgattas 1956 finding
that the decision to relinquish is positively correlated with the birthmother
attending some college. Likewise, Grow (1979) and Donnelly and Voyandoff
(1991) found increased education to be implicated in the decision to place a
child for adoption.
Sixty-nine percent of the respondents in this study report that their mothers
completed high school which is similar to Bachrach, Stolley and Londons
(1992) inference that if the birthmothers mother was more educated, the
birthmother was more likely to place a baby for adoption, rather than parent
Stolley (1993) notes that unwed pregnant adolescents who place a child for
adoption have greater educational goals than their counterparts who choose
to parent. Over half of the respondents in the current study report desiring to
complete or go back to school or college in the future. Kalmuss, et. al. (1991)
concurs with this finding, saying that birthmothers who place a child are more
likely to anticipate attending college in the future.
The age of the sample cannot be compared with ages of the existing research
regarding women who choose adoption versus women who choose to parent.
Although the average age of a respondent in this sample is 32.8, we are
unable to discern at what age the respondent gave birth to the child she
placed for adoption. Therefore, although there is much existing research
regarding adolescent pregnancy, we cannot make assumptions regarding age
with this sample of respondents.
Stolley (1993) reports that women from intact families are more likely to place
a child than parent when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Of the
respondents in the current study, 55% report having an intact family
consisting of two biological parents, which corresponds with Stolleys (1993)
finding. Just-under half of the respondents report having a family consisting
of something other than both biological parents, but the research does not
discern whether this is single-family, step-parents, and so forth.
Contrary to Meyer, Jones and Borgatta (1956) who found that birthmothers
who were not Catholic were more likely to place than parent, the largest
proportion of the respondents (42.5%) in the current study report being raised
While the average number of children a respondent ever gave birth to is two,
most of the respondents placed only one child for adoption. I can infer, then,
that a young birthmother faced with an unplanned pregnancy will place her
first child for adoption but go on to have another child, whom she parents.
Currently, there is not much information concerning the characteristics of the
women who choose to place their babies for adoption. Unfortunately, sample
sizes of birthmothers in current research are small. The potential of this
research is great. An understanding of which pregnant women are likely to
consider placing their babies for adoption and which are not, and the reasons
for their choices could promote the examination of all options available to
pregnant women, especially adolescent mothers (Resnick, 1984).
It is reasonable to expect that a number of the difficulties associated with
adolescent childbearing would be ameliorated if a child were placed for
adoption. Those adolescents who place their children for adoption are not
confronted with the day-to-day difficulties of providing childcare while
continuing their education, job training or while working. They are no longer
responsible for the more direct economic costs of parenthood and many of
the social costs of being a teenaged mother are lessened. Similarly, the
children placed for adoption are generally placed in two-parent households
which have better access to health care, educational opportunities, and
economic stability than those being raised by adolescent parents (Donnelly &
Voyandoff, 1996). There appears to be much room for improvement in
helping adolescents and their families explore all options in the decision-
In the United States, adolescent pregnancy and child rearing is recognized as
a contemporary health and social problem because of its sustained high rate
compared to other developed nations, and its association with other social ills
such as reduced educational attainment, underemployment, substance
abuse, suboptimal parenting, and welfare dependency. Rarely are young
unmarried mothers economically or developmentally prepared for parenthood
without considerable help and support from others. Public interest in
increasing consideration of adoption is related to a desire to maximize the
welfare of the adolescent as well as her child, and to reduce the cost of
supporting dependent families (Custer, 1993).
Advantages of Relinquishment
According to McLaughlin, Pearce, Manninen and Winges (1988) there are
significant, measurable advantages of relinquishment. Teen birthmothers
who choose adoption for their children are more successful in completing
vocational training, delaying marriage, and avoiding a rapid subsequent
pregnancy. They also are more likely to work after the birth and to live in
higher income households. Given the documented costs of childrearing to
both the teenage mother and her child, it is surprising that more young
women who carry their pregnancies to term do not choose adoption.
