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Sociologist says women are more likely to choose abortion over adoption


In oral arguments this week before the Supreme Court over Mississippi's ban on abortion after 15 weeks, the court's newest justice, Amy Coney Barrett, brought up the issue of adoption as a viable alternative to abortion. Well, sociologist Gretchen Sisson has studied and written extensively about the choices people make when they don't wish to have a child, and she joins me now.


GRETCHEN SISSON: Good morning. Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I want to start by playing you exactly what Justice Barrett said. She's the mother of seven children, including two who are adopted, and this is her asking a question about safe haven laws, which essentially allow someone to terminate parental rights to a child by relinquishing that child for adoption.


AMY CONEY BARRETT: Both Roe and Casey emphasized the burdens of parenting, and insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which the forced parenting, forced motherhood would hinder women's access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it's also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don't the safe haven laws take care of that problem?

KELLY: What went through your head, Gretchen Sisson, as you listened to Justice Barrett?

SISSON: Well, it's very interesting that Justice Coney Barrett focuses specifically on the safe haven laws because this usage is extraordinarily rare. And so her focus on that particularly was surprising to me. But her broader argument about the termination of parental rights is still somewhat surprising, because what we have found in our research is that most of them do not end up choosing to place the infant for adoption.

KELLY: What are the numbers in terms of Americans who choose to relinquish for adoption versus the number who choose to get an abortion?

SISSON: So the best estimates are that there are around 18,000 to 20,000 private domestic adoptions per year. And these are the adoptions in which a woman makes the decision during or immediately after her pregnancy to terminate her parental rights and place that child for adoption.

KELLY: OK. And do you have the number of people who choose to get an abortion at hand?

SISSON: It's about 900,000 per year.

KELLY: So a much bigger number.

SISSON: Yes, and it's always been a much bigger number. Even if you look back pre-Roe v. Wade, there were more illegal abortions happening than there were adoptions happening.

KELLY: Why? What would inform that choice?

SISSON: Adoption is a very hard decision, and I think a lot of women know that intuitively. And our research on women who do relinquish their parental rights shows that, that this is not an easy choice, and it has a lot of adverse outcomes. We see a lot of grief, a lot of mourning, a lot of trauma for the women who go through relinquishments. And that has not really changed even as the context of adoption practice has changed over the years. But we do not see that most women are choosing between abortion and adoption. Most women who are considering or pursuing adoption have already ruled out or have never really considered having an abortion.

KELLY: You're saying this isn't a choice so much between abortion and adoption so much as between abortion and parenting?

SISSON: I'm saying it's usually a derailment of parenting plans. It is a plan to parents that is thwarted usually by a lack of financial resources, familial support, partner support. And when parenting feels precarious or untenable, adoption becomes the solution that they turn to.

KELLY: Anti-abortion rights groups would say adoption is a win-win, both for the person who is pregnant and for the child.

SISSON: A lot of people say adoption is a win-win for both the pregnant person and the child. This is sort of a bipartisan issue, right? I think that that framing of adoption glosses over the extent to which adoption is often the result of a lack of power and is made from a position of, for some women, desperation and hardship. And framing adoption as a win-win glosses over the power and privilege dynamics that are very key in understanding why women relinquish infants for adoption.

KELLY: Gretchen Sisson - she's a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

Thank you for speaking with us.

SISSON: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
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