Adoption and the Media

“She’s a mother without a baby,” Chandler says, “Please.”

While the image of a would-be adopter begging an expectant mother to relinquish her child is familiar to my eyes, it is not something that should be portrayed as acceptable on a well-loved television program like “Friends.” In fact, I would go so far as to say that the media should refrain from ever showing the act of adoption in a positive light.

Normally, I abhor the idea of censorship. I wouldn’t think of turning off the television because of sexuality or strong language, nor would I hide these things from my children. Sex is a very natural, necessary part of life, and words are words and nothing more. Yet unnaturally happy adoption stories will not be tolerated in my home: they are too dangerous.

As an individual who has spent the past eight years researching adoption, working side by side with adopted adults and parents who have surrendered their children, I know that the media’s portrayal of adoption is not the reality for thousands of separated families.

How many television shows have you seen lately in which a well-loved character surrenders her child for adoption? I would dare say none. Yet several popular shows currently have storylines featuring happy adopters and characters planning to adopt; “Friends,” “Seventh Heaven” and “Sex and the City” to name a few. Movies are equally at fault for neglecting to show the pain of adoption from the perspective of an exiled mother or father, though children’s shows like “The Country Bears” and “Stuart Little” certainly promote what an adopted friend of mine refers to as, “the myth of the grateful adoptee.” What a demeaning thing to show an adopted child, who is quite possibly feeling anything but thankful to have been separated from his or her natural family!

Even non-fiction media outlets neglect the dark side of adoption, while eagerly portraying happy adopters. Stories of satisfied customers who traveled overseas to adopt can be found in newspapers and on television with relative ease; all depicting the adopters as saviors who rescued a needy child. Never do we hear about the heartache experienced by the true mothers and fathers who are given little choice but to surrender their children to the false promise of a “better life” in America. And it is only rarely that we hear from the adopted adults who were removed from their homelands as infants but later return in a desperate search to find their families and their own selves. It isn’t difficult to find mothers, fathers and adoptees who are willing to share their gritty-but-true adoption stories, but it is near impossible to find a media outlet willing to make their stories public.

Unfortunately, the majority of Americans have fallen under the spell of the industry, treating adoption as though it were a sacred cow not to be questioned.

A study conducted by Market-Data Enterprises discovered that the business of adoption brings in more than $1.4 billion each year. That’s easily enough to fund massive advertising campaigns, influencing public opinion and promoting adoption as the most “loving gift” a young, single, or poor expectant mother can give to her child. For example, the local radio station that is most popular with the teen and young adult crowd in my area is currently running advertisements for two large adoption agencies. Both spots insinuate that a young, single mother cannot possibly measure up to an older, married couple, and both clearly state that adoption is loving and unselfish.

Though high-profile adoption agencies advertise their services under the guise of helping a woman in distress, they neglect to mention that their supposed assistance will leave both the woman and her child traumatized in exile.

Despite the existence of myriad empirical and anecdotal evidence showing the harmful effects of adoption on surrendering mothers and their lost children, the industry continues to thrive. Because the media is so tightly controlled by pro-adoption special interests, it takes careful research to discover that adoptees are statistically more likely than their non-adopted counterparts to develop psychological disorders requiring residential treatment. Adopted children are also more likely to be convicted of juvenile felonies, and according to the Center for Adoptive Families, 20% of adolescents in drug rehabilitation and residential substance abuse treatment programs are adopted. That last statistic would be meaningless if adoptees made up 20 or even 15% of the population, but the government estimates that figure at only 2-3%.

Joe Soll, an adopted adult with more than 20 years of experience counseling adoptees and natural parents, writes,

“You may encounter many adopted people along the way who will tell you that being surrendered for adoption hasn’t affected them at all. The adopted individuals might even say they are glad they were ‘given up.’ This is denial of the highest order. Just as it is impossible for a mother to lose her baby and not be severely wounded, it is impossible for a baby to lose its mother and not be severely wounded.”

The disproportionately high number of adoptees who suffer from attachment disorder, depression, and other psychological problems are swept under the rug, as are their devastated mothers. As long as infertile couples are encouraged to disguise their sterility by claiming another family’s child as their own, adoption workers will stop at nothing to increase the supply of adoptable infants.

In recent years, industry tactics have been expanded to include the false promise of open adoption in addition to the arsenal of shame, guilt, and misinformation that have been used in the past to coerce expectant mothers into surrendering their children. In open adoption situations, mothers are offered contact with their babies’ adopters and sometimes contact with their children directly in exchange for relinquishment.

Although the concept is very pretty in theory, open adoption agreements are not enforceable in most states, and in the few legally open states, adopters are only obligated to pay a fine should they decide to close the adoption and severe contact with the adoptee’s natural family. My years in the field have taught me that many adopters promise openness only to disappear once the adoption has been finalized, having had no intention of following through in the first place or having been scared off by the obvious connection between mother and child.

Rather than improving on a terribly flawed institution, the open adoption trend has paved the way for expectant parents to endure an even greater load of guilt than they would normally encounter from the average adoption worker or agency. One look at the “Dear ‘Birth’ Mother Letters” kept on file at most adoption agencies (and their affiliated websites) would convince even the most loving, stable parents that they were inadequate.

Further complicating the situation are real-life encounters that mirror the scene on “Friends,” a would-be adoptive couple imploring an expectant mother to consider their feelings when deciding whether or not she will surrender her infant. What an undue burden to place on a woman who is already faced with the emotional roller coaster of pregnancy, the significant lack of support that has led her to adoption in the first place, and the intense feelings of inadequacy that have been put upon her by the adoption “professionals” who seek to profit from her loss.

Do we Americans really believe that fertile young women owe their children to infertile strangers? Is this the world we want to leave behind for our daughters?

I want better for my daughter. Whether she becomes pregnant at 16 or 36, I never want her to wonder if she is selfish for keeping her baby; the fact that mothers are irreplaceable in the eyes of their children should be well imbedded in her mind. She will be well on her way to adulthood before I allow her to see this final season of “Friends” and other similarly disturbing portrayals of adoption in the media. A censor I am not, but as her mother I must protect her from exploitation, even when those seeking to exploit her have established themselves as respectable Americans.

Though we are loathe to admit it, media has the incredible power to shape our thoughts and opinions. Styles and trends are easily influenced by magazines, movie stars and other pop culture icons, and even issues like adoption and family cannot be fully examined without acknowledging the impact of the media. Instead of bowing to the whims of the adoption industry, newspapers, television shows, radio stations and movie producers could do tremendous good for our nation’s families by depicting adoption the way it is experienced by separated mothers, fathers and children. Better yet, let us begin a new trend: support for all parents regardless of their age, race or marital status. That’s a media message the world needs to receive!

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