Why Not Adoption?
There is a stark lack of accurate knowledge about adoption among
adolescents, helping professionals and the population at large. Unfortunately,
this nurtures the stereotypical beliefs held by society in general about
adoption which limits option consideration on the parts of both pregnant
adolescents as well as the professionals who are supposed to be supporting
Societal disapproval of relinquishment is related to adolescent beliefs about
parenting responsibility (Custer, 1993). Perception of responsibility is a major
theme among adolescents: the adolescent is responsible for her actions (i.e.,
having sex) with motherhood as a logical consequence, and there are things
that the adolescent just should do" (i.e., raise the baby if she becomes
pregnant). Interestingly, the one subject in Custers 1993 study who was
planning on relinquishing her baby also believed she was being responsible in
Musick, Handler, and Waddill (1984) have suggested that adolescents regard
adoption as a sign of personal failure and that they see few, if any, sanctions
against parenting from the girls family, friends or community. Further, Musick
et. al. (1984) believe that service providers are hesitant to discuss adoption
planning with a pregnant girl or her family so as not to risk alienating them.
In their 1991 study, Kalmuss, et. al. interviewed pregnant adolescents who
were grouped by their pregnancy resolution decisions: those who were
planning to parent and had never considered adoption, those who had
considered adoption briefly but were still planning to parent, and those who
were planning to relinquish their baby for adoption. Kalmuss, et. al, (1991)
asked respondents questions to gauge their attitudes toward adoption such
as whether they thought a young woman who places a baby for adoption
wants the best for the baby; loves the baby; is selfish; is responsible; is
abandoning the baby and is being a good parent in a special way. Although
each group believed they were making the best decision regarding pregnancy
resolution for themselves and their babies, one finding worthy of note is that
all three groups hold generally positive attitudes toward placers.
The general societal sanction against relinquishment, coupled with low levels
of knowledge and the absence of professional interventions confirms existing
adolescent beliefs that severe, intolerable, and ongoing psychological distress
would accompany relinquishment (Custer, 1993). This phenomenon is seen
as the most powerful immediate barrier to adoption consideration.
Policy And Program Suggestions
Custer (1993) presents some recommendations for everyone from
professional service providers to health and welfare policy makers. Among
these are suggestions for increasing the general positive image of adoption,
increasing the knowledge of adolescents, counselors and other health
professionals, as well as the public in general, about adoption, increasing
birthfather accountability, modifying adoption policies, increasing the
availability and effectiveness of counseling services, and providing more
incentives for adoption exploration as an option.
The failure of professionals to initiate adoption dialogue is related to the
following: their own lack of knowledge, personal subscription to the general
societal belief that adoption is not an appropriate action, and beliefs that client
disinterest in adoption is certain (Mech, 1986). As a result, pregnancy
counselors, policymakers, and adolescents have little or no basis on which to
evaluate the likely consequences of relinquishment versus parenting. If
changed, this phenomenon is seen as having the greatest potential for
influencing the overall level of willingness of adolescents to consider
relinquishment (Custer, 1993).
Policies are needed that would realistically increase the perceived
alternatives to parenthood among adolescents, that is, policies to increase
opportunities to remain in and succeed in school as well as to improve the job
opportunities for young people (Donnelly & Voyandoff, 1991).
Programs are needed which focus on the perceived and realistic costs and
rewards accompanying adolescent child rearing. Adolescents who perceive
few viable alternatives to early premarital childrearing such as educational
achievement, career options, and marriage are more likely to become
pregnant and less likely to place their child for adoption (Donnelly &
Programs must recognize that they do not exist in a vacuum. It is the social
and legal responsibility of adoption agencies and attorneys to balance the
rights and responsibilities among the parties the birthparents, the adoptive
parents, and the adopted child and to support each of these parties during
the decision-making process and after a decision has been made (Berry,
Programs presenting the benefits of adoption for both the baby and the
adolescent mother are essential. Peer-counseling or role-modeling programs
among young birthparents might prove useful to young pregnant women who
are considering releasing for adoption (Donnelly & Voyandoff, 1991). Today,
adoption is seen as a gateway, each year enabling thousands of children of
all ages, races and ethnicity to enter permanent and loving families.
