Adoption, Abortion, Autonomy: On the Literature of Reproductive Rights

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I began my research for Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood in 2010, I was a doctoral student who had little suspicion that my research would turn into a book at all, and even less that—by the time I did, fourteen years later—the entire context of reproductive politics in the United States would have been upended with the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Within those fourteen years—as I moved across the country, had my own children, collected ten-year follow-up data, watched the Supreme Court hand down the Dobbs decision—I read over a hundred books about adoption. I believe that the production of knowledge is a communal effort, and that any scholarly work builds on the contribution of scholars, advocates, and impacted people who have come before.

As those who live with me with attest, my bookshelf overflows with histories, memoirs, social science texts, legal journals, anti-abortion literature, novels,  and more. The list of books that I drew on in the writing of Relinquished would range from the obscure and out-of-print, to mainstream; it would certainly be incredibly long, if not always intensely interesting.

Here, I have drawn a small subset of those that shaped my own book most intimately: its structure, its content, its tone. More broadly, though, they speak to the same issues of abortion, adoption, and family separation, and the same themes of personal autonomy, reproductive justice, and how we understand who is a worthy parent in our country.

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Ann Fessler, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade

When I first read Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, the time of illegal abortion was a historical relic, and her book was a window into that before time. How did women make pregnancy decisions before abortion was widely available? How was their motherhood scrutinized, stigmatized, and stolen? As I began my data collection on adoption in 2010, I had little credible suspicion that we would have lost Roe by the time I would share my research widely with the world.

In many ways, today is not pre-Roe: abortion is still more likely accessible than it was then; contraception is commonplace; our ideas of and norms around nonmarital parenthood have shifted dramatically. But it many ways, Fessler’s book feels even more instructive than ever: this is what happens when we constrain choices to the point that people break.

The Girls Who Went Away was a model for me, not just with regards to the subject matter, but in the structure. Its interspersing of historic and sociological context with the extended first-person accounts of mothers who surrendered children truly centered the book on those most impact, and this framework became essential for me as I began to conceive of my own book. I wanted to include mother’s stories in their own words, to allow readers to get to know them as I have come to know, to feel accountable to these mothers not just as research participants but as people in our communities, in our own lives.

The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, a Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having--Or Being Denied--An Abortion - Foster, Diana Greene

Diana Greene Foster, The Turnaway Study: Ten Years, A Thousand Women, and the Consequences of Having—Or Being Denied—an Abortion

Led by my colleague and mentor Dr. Diana Green Foster, the Turnaway Study was an ambitious, sweeping study that examined what happened to women who were denied access to the abortions they wanted. Within the broader study, I had the privilege of analyzing which women chose to relinquish the children born of the pregnancies they were forced to continue, and how they compared to the research participants who chose to parent.

This research is a core part of Relinquished, along with my own qualitative data collection. But Foster’s book The Turnaway Study chronicles the many broader impacts on women’s lives: their physical health, their psychological and emotional well-being, their financial trajectories, their relationships, and more. Her book is a comprehensive accounting of what abortion access means for American women, and I hope Relinquished will be a critical complement to her work.

You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity, and Transracial Adoption - Tucker, Angela

Angela Tucker, “You Should Be Grateful”: Stories of Race, Identity and Transracial Adoption

I am often asked when I don’t include more stories of adopted people in my work, and the initial answer is simple: my research is on relinquishing mothers, not adoptees. Yet, there is a limit to which the stories of birth mothers are separate from the stories of their children.

As I was writing Relinquished, I wanted to have the stories of adopted people at top of mind; even if my work isn’t about them, I wanted it to be accountable to them. I prioritize reading many memoirs by adoptees, including Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know, Rebecca Carroll’s Surviving the White Gaze, Susan Devan Harness’s Bitterroot, Susan Kiyo Ito’s I Would Meet You Anywhere, and Melissa Guida-Richards’s instructive memoir What White Parents Should Know about Transracial Adoption, among many others.

Angela Tucker’s book “You Should Be Grateful” was an especially useful reckoning, one that grappled with the intersections of adoption, foster care, race and racism, and creating community and hope for adopted people. Reading these memoirs reminded me continually that—as I parsed my data on their mothers—I was rarely weighing the full insight and experience of adoptees—those individuals who adoptions purports to best serve. Considering this, Relinquished is only a partial story, and I hope it will be read in conversation with these many provoking accounts.

The School for Good Mothers - Chan, Jessamine

Jessamine Chan, The School for Good Mothers

I have come across many novels on adoption, family separation, and birth mothers over the years (from Ann Patchett’s Patron Saint of Liars to Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie, to name a few), but when I asked my participants with which fictional portrayals they most identified, many immediately went to the dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, in which handmaids are forced to bear children for the benefit of childless, thenomic patriarchs and their submissive wives. (Hulu might have helped in this regard.)

This pattern might have been what drew me to Jessamine Chan’s institutional dystopia in The School for Good Mothers. The raw anxiety of her novel—in which a desperate mother makes a mistake, and must endure unrelenting scrutiny and policing as she attempt to prove herself to be a good enough mother to earn her child back—reflected the same sense of being backed into a corner that I heard from so many women I interviewed.

Under this premise, is anyone a good enough mother? And, if not, why have these mothers in particular lost their children? Who could ever be worthy? Chan’s novel makes this confusion and injustice feel palpable, and it’s one that I immediately recognized from my work.

Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families--And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World - Roberts, Dorothy

Dorothy Roberts, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World

Dorothy Roberts’s scholarship was fundamental to my own research from my undergraduate studies through finalizing Relinquished. Her Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, and especially Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare were particularly helpful in shaping my early thinking, but Torn Apart was most critical to my understanding of abolition as it relates to child welfare, family policing, and family preservation. The idea of abolition questions the entire premise of the asking, asking not “how to we make foster care better?” but “why are their children in foster care in the first place?”

Drawing on a generation Black feminist thought and the core tenets of reproductive justice, Roberts envisions a world that resists state surveillance, challenges the racist premises of family policing, and provides parents and families with the safety and support they need to keep children in their families and communities of origin. Torn Apart is an incredible treatise, and one that challenged me to think about solutions to family separation at its core.

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Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood - Sisson, Gretchen

Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood by Gretchen Sisson is available via St. Martin’s.



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Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lambert
Nicole Lamber is a news writer for LinkDaddy News. She writes about arts, entertainment, lifestyle, and home news. Nicole has been a journalist for years and loves to write about what's going on in the world.

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