Satisfaction with placing a child for adoption: Challenge and Response

by Jay Johansen
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Two and a half years ago (as I write this) we posted an article on this web site about some research on the feelings of teenage girls who placed their babies for adoption. Basically, the conclusion of the research, as summarized by this article, was that while it is not uncommon for teens who place their babies for adoption to have regrets about their decision, overall they tended to be satisfied that they made a good choice.

A couple of days ago we received a storm of emails objecting to this article. (As we have never received an email about this article before in the two and a half years it has been on our web site, and suddenly in one day we received twenty, it seems fair to conclude that these people knew each other and organized a miniature letter-writing campaign. More on this later.) Here is a sampling of the comments from these emails with our response.

Do birth mothers forget their children?

Typical of the comments sent was this:

I am a birthmother and would like to let you know that I completely and without reservation disagree with your findings. Birthmothers NEVER FORGET THEIR CHILDREN. They are ALWAYS a part of their lives no matter what the circumstances.
It's a LIE! It's a LIE! It's a LIE!!

Birthmother's NEVER EVER forget the children they relinquish to adoption!! I am a birthmother. I relinquished my child to adoption almost 26 years ago. I never -- not for even one day -- ever forgot about my son.

These comments indicate a serious misunderstanding of the article. Neither the article nor the original researchers claimed that birth mothers "forget" their children after they place them for adoption. If readers found the wording of the article unclear on this, let me set the record straight now: No one is claiming that birth mothers forget their children. What the article reports, and what the study cited indicates, is that teenage mothers who place their children for adoption generally express satisfaction with their decision. This does not mean that they have forgotten about the child, but rather that they believe that adoption was in the best interests of the child and/or themselves.

Are birth mothers who place children for adoption satisfied with their decision?

A more realistic objection was expressed in comments such as these:

My birthson is 18, 4-1-00 and not a day goes by that I haven't regretted giving him up. I have mourned his loss EVERY year of his life. Christmas and his birthday are horrible time's of the year for me to get through ... at time's to the point of being suicidal. ... Maybe you could ask the other two [children] who HATE the adopted brother because he got more of my concern and attention then they did while they were growing up ... because I was so consumed by his loss!

I realize that your main motivation here is to promote adoption but don't deceive your self the way you are trying to deceive these potential birthmother's, You are blatantly LYING to them when you say they will get over this by their child's second birthday. There is a good chance that even with the best counseling, if they are coerced at all, they will never get over the loss of their child.

I take offense to the statement: "The research confirms what anecdotal reports have long held: it is a myth that women who place their children for adoption "never get over it."

HOW DARE YOU???????????? I did my best to destroy my life because I gave my twin sons up for adoption. I was finally blessed with another child 12 years later. I gave my children up because I was severely abused as a child and I knew in my heart that there was a chance that I might hurt them if I was angry. With a lot of counceling, love of the Lord AND the love of my child, my anger is gone. I am an excellent mother to my son.

It is clear that the women who made comments such as these have strong regrets about placing their children for adoption. This is certainly sad and tragic, and I do not for one moment wish to imply lack of sympathy for their pain. Several of the writers talk about knowing many, many other birthmothers who have severe regrests.

But the question discuseed in the article was, How typical is this reaction? How do most teen mothers who place their children for adoption feel?

Finding the answer to this question is exactly what this study was about. So they asked girls who placed their children for adoption three questions (among many others):

If someone was hoping to find that every teenage girl who places her baby for adoption walks away with no second thoughts and no regrets and is just totally happy and satisfied with how things turned out, I suppose they would be disappointed by these results. But clearly, a strong majority of the girls believed they had made the right decision and would encourage others to make a similar decision.

Yes, it's true that some have regrets. No one questions that this is a difficult decision. No one claims that there is absolutely nothing negative that might be said about choosing to place for adoption. But this study indicates that overall, most girls who place their children for adoption are satisfied with this decision.

Were the young ladies in this study typical?

Several doubted the validity of the study, and questioned how a fair study could possibly come to the conclusions this one did. For example:
I can send you letters from numbers of birthmother's GREATER than your study that would invalidate your "claim".
Have your researchers ever asked a group of birthmothers if they ever forgot? Get your information the correct way by putting a survey in the Sunday paper like the Parade which everyone reads. ... I don't know where you get your information about how birthmothers will eventually forget but, I for one will tell you the honest truth of the matter....A birthmother WILL NEVER forget because there is no closure in her life!
As mentioned earlier, all these emails arrived on the same day. Several of the writers noted that they had heard about this article from an email list and one said she saw it posted on a "birthmothers group". So I think it's fair to theorize that one of these people saw the article, sent us an email objecting to it, and then contacted a number of people she knew and encouraged them to write also. (A few wrote multiple times, so the twenty emails represent about fifteen people.) Several of the writers indicate that they are associated with an organization called "Sunflower", which is a group that is apparently committed to the idea that adopted children have an absolute right to know and meet their birthmothers ... I would say "regardless of the wishes of the birthmother", except that they claim that all birthmothers want to be re-united with the children they placed for adoption.

I say this not to fault these people for starting a letter-writing campaign -- hey, my friends do similar things all the time -- but simply to make clear that these letter-writers are not necessarily typical. It appears that they are a group of people who have a particular point of view, and they were contacted to write to us precisely because they are associated with an organization having a particular point of view. While I respect their right to their viewpoint and understand their feelings, we cannot take such a group as representative of birth mothers in general.