Open Adoption: What Is It And How Might
It Affect Adolescents Decision-making
Regarding Unplanned Pregnancy?
Adoption practice in the United States has undergone a dramatic evolution in
the past 30 years and continues to change radically. One of the most
controversial shifts is the introduction of open adoption as standard practice
among many adoption agencies and attorneys (Berry, 1993).
Years ago almost all adoptions were conducted in secrecy with no contact
between the birthparents and the adoptive parents. These adoptions are
known as "closed adoptions. As the number of infants in adoption has
decreased over the past three decades, the influence and control of
birthparents in the adoption process has increased dramatically (Berry, 1993).
The ability to have some continuing knowledge about a relinquished child
may encourage birthparents to choose adoption (Barth, 1987). Today, most
birthparents meet the couple who will adopt their baby and make
arrangements for some type of ongoing contact over the years.
This is the situation even among the African-American community, where
formal adoption is not widely practiced (Berry, 1993). Sandven and Resnick
(1990) reported that their study of 54 African-American teenage single
mothers found that 22% said that if they had had some control in choosing
the adoptive family, they would have been more interested in this option
[open adoption]." Kallen and colleagues (1990) found a clear concern among
teenage mothers who parented their children that adoption would prevent
them from knowing about the children as they grew up. The decision to place
the child is not related to a concern about the well-being of the child, but more
of a self-related concern about their own ability to know about the child.
Cocozzelli (1989) warns that the potential benefits of open adoption may
persuade some adolescent mothers who would not otherwise have done so
to relinquish a child.
Open adoption is a new enough concept that it has not yet been studied
sufficiently. Most of the studies of adoption are several decades old and
cross-sectional in design. Several large-scale longitudinal studies of adoption
are currently in progress, including the Minnesota Texas Adoption Research
Project (MTARP) conducted by Ruth McRoy and Harold Grotevant (for more
information please see http://fsos.che.umn.edu/mtarp/default.htmf). The
MTARP study should provide detailed information about the experience of
openness by all adoptive family members.
Advocates of open adoption believe that it lightens and in some cases
alleviates the grieving process after relinquishment. Advocates of confidential
adoption, however, believe that open adoption limits and denies the grieving
process that must take place for subsequent life adjustment (Blanton &
Deschner, 1990). Thus, a controversy prevails among adoption professionals
and even members of the adoption triad, themselves, about which method of
adoption, open or confidential, promotes a healthier approach to the
anticipated grief and post-adoptive adjustment of birthmothers.
Indications in the Blanton & Deschner study (1990) were strong that
birthmothers who know more about the later life of the child they relinquished
have a harder time making an adjustment than do mothers whose tie to the
child is broken off completely by means of death. Relinquishing mothers who
know only that their children still live but have no details about their lives
appear to experience an intermediate degree of grief. The differences in the
intensity of grief between the birthmother groups in this study have raised
some questions that adoption professionals should address. A study of the
grief experience scores of birthmothers who have gone through various levels
of openness during the adoption process may be helpful in defining the
optimal level of openness related to the birthmothers acceptance of the
adoption and subsequent life adjustment.
More research is needed about the role of birthfathers in open adoptions.
Research is finding that birthfathers are-not typically involved in the decision
to place a child for adoption, but are often influential in the adolescent
mothers decision to parent the child (Resnick, et. al., 1990). Birthfathers in
Leynes' 1980 study also seemed to influence the birthmothers towards
parenting their babies. When the birthfathers were actively involved and
wanted the birthmothers to parent the babies, there was a greater tendency
for the birthmothers to do so.
