Coercion in Adoption: What It Is and Why It Is Wrong

What is perceived as coercion varies across the adoption world, but be on the lookout for these possible coercive actions.

Sarah M. Baker September 14, 2015
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Adoption coercion is when there is any type of pressure, withholding of information or services, or purposeful manipulation that results in her choosing to place her child for adoption.

Coercion in adoption takes away a woman’s right and ability to make a decision. There are adoption coercion laws in place to protect women when placing their child for adoption, but they vary from state to state. But regardless of the laws of your state, an ethical adoption will ensure that the mother is placing the child on her own accord and without any form of coercion. You may have to do extra research to ensure you are working with an adoption professional who will act not only legally, but ethically as well.

Now you are probably wondering what classifies as coercion. Maybe you are even feeling slightly panicked, wondering if anything was done in your adoption to make your child’s birth mother feel like she didn’t have a choice in her placement. Rest assured that everyone makes plenty of unintentional errors; rather than pointing fingers, the purpose of this article is to educate those pursuing adoption and shape the industry to a better standard moving forward.

As adoptive parents we need to recognize the signs of coercion and stand up for expectant parents who are considering adoption placement.

I recognize the very real need for adoptions to take place in many situations, but asking the adoption industry to practice ethical adoptions shouldn’t be a request, but a demand. As adoptive parents we need to recognize the signs of coercion and stand up for expectant parents who are considering adoption placement.

There are many types of coercion in adoption, likely too many to list. There are legally recognized forms of coercion, subtle coercion that falls into a legal gray area, and then the type that is legal but perceived to be coercive by many. Adoptive parents walk a fine line of understanding and recognizing coercion and are expected to use their best judgement. In the haze of our desire to become parents, our judgement can sometimes be clouded by excitement, so it’s best to go in with clear vision and a firm understanding of what coercion in adoption is and why it is wrong.

Obvious Coercion:  Many states have laws that state that a spouse or family member cannot force a woman into placing her child for adoption, either by threat, ultimatum, or manipulation. Other types of very obvious coercions include:

  • Withholding counseling or prenatal care to the mother based on an adoption procurement
  • Telling a woman she is unfit to parent in order to obtain an adoption placement
  • Telling her she made a commitment and cannot change her mind after deciding on adoption
  • Using guilt or shame to force her to place her child
  • Terminating her rights while she is impaired or before she is ready

. . . and many more. A woman’s choice should never be taken from her in any way. If she comes to the decision of adoption placement, it should be because she has weighed all options, looked into all resources, and feels adoption is her and her child’s best choice.

Subtle Coercion:  When adoption lawyers, agencies, and other professionals have policies across the board, it is easy to believe that it is okay and “just the way adoption is done.” Some practices assumed to be right can actually be quite coercive, even if unintentionally so. Some examples of these type of coercive adoption practices include:

  • Paying living assistance
  • Providing expectant mother housing
  • Creating guilt by constantly reiterating she is making the right decision, which implies that if she changed her mind, it would be the wrong decision
  • Counseling provided only by the agency
  • Telling her open adoption will heal all of her pain
  • Calling her a “birth mother” prior to placement
  • Giving gifts
  • Making promises that are never intended to be kept

. . . or other ways of putting her in a place where she feels her pre-birth decision must be followed through with after birth.

You may wonder how paying living expenses is coercive. When there is financial or material gain to a person, she may believe she “owes” the hopeful adoptive family because of what she accepted during her pregnancy. How about being called a “birth mother” prior to placement? Being called a birth mother has already positioned her in a role that she may then feel she has a duty to fulfill. Adoption language plays a strong role in ethical adoption. It can be used to impact a woman’s emotions and make her feel either good or bad about placement. If you are using the positive/modern adoption language out of respect, that is a good thing, but if you are using it to twist the emotions of adoption to your benefit, it is then deemed coercive.

There are so many forms of coercion that this article could turn into a novel. There are some groups whose members focus on putting a stop to infant adoption altogether because of the trauma they personally faced in their own adoptions. They may feel strongly about resources being provided to all expectant women vs money spent on adoption itself, non-use of modern adoption language, no pre-birth matching, legally enforced open adoption contracts, temporary custody vs. adoption, and so on. As an adoptive mother, I value the insight these people have to offer and find I learn quite a bit from them. As adoptive parents and hopeful adoptive parents, we have a lot of power to change the adoption industry’s standards.

While I have not listed all possible examples of adoption coercion, this will hopefully get your wheels turning and help you keep your ear to the ground and eyes wide open for any coercive behavior by yourself or the adoption professionals you are working with to ensure an ethical adoption match and placement. By starting your relationship off positively, you set yourself up for a healthy and loving open adoption.

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Sarah M. Baker

Sarah is a Staff Storyteller for Adoption.com and passionate about teaching others the power of open adoption. She is very active in the adoption community, where she spends a lot of time advocating as the founder of Heart For Open Adoption. She is the mom of two boys in addition to parenting her niece. She is a mother biologically and through domestic infant open adoption. Sarah promotes adoption education and ethical adoptions. She and her husband were featured on Season 2 of Oxygen’s “I’m Having Their Baby,” which tells the story of their first adoption match failing. Sarah hopes to bring her personal experience to you and help anyone who wants more information about adoption to find it with ease. Though it was once a taboo subject, Sarah hopes to make adoption something people are no longer afraid to talk about. You can learn more about Sarah and her family on her blog.


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