I say all this to lead up to a point: I do not doubt for a moment that these women find these results totally unbelievable. They and almost everyone they know have a totally different experience. But, if I may try to say this gently, that is why people who really want to know conduct carefully-planned studies rather than asking their friends what they think about the subject. I've spoken to many people who ran for office and who were absolutely stunned when they lost the election. Why, everybody they know agrees with their ideas, how could they lose? It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that "all Americans" hold some idea because most of the people we talk to think that way. It is easy to forget that people we know often have similar backgrounds, that we tend to associate with people who at least generally agree with us, etc.

How does one find such a representative sample? Consider the one lady's comment that the researchers should have put a survey "in the Sunday paper like the Parade which everyone reads". Maybe she and her friends all read Parade. Personally, my newspaper does not include a Parade insert, and when I lived in another town where the newspaper did, I rarely read it. And even if it was true that just about everyone read this periodical, we cannot take it for granted that people who choose to respond are a representative sample. This is called "self selection", and people who do volunteer like this tend to be the people who have the strongest feelings on the subject.

The authors of this particular study noted that many studies on birthmother's feelings about adoption are flawed because of these sort of problems in choosing the participants. For example, some studies got their participants through organizations that provide counseling or mental health services. Clearly, women who are seeking counseling are likely to be women who are not satisfied with the results of their decisions.

How was this study done?

So let's take a quick look at just how this particular study was done. One of the email writers asked:

How many birth mothers did you talk to, survey or question? What type of questions where they asked? What was you methodology? Ages of the women/birthmothers interviewed? How long was the period of time from the date of relinquishment to the survey or interview? What was the races and religion makeup of the women you surveyed or questions?
Let's answer these questions.

The researchers selected 181 teenagers who were pregnant or had just recently delivered. Of these, 113 actually completed the study. (Yes, this is a small sample. I presume the researchers would have loved to have had more, but this was what they could manage.) They found participants through "three public health clinics, two crisis counseling centers, and a private social service agency".

The key questions were quoted above. They also asked questions about the girl's backgrounds, like age, race, and education. And they asked about how the girls were doing in practical ways: did they go back to school, did they have jobs, were they on welfare, etc.

The girls ranged in age from 12 to 19 at the start of the study.

They were interviewed over the course of a two-year period. As the girls were selected shortly before or after giving birth, this would mean that they were interviewed up to about two years after giving birth. It would surely be instructive to conduct a study that covered a longer period. But such studies are difficult -- by definition they take a long time, and you have to keep track of the participants and keep them involved for the entire time.

66% of the girls were white, the rest other racial groups. The report does not break this down any further. The researchers found that non-whites were less likely to remain involved for the entire study than whites. Besides that there was no significant connection between race and the replies to any of the questions.

The report does not mention any questions about religious affiliation. They did ask the girls how important religion was to them. On a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being "not important" and 4 being "very important", the average response was 2.31.

Aside: One of the writers says:

I find it interesting that this "research" was done by the NCFA, a group well-known to be anti-open records and for spreading propaganda regarding birthmothers and adoption in general.
This is a misunderstanding. The original article also discussed some then-recent legislation in Texas that was backed by the NCFA (National Council For Adoption), but that had nothing to do with this study. The study was conducted by Dr Brenda Donnelly and Dr Patricia Voydanoff of the Center for the Study of Family Development at the University of Dayton.

What is really being debated here?

These email writers took strong exception to our statement that most birth mothers are satisfied with their decision to place their children for adoption. Why did they object so strongly?

Perhaps they were trying to say that while adoption is sometimes the best thing to do, it is not easy. If so, I certainly don't disagree.

But I am concerned that many of them seemed to be saying that any woman who places her child for adoption will find her life shattered, torn apart by fears and regrets. If they convince people that this is true, it will surely discourage -- to put it mildly -- adoption. And if pregnant teens do not choose adoption, what will they choose instead? For many, the choice will be abortion.

Several of the writers clearly understood and approved of this. For example:

You are WRONG, WRONG, WRONG about the "research" saying birthmothers eventually "get over" relinquishing their child for adoption!!!!!! I'm a birthmother who relinquished her only child in 1966. I am in close contact with other birthmothers from all time periods. WE NEVER GET OVER IT!!! I did not heal and find peace until I was reunited with my son two years ago. Now, let me get this straight: if we abort our child, we are evil. Yet if we "give up" our child to strangers who you deem to be more fit as parents, then we are "good." So you consider it "good" to rip a child from his/her natural mother's arms and hand the child to "more fit" individuals, thereby creating a life-long pain and trauma to the birthmother. You really think this is good? If so, it is YOU who are SICK!
I believe this email puts the issue rather plainly. The writer apparently believes that it is better to kill your baby through abortion than to place her for adoption. Better for whom? Surely not for the baby! Yes, a mother who places her child for adoption may spend the rest of her life wondering what became of her baby and how he's doing. But a mother who aborts her baby will know that she was responsible for her child being brutally killed. Will she really sleep easier with this knowledge? We have plenty of stories from women who choose this option in our Aborted Women: In Their Own Words section. Perhaps you think it is "sick" to think that placing a child with a loving family is better than killing him. I make no apologies for taking this position.


This is why we post articles like the one in question here. We promote adoption because it is a positive, life-affirming alternative to abortion. No, it does not instantly solve all the problems of mother and child. No, it does not guarantee that everyone involved will be happy for the rest of their lives. But it does at least give the baby a chance at life. And it gives the mother the knowledge that she did the best for her baby that she could under the circumstances. Even when the price was that she would miss out on all the joy of seeing her baby grow up, she was willing to sacrifice her own pleasure for the good of her baby. And isn't that what we most respect about mothers? The principle that she puts what is good for her child above her own desires?

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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

Copyright 2000 by Jay Johansen.
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