encyclopedia of adoption

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by William L. Pierce, Ph.D.

Adoption. The word is used in so many contexts. This encyclopedia only begins to touch on the complex issues that have been, are and will be involved when adoption is necessary, contemplated or avoided.

Adoption touches so many people in the United States and uniquely so because it is so much an American practice. It has touched the life of my family: Nearly 40 years ago, confronting secondary infertility, my wile Paula and I explored adoption with an agency though we were ultimately successful in having additional pregnancies.

Adoption has touched people around me as well. I have dear friends who have made the difficult decision, the loving decision, to make an adoption plan for their children. Some made the decision against the recommendations of their friends and the fathers of their babies. Some were pressured by circumstances, economics and other factors to make the decision for adoption just as all of us are pressured about decisions we would rather not make, decisions that are often painful. Some few were manipulated or coerced into that decision, just as today teenagers and women are being manipulated or coerced into decisions they will later regret. It is tragic that this does happen. It is very important to offer understanding and support to these women today, even if their treatment has, at times, made many people bitter enemies of all adoption - including adoptions chosen freely and with truly informed consent by the women and men involved.

There will be those who disagree with a discussion of the pain that is sometimes part of adoption because these realities play into the fraud, of those in the media and elsewhere that so often talk about adoption solely in negative terms. Yes, adoption is a wonderful and positive social invention. But so also, at times, adoption can be a painful experience--especially for the woman who is most central to making that decision, the woman who gave birth to the child.

Adoption, some of those in the field say, is a lifelong experience. This comment is used in various ways to justify a range of actions that are sometimes appropriate, legal and ethical--and sometimes not. It is true that adoption affects large numbers of persons for many years, but so do other live events, such as the region where one happens to grow up, the schools one happens to attend, the family into which one is born or adopted, the religious beliefs and values with which one is reared and a host of other developments. Adoption is a lifelong experience; life is a lifelong experience. Adoption should be neither alibi nor justification--adoption should instead be a factor in one's life.

Adoption, despite all the media coverage, still remains a relatively vague notion to many people in our society. Even for generally well-educated persons, people concerned about ways of coping with unintended pregnancies--for themselves or their friends--the option of adoption may not even come to mind. As one born in 1936 and raised in a context where adoption should have been one of the alternatives that came to mind in an unplanned or untimely pregnancy, I know that this was not the case for me. Friends had crisis pregnancies and asked me for advice, yet the option of adoption never entered the picture. It was not until my professional life focused on the subject of unwed pregnancy, particularly among teenagers, in the mid-1970s, that this option and this word began to have any reality for me. I suspect this is true for a substantial segment of the population that has never had a direct connection with adoption, regardless of their levels of education, sophistication and so forth.

Adoption, however, does affect a great many people in America. If we consider all adoptions, not merely those adoptions of a child by someone or some couple who is not related to the child, we have numbers in the millions. Estimates are that there were at least 100,000 adoptions by U.S. citizens-related and unrelated, formal and informal, within the United States and abroad--per year over the last 40 years. That's a total of four million adoptions. But more people are involved in adoptions than the persons who were adopted. There are also the biological or birthparents of those four million--another eight million. And there are the biological grandparents of those four million--another sixteen million. And there are adoptive parents of those four million adopted people, over four million adoptive parents conservatively presuming at least one adoptive parent per child although most children are adopted by married couples. And there are the adoptive grandparents of those four million, at least another sixteen million.

If your arithmetic has been keeping score, we are already at a conservative estimate of forty million people who are directly affected by adoption--and given the ages of those affected, it is reasonable to state that most of them are still alive. So, without counting all the aunts and uncles anti cousins and siblings, without factoring in all the doctors and nurses and lawyers and clergy and counselors who have been indirectly touched by adoption, about 15% of the total U.S. population of about 272 million has been touched by adoption.

Anti what a wonderful, hopeful, loving touch this adoption has been for most of these persons! Stepchildren have been adopted by loving stepparents. The singer Patti LaBelle is an adoptive mother. Loving grandmothers, aunts and sisters have adopted children within the family because their parents were unable or unwilling to care for them. The actor Jack Nicholson, who was raised by his mother's mother, has spoken about this experience. And there are those millions of families, including singleparent households, who legally adopted children who were not related to them. They are of all races and creeds and from every corner of America. And the children are from every corner of the globe. These millions of families have been created or expanded or enhanced by the loving choice of adoption.

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