These adoptees refuse to be 'political props' in the debate over abortion rights

Grace Hauck
  • A growing chorus of people who were adopted are speaking out, saying adoption is not a replacement for abortion rights – or a solution to infertility or family planning issues.
  • Adoption can be a traumatic experience, particularly for children adopted by parents of a different race or ethnicity, many adoptees told USA TODAY.
  • This issue has come to the forefront after a Supreme Court draft opinion nodded to the idea that demand for adoption makes abortion less necessary.

Kirsta Bowman was adopted in New Orleans as a newborn, by parents who advertised in the newspaper they were looking for a child. Now 31, Bowman says she's frustrated that adoption is being used to bolster the Supreme Court's potential decision to overturn Roe. v. Wade. 

"I have struggled with my mental health every single day of my childhood, my adolescence and my adult life, and that stems from being adopted and taken at birth," she said.

The leaked draft opinion, released last week, argues a right to abortion is "not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions" and nods to a longstanding conservative idea that demand for adoption makes abortion less necessary.

"It is viciously cruel to use any sort of displacement of a child to push your political agenda," Bowman said.

Bowman is part of a growing chorus of adoptees speaking out online – many on TikTok – who say anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups have turned their lived experiences into a political prop. Multiple adoptees who spoke with USA TODAY say they often face backlash for discussing critical views of adoption.

Kirsta Bowman, 31, sits for a portrait in her office in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on May 9, 2022. She was adopted in New Orleans as an infant by a couple from New York.

"Whenever conversations about abortion come up, adoption always gets thrown in there, and usually without any concern for what that actually means for the child that’s being adopted," said Tiffany Johnson, 35, who was adopted as an infant in Chicago.

Many adoptees are calling on Americans to listen to their stories and separate the adoption and abortion conversations. They say adoption is not a replacement for abortion rights – or a solution to infertility or family planning issues – but instead is a traumatic experience that needs to better prioritize the needs of the child.

"Adoption is a parenting issue," Bowman said. "Abortion is a pregnancy issue."

Amy Coney Barrett, 'domestic supply of infants' and 'dehumanizing' language

Sara Allen-Nehrbass, 28, said she was saddened but unsurprised to read the draft opinion, which she called "dehumanizing." Born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, she went into foster care as an infant and was adopted by her second foster family when she was a toddler. 

The lines on pages 33 to 34 of the draft, written by Justice Samuel Alito, read:

"Americans who believe that abortion should be restricted press countervailing arguments about modern developments. They note … that States have increasingly adopted 'safe haven' laws, which generally allow women to drop off babies anonymously; and that a woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home."

Safe haven laws generally allow a parent to remain anonymous and be shielded from liability for child endangerment, abandonment or neglect in exchange for surrendering the baby to a designated "safe haven," according to the Children's Bureau, within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who along with two other justices has adopted children, raised the issue during oral arguments late last year. Barrett noted all 50 states now have a safe haven law and asked, "Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem?" — referring to forced parenting.

'HIGH AND DRY':Abortion bans could be riskiest in maternal health care 'deserts'

Multiple adoptees told USA TODAY that line of thinking is reductive, oversimplified and harmful.

"What they're not recognizing is how traumatic adoption is for the adoptee and for the birthing person," said Allen-Nehrbass, now the mother of two. "It's reducing someone's identity for a political prop without actually looking at the whole picture."

Kira Schaubeck, 23, said she's often struck by how "nonchalantly" anti-abortion advocates pose adoption as a replacement for abortion rights. "It's not just this 'Daddy Warbucks, Annie' situation where you magically have a better life," Schaubeck said.

Kira Schaubeck poses for a portrait in Garden City on Long Island, New York in 2018. Schaubeck, 23, whose birth name is Tai Qiujing, was adopted from China and grew up on Long Island, New York.

Anti-abortion and abortion-rights groups often reduce adoptees and foster kids to "poster children," many adoptees said.

"Pro-choice people will say something like, 'Well, why don't you become a foster parent then? Or, how many children have you adopted?'" Allen-Nehrbass said.

Ori Aguila, 47, said that kind of flippant rhetoric is like comparing adoption and foster care "to babysitting or purchasing a pet."