There is also a need for more research concerning the role of the mother of
the birthmother, or the birthgrandmother, in the choice and practice of open
adoption. Kallen and colleagues (1990) and others have found that the
mothers of birthmothers have an influential role in a teenagers decision to
place children for adoption, both in the Anglo community (Leynes, 1980) and
in the African-American community (Sandven and Resnick, 1990). Case
worker anecdotes suggest that as the pregnancy progresses, new issues
might emerge if the adolescent birthmothers mother comes to regard herself
as an expectant grandmother as well as the mother of her pregnant daughter
(Dworkin, Harding & Schreiber, 1993).
Saving What We Mean
What we say and the words we use communicate a lot about our values. The
way we talk about adoption has evolved over time as we become more aware
of the complexities of our relationships and the way both children and adults
react to words, nuances, and connotations. The conscious and consistent
use of positive adoption language affirms that adoption is as valid a way to
build a family as birth. Positive adoption language is crafted to give the
maximum respect, dignity, responsibility and objectivity about the decisions
made by both birthparents and adoptive parents in discussing their roles in
the triad. Using positive adoption language is common sense.
The old cliches give up and put up for adoption" can slip out of our mouths
unnoticed. However, these phrases are not entirely accurate descriptions of
what takes place when a birthparent chooses adoption. No one who has
carried a baby for nine months can simply give up that child. Saying that a
birthmother gave up her child stigmatizes her for deciding that she wasnt
ready or able to parent. Saying she gave up her child is similar to saying
that she made the wrong choice, when, in fact, birthmothers make an
incredibly strong choice by putting that childs life ahead of their own.
Terms such as real parent, real mother, and real father imply that an
adopted child is not a real part of the family. By using phrases like this, both
the child being a real part of his or her family, and the realness of the family
itself, are invalidated. By brainstorming with several members of different
adoption triads, this author compiled a selection of adoption terms to illustrate
the changes which can be made to eliminate the stigma associated with being
a member of an adoption triad. Table 6.1 shows a comparison of positive
adoption language and its negative counterpart, which negative language
perpetuates the myth that adoption is second best.
Table 6.1 Adoption Language
Give up for adoption
Keeping the child
Place for adoption, or
Make an adoption plan
Parenting the child
Reason for preference
Give up" implies a lack of
value. In reality, the only thing
birthparents give up" are their
parental rights to the child.
Parenting a child is a distinction
from placing a child for
adoption. To keep implies its
reverse, to give away or give
Real mother/father/parent Birth mother/father/parent The term real implies that the
adoptive family is artificial.
Your adopted child Your child The use of the adjective
adopted signals that the
relationship is qualitatively
different from that of parents to
Child is adopted Child was adopted Many adoptees believe that
their adoption is not their
identity, but an event that
happened to them. Others
contend that is adopted
makes adoption sound like a
disability to be overcome.
It is important to prevent the prejudice many people associate with adoption,
which is termed adoptism." Instead of contributing to the outdated and
hurtful cliches, we can retrain ourselves to use correct language when
referring to members of the adoption triad and the adoption experience itself.
This author encourages her readers to use the positive adoption language to
reflect the true nature of adoption free from innuendo.
Adoption is by no means a rigid social institution. It continues to evolve
according to the ideals and the prevalent political and economic forces of
society. Adoption must be viewed from a systems perspective, studying and
analyzing the social trends that have affected this institution and will continue
to affect it. As the situations associated with problems regarding adoption
change, we can draw some parallels to the past and use solutions that have
been implemented in the past to assist children. We should never assume
today's solutions are brand new and clearly superior to what has gone before.
Nor can we ignore the challenges we face in resolving the problems of our
children who need parents. We are now seeing an increased acceptance that
adoption indeed offers a very good solution for children who need families
and for women who cannot care for the child resulting from an unplanned
pregnancy. The problems we may face today are serious, and adoption
cannot solve them all. However, for many thousands unexpectedly pregnant
women, and hundreds of thousands of children in foster care, adoption may
well be the answer.
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