Tuesday, 10 September 2019
I wish to speak tonight about the important but often concealed issue of adoption. The public profile of adoption has waxed and waned in prominence over the past century. Historically and architecturally, adoption has provided a side door rather than a grand entrance to family making, though altering the structure of both family and society. Perceived pragmatically as a ready solution for some of life's most private troubles, it has been a socially and politically sanctioned panacea for the problem of unwanted pregnancies up until the later part of the 20th century. As such, adoption has been a cradle of torment for some and, paradoxically, hope for others. Over the last 40 years, the status and accessibility of adoption in Australia has changed significantly.
The contested nature, complex history and fluctuating prevalence of adoption as a means of forming family provides fertile ground for sociological investigation and yet few sociologists have made adoption the focus of their research. In the 1980s, following years of infertility and prior to giving birth to our own children, my husband and I experienced a personal journey with adoption. However, it was at university during my social work studies that the subject triggered my interest again and I began investigating adoption in Australia. Discovering the small number of children now offered for adoption in Australia, I became curious about who adopts out their child and in what circumstances.
The number of adoptions in Australia today is a fraction of the numbers in the early 1970s. The registered peak occurred in 1972, with just 9,798 adoptions Australia wide. The most recent data shows just 292 adoptions occurred in 2015, with only 23 babies under the age of one years old adopted out nationally, where the adoptive parents are unknown and unrelated to the child. This reduction in adoption is significant and, I believe, justifies investigation to understand why adoption as a reproductive option has all but ceased. Australian adoption research has largely focused on historical accounts of the period between the 1950s and 1970s, often referred to as the coercive period of adoption when single mothers were forced to give up their illegitimate children in, what was considered at the time, the best interest of the child. These studies are derived predominantly from psychological and welfare oriented research and have generally depicted adoption as a faulty policy that has generated considerable trauma for survivors.
More recent research identifies a range of aspects that have contributed to a shift away from adoption, including delayed parenting, resulting in declining fertility rates, effective birth control, legalisation and access to abortion, the emergence of family planning centres and the introduction in 1973 of the supporting mothers benefit and consequent increased social acceptance of raising children outside registered marriage. These factors have all contributed to the changing views in Australian society which have altered the circumstances in which adoption might be considered appropriate. Even so, adoption remains a legal means to manage unwanted pregnancy and provides a means to create family for others. Nevertheless, the legitimacy of this choice is questioned.
Johnson, Dowd and Ridgeway define legitimacy as a social process whereby a social object—in this case a birth mother who makes the choice to adopt out her child—is analysed implicitly or explicitly as legitimate. The social object is construed as legitimate when consistent with cultural beliefs, norms and values that are presumed to be shared by others. The problem has emerged in adoption where there appears to be a disconnect between the legality and the legitimacy of choosing to adopt out. In 2001 in Australia, Marshall and McDonald argued:
A woman considering adoption … is doing so under strong emotional pressure not to surrender her child … No matter how well considered and responsible may be a decision taken in her own interests and those of her child, she is likely to find that she must bear, in addition to her inevitable grief and doubts, the burden of gratuitous criticism and lack of understanding.
… the objective of making a "good" choice—opting for a perceived "better life" for the child—is less likely to be accepted as "good", given contemporary cultural structures and perceptions that explicate "you don't have to".
While the consequence of this is untold, it appears that the perennial adoption theme of shame may be differently shaped but still present. Contributing to what I refer to as the stigma of adoption choice is the dominant family ideology defined as a heterosexual couple and their biological children, which tends to pathologise non-genetic forms of family structure such as adoption. Ellison refers to stigma that relates to a fear of failing standards and of 'socially accepted forms of maternity'.
International news and documentaries have few stories on adoption and more recently have focused on negative portrayals of adoption, such as corrupt adoption practice or stories of overseas adoption that have included child trafficking and abuse. Positive and negative portrayals of adoption affect its cultural and social perception. Research shows media stigmatises adoption in its portrayals. Education has significant impact on impressionable minds, and evidence shows that, in the case of contraceptive failure, educational material represents adoption as an option five times less often than abortion.
The question is how legislation and economic and social forces enable or constrain a birth mother's self-determination to adopt out, given her dependency on systems and structures that need to be legitimated. Does she experience stigma or isolation in her decision due to a perceived moral deviation from our notions and practice of motherhood? A seismic shift has occurred in the last four decades where the floating and largely invisible tectonic plates representing legitimacy and accessibility of adoption and abortion have reversed positions. In the 1960s, society accepted adoption as the most suitable outcome for unplanned pregnancy for unfit mothers, and abortion was illegal. In contrast, while abortion is widely accepted as the most common choice to manage unwanted pregnancy today, adoption has become illegitimised.
Reproductive choice is cast in the paradigm of an individual right. Despite this, it continues to be a highly contentious subject with little neutral territory in which to consider the many vulnerabilities of a pregnant woman who does not wish to parent. The debate about reproductive rights has been framed by academics and feminists who influence what constitutes a legitimate choice in the eyes of a pregnant woman, public opinion, legislation and policy.
While women continue to struggle for equality in the workplace, pregnant working women experience increased economic vulnerability, with risk to income stability and career pathways. Women confronted with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy are also primarily expected to manage the precariousness of the situation on their own. As Castle states:
That one is alone with the consequences of the pregnancy is a defining parameter of the decision.
It is important to understand how a pregnant woman experiences vulnerability in reproductive decision-making in terms of risk and insecurity when she does not wish to parent. I argue that more needs to be done by government to improve access to adoption and its standing in society as a legitimate solution to an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.
The time for the grievance debate has expired. The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 192B. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next day of sitting.
Federation Chamber adjourned at 19:29