Numerous adoptees said they're often asked harmful questions online, such as: Would you have rather been aborted? Would you have rather been left in an orphanage?

"To ask an adoptee or a foster kid that kind of question – and that question is asked from both sides – that's cruel," Aguila said.

Ori Aguila poses for a portrait in their home studio in Brooklyn, New York, on Dec. 16, 2021. Aguila, 47, was adopted from foster care and is now a trauma specialist.

Allen-Nehrbass noted the draft opinion also includes a footnote to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that refers to "the domestic supply of infants."

"We are viewed as a product," Allen-Nehrbass said. "In the United States, we will intentionally create adoptees in order to fulfill parenting desires by other people. It's a for-profit industry, and that’s a problem."

A mental health crisis among adoptees

Adoptees who spoke to USA TODAY noted each adoptee has a unique experience – and that some can be positive. But research shows many struggle with an array of challenges, including mental health.

The odds of a reported suicide attempt are four times greater in adoptees compared with non-adoptees, according to a 2013 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"There is a mental health crisis among adopted people," said Bowman, who added that she has personal experience with suicidal ideation.

Birth parents face serious long-term psychological consequences of relinquishing a child, including unresolved grief, isolation and difficulty with future relationships, studies show. Some suffer from PTSD.

Adoption:An adoption journey and reunion as told by birth mother and daughter

Allen-Nehrbass said she has long struggled with abandonment fears and high-functioning anxiety. She's in therapy and has realized over the last several years her issues stem from separation trauma.

"There’s constantly around us this narrative that adoption is always 100% beautiful. A lot of adoptees don't really have the room to process the trauma of being separated from their first family," said Allen-Nehrbass, who is now doing well.

Sara Allen-Nehrbass poses for a photo in Topeka, Kansas, in November, 2021. Allen-Nehrbass, 28, went into foster care as an infant and was adopted by her second foster family when she was a toddler.

About 7 million Americans are adopted, and around 135,000 children are adopted in the U.S. each year, the Adoption Network Law Center, a California corporation, estimates. About 59% are adopted from the child welfare system, 26% are from other countries, and 15% are voluntarily relinquished babies, the corporation says.

No federal agency tracks or gathers state-level data on private adoptions, according to the National Council for Adoption. The nonprofit offers a slightly different figure, estimating about 115,000 children were adopted in the U.S. in 2019, with 43% being private adoptions.

Many adoptees experience what's known in the adoptee community as the "fog," which stands for "fear, obligation and guilt," multiple adoptees said. The term can be used to describe how adoptees think and feel when they've been conditioned to view adoption in a positive light.

"I was always told 'You're ungrateful. You're lucky you were adopted,'" Bowman said. "I always felt like I wasn't allowed to talk about it. But then I started seeing other people on Instagram and Facebook, saying, yeah, I struggle too. And I'm like, oh, it's OK for me to say that."

Allen-Nehrbass said she thinks about "coming out of the fog" as a moment when someone has clarity on how much adoption has impacted their life. "For many, many people, having a biological child is a trigger that will knock them out of the fog," she said.

Johnson said she didn't start coming out of the fog until two years ago – decades after she learned she was adopted. Johnson said she was 12 when her adoptive mother told her while they were watching a sitcom after school.

"I asked her about my name, and I was like, did you change my name? And she said, yes. And I asked her why. She said that I named you Tiffany after the store because you were expensive," Johnson recalled.

Tiffany Johnson poses for a portrait in Chicago, Illinois, in April, 2022. Johnson, 35, was adopted as an infant.

Several adoptees who spoke to USA TODAY said they feel discomfort and anxiety related to their adoptive name and have legally changed it or go by a different one.

"I'm working on deciding whether I'm going to change my name back to my birth name or something entirely different," Johnson said.

WHAT'S NEXT? Anti-abortion groups could win a 50-year fight to end Roe. They aren't stopping there.

The trauma of transracial adoption

Karasalla Patton, who is Black and Samoan and lives in Portland, Oregon, was adopted by white parents at 2 years old. She said she's always questioned the narrative of adoption "being inherently good."

