Among my parenting friends, I am one of the most vocal advocates against censoring children’s media. My own children have accompanied me to a variety of movies, spanning every genre from gross comedy to non-stop action to gory horror. Why, then, am I shuddering to think of the masses of young people pouring into the theaters to see this season’s critically-acclaimed Juno?
If I had to sum up my concerns in one word, it would be: adoption.
Glamorizing adoption may be nothing new in Hollywood, but it is as dangerous a phenomenon now as it was when Joan Crawford acquired two children and became Mommy Dearest. Although Americans are thoroughly conditioned to view adoption as a benevolent institution, this insidious thinking is all too often devastating to young parents and their children.
Having studied adoption for ten years, I have seen first-hand the distinct psychological wounds it leaves on mothers, fathers, and adopted people. Even the natural siblings of children who are adopted away have their own issues to face as a result.
Like many adoption-themed movies, Juno portrays adoption as a “loving choice” made by a young mother. Though other horror movies can be easily dismissed as unlikely or completely impossible scenarios, this one cannot. Juno is terrifying precisely because it seems so real. Young women who sit through this movie will come out believing that adoption is a choice – one made by a strong, smart, savvy, and otherwise adorable teenager, no less.
I am sure that you are probably thinking that, of course, adoption is a choice.
Is it? In all my years as an activist and researcher, I have yet to meet a mother who made a free and informed decision to surrender her infant child to the adoption industry. In fact, organizations like the National Council for Adoption, a large lobby made up primarily of adoption agencies and their employees, are doing everything in their power to make sure that adoption is not a choice, but an expectation for young, poor, and otherwise vulnerable parents.
A federally funded program called the Infant Adoption Awareness Training Program, operated by the NCFA and other pro-adoption groups, teaches professionals who work with pregnant women how to sell them on the concept of adoption. The House of Representatives is currently working to pass a resolution praising women who surrender children to adoption. Adoption agencies and crisis pregnancy centers exalt adoption using phrases like, “loving,” “responsible,” “caring,” and “unselfish.” And despite heartbreaking testimonies from women who experienced them in the 1950s and 60s, maternity homes are making a comeback, isolating pregnant young women from their friends and families with the expectation that they will hand over their babies at birth.
While books like Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away have helped to elucidate the impact of closed adoption on mothers who lost children in the decades before Roe v. Wade, our society still holds a positive view of the open adoptions which have become commonplace in recent years. However, rather than giving expectant mothers more control over their choices and their children, open adoptions like the one portrayed in Juno, present a unique set of complications for natural parents and young adoptees.
First, it is important to note that any agreements made between adopters and parents in an open adoption are not legally enforceable. Prospective adopters can, and often do, promise expectant parents that they will stay in touch through letters, pictures, phone calls, and visits throughout the child’s life, but there is no obligation for them to follow through once the adoption has been finalized. In fact, the majority of open adoptions are closed at some point by the adopters. Though the promise of future contact is used to coerce expectant parents who are hesitant to surrender their children, it is not a promise parents should ever trust.
Another coercive aspect of open adoption is the relationship that commonly develops between prospective adopters and expectant mothers. With hopeful adopters accompanying mothers-to-be to their prenatal check-ups, treating them to maternity clothes, fancy meals, and other material things, and even securing themselves an invitation to be present during labor and delivery, mothers who decide to keep their babies in the end often feel guilty and allow the adoption to proceed against their better judgment. A mother should never be put in such a compromising situation at such a critical time in her child’s life.
Even in the so-called “best” open adoptions, the law’s failure to protect the natural mother against adopters who revoke their agreements puts mothers in a terrible position. In my research, I have encountered countless parents who know that they must silence themselves, shy away from their children, and otherwise reject the primal instincts they have toward their babies in order to preserve any shred of contact they have left. Not only is it unhealthy to live this way, but it is also unfair for a child to see only a shadow of his or her mother.
Rather than allowing the glamorized version of adoption portrayed in Juno to influence their beliefs, it is my hope that any young women who came to see open adoption is a reasonable solution in the face of an unplanned pregnancy will go on to educate themselves about what it really means to lose a child to America’s billion dollar adoption industry. After all, being strong, smart, and savvy means recognizing propaganda -- and rejecting it.
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