"That's really because at a very, very young age, I experienced blatant racism and had a family that didn't know how to help me navigate that," said Patton, 33. 

Patton said she grew up in a family that believed in colorblindness — her adoptive parents did not notice or acknowledge when she faced microaggressions, slurs and physical racialized violence, she said. 

"Parents try to pretend or ignore that their children are a different race or ethnicity than them and don't prepare them for how we experience the world," she said.

Karasalla Patton poses at the Klickitat County Veterans Memorial in Maryhill, Washington. She was adopted by white parents at 2 years old.

Patton said her upbringing led her to internalize racist tropes. She said she spent years avoiding going out into the sun. "I had internalized the idea that the darker I am, the less lovable I am," she said.

Research suggests transracial adoption is common. A 2017 study by the Institute for Family Studies found about 44% of adopted kindergarten students had adoptive parents of a different race or ethnicity.

Aguila, who is Jewish and Indigenous, was adopted from foster care in California by a white Evangelical Methodist family in Nebraska. Aguila's mother, who struggled with poverty and homelessness, was forced to relinquish them as a child, they said.

Aguila, now a trauma specialist, said they were the only Indigenous child in a "very white community." They said their adoptive parents gave them a book on adoption and a book on Native Americans and instructed them to keep quiet about their identity.

"The thing is, I wasn't even native to the U.S. I was native to Colombia, which is a completely different experience," Aguila said, adding, "I'm not saying that portions of my life weren't good. There were certain aspects of it. But a lot of it was sort of hiding and conforming."

'THE PROBLEM IS POVERTY':Florida removing more kids from poor families over alleged ‘neglect’

Karlos Dillard, 29, said he bounced around more than 30 foster care placements and faced emotional, physical and sexual abuse before he was adopted at age 9 in Detroit. 

Karlos Dillard sits for a portrait in Seattle, Washington. Dillard, 29, is the author of "Ward of the State: A Memoir of Foster Care."

Dillard said his conservative white Catholic adoptive parents forbade him from speaking "Ebonics" – also known as African American Vernacular English – and sent him to a conversion therapy camp as a teen because he was gay. The camp was later shut down by the Wyoming Department of Family Services.

"I'm scarred," said Dillard, author of "Ward of the State: A Memoir of Foster Care."

Schaubeck, whose birth name is Tai Qiujing, was adopted from China and grew up on Long Island, New York. She and her two siblings, adopted from different areas of China, were raised by two white mothers in a town with an extremely small Asian population, Schaubeck said.

"It's a really weird feeling that a lot of adoptees can experience – even in-country adoptees – just not knowing either your culture or where you came from or your language," Schaubeck said. "It just has this void inside of you."

There were nearly 3,000 children adopted from other countries to the U.S. in 2019, before the pandemic, according to the U.S State Department.

A child-centered adoption narrative

It's time to center the adoption narrative around children, not adults, adoptees said.

"Adoption does not guarantee a better life. It guarantees a different life," Bowman said.

Johnson noted adoption "is not a cure for infertility" and "not supposed to be used for planning family planning."

Several adoptees said they view themselves not as "pro-choice" but as "pro-reproductive justice." Aguila described reproductive justice as "the right to parent or not parent" and to have resources and community and government support should someone choose to be a parent.

END OF ROE:What it could mean in a nation without child care aid or family leave

Many said greater emphasis should be given to keeping families together in the first place.

"People don't think twice about giving money to a woman to help them buy a baby. But when it comes to helping a first family or helping adoptees with reunification, there's a disconnect," Johnson said.

Kirsta Bowman stands at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, on April 18, 2022.

Johnson said she's seen some online campaigns fundraise tens of thousands of dollars to help an adoptive parent pay for an adoption.

"A quarter of that – probably even less than that – would be enough to help a family stay together," Johnson said. "That's the number one reason that people will relinquish us, because of a lack of finances and support."

Just last month, Bowman traveled to Greece to meet cousins after she began reconnecting with her first family several years ago.

Bowman said the trip marked the first time she met someone with the same type of dark, curly hair – one of her cousins.

"I asked just to feel his hair, and I wanted to cry," she said.

Contact reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter @grace_hauck and via email at