In 2008, Minnesota Women’s Press asked me to write an op-ed considering the practice of adoption through a feminist lens. Minnesota has the largest population of Korean adoptees per capita in the United States, numbering in the tens of thousands. By the early 2000s, a generation of adoptees had aged into adulthood en masse, myself included. At the time, I had not given much thought to the connection between feminism and adoption. I was born in Korea, adopted as a baby, and raised in the American Midwest. While I had spent the better part of my young adult life forming and establishing my identity as an adopted Asian American woman, I had not yet considered the broader, historical and social context that had set that sense of identity in motion. Luckily for me, others had. While researching the article, I absorbed powerful works by historians and scholars on reproductive rights, and I interviewed a range of internationally and domestically-adopted adults. Furthermore, I had been a prospective adoptive parent myself – my husband and I had had trouble getting pregnant so we considered adoption and visited some local agencies as a result.

My conclusion after this research was then, as it remains now, that as a feminist, I supported not only a woman’s right to choose whether or not to bear a child, but also her right to raise that child. That is, I viewed the right to raise one’s child on the continuum of reproductive rights or, as one of my interview subjects framed it: reproductive justice.

As a feminist, I could not exercise my right to adopt at the expense of another woman’s right to be a mother. Within the complex web of global economic and social factors, I could not untangle my privilege to adopt from a child in a vulnerable context that would lead a mother somewhere to surrender her child. Poverty, patriarchy, lack of a social safety net, religious mores, societal stigma, and an entrenched economic system that depended on adoption to survive – all these factors conspired to render women around the world, who might otherwise want to raise their children, unable to do so.

And so I chose not to adopt. I did not condemn adoption outright, nor did I condemn adoptive parents. I believed then, as I do now, that adoption can be accomplished in a socially just way that honors the rights of all parties involved – parents of origin, adopted children, and adoptive parents. However, the systems that support adoption first required critique and reform.

Upon publication, my article received a record number of responses for the Women’s Press both in online comments and letters to the editor. It was reposted via various agencies and literature in the adoption industry, including adoptive parent groups, adoptee groups, and individual adoptee scholars and artists. The Women’s Press decided to follow up the piece by devoting a special section of their next issue to letters from readers, as well as a “point-counterpoint” position column by two other writers on adoption as a feminist topic. Clearly the article had touched a nerve. Reconsidering it now, six years later, my stance has not changed. For this article, I would therefore like to examine three recent stories within the broader adoption narrative that have occurred in the ensuing years. These stories focus on birth mothers, also referred to as first mothers or original mothers, whose rights and viewpoints have often been overlooked.

In May of this year, 2014, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie signed S873: a law that would grant adult adoptees access to their original birth certificates, including the names of their biological parents, beginning in 2017. As part of S873, birth parents of children adopted before August 1, 2015 would have until the end of 2016 to request that their names be removed from birth certificates. Birth parents of children adopted after August 1, 2015 would not have the option of redacting their names. Further required by the New Jersey law, birth parents would be able to give preferences for whether or not, as well as how, they may be contacted should an adult adoptee wish to do so. New Jersey followed similar laws granting adoptee access in Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, with Connecticut following suit in June of this year and New York and Pennsylvania considering their own open-record bills.

How does feminism fit into the question of open birth certificates? In the words of New Jersey-based adoption activist, American Adoption Congress Board member, and birth mother Judy Foster: “[S873 is] sending a message, particularly to women like me who surrendered babies in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, that we no longer have to hide in secrecy and shame.” That is, societal bias against unwed motherhood has historically shaped adoption policy, cloaking the identities of the first mothers. By opening up birth certificates to adult adoptees, the state of New Jersey is effectively conveying to mothers (and fathers) who give their children up for adoption: “Your children have the right to know who you are.” In doing so, it indirectly helps to erase the stigma of premarital heterosexuality that historically led many unmarried women to surrender their children to adoption in the first place.

Furthermore, open access laws such as this one acknowledge adoption as a process that began with a birth rather than a relinquishment. It recognizes a first mother as an essential participant in that process rather than an invisible, anonymous source to be acknowledged but ultimately forgotten. For adoptees, it opens up crucial access to medical histories as well as personal histories, helping to answer the fundamental human question, “Who am I?” For adoptive parents, it invites a shift in the traditional adoption narrative. Rather than diminishing an adopted child’s birth history, it invites a more transparent and expansive understanding of an adoptive family as inclusive of the child’s family of origin. In the realm of reproductive justice, this openness helps elevate adoption from a consumer-based exchange grounded in supply and demand to one that humanizes all parties involved.

 In 2009, journalist Martin Sixsmith published his book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which documented Lee’s premarital pregnancy in the 1950s in Ireland, her subsequent confinement at Sean Ross Abbey, a home for unwed mothers, and the surrender of her son, who was adopted and raised in the United States. Brought to international attention by the film Philomena in 2013, Lee’s story illustrates this ‘shame and secrecy’ around unmarried motherhood that Judy Foster noted in her statement on New Jersey S873. While at Sean Ross Abbey, Lee signed a document relinquishing her parental rights to her child. Similar documents are required of birth parents here in the U.S.

Philomena Lee has stated in interviews that no one coerced her into signing this document and that she signed it of her own free will. However, as I wrote in an article about her for the journal Gazillion Voices, in 1950s Ireland, out-of-wedlock births could ruin not only a woman, but also her entire extended family. There was no system for social welfare, and the Catholic Church held the reigns of a single pregnant woman’s only option. Thus, the idea of free loses its strength. Social inequality is reinforced by structural failures within systems, resulting in denied or limited access to fundamental rights, such as equal employment, education, healthcare, legal information, and yes, reproductive choice. Given the stigma around premarital pregnancy, combined with the lack of a social safety net, an unmarried mother like Philomena Lee was unlikely to choose to keep and raise her child.

The popularity of both the book and film about Philomena Lee led to the creation of The Philomena Project, which funds the group Adoption Rights Alliance’s campaign to open up the nearly 60,000 files documenting those children who were adopted out of Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes. Underlying these efforts is a feminist critique of the alliance between the Catholic Church and Irish government, which utilized state-sanctioned methods for regulating and controlling women’s bodies. In addition to the Mother and Baby Homes, the government operated for-profit laundry facilities out of their Magdalen asylums, which housed allegedly promiscuous or “fallen” women. However, while Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has issued an official state apology for the Magdalen Laundries, the Catholic Church has remained silent. As feminists, we should be concerned when the church and state collude to govern women’s sexuality and reproduction. More concerning still is the church’s refusal to acknowledge its wrongdoing in the face of overwhelming evidence.

Since 2009, Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association (KUMFA), comprised of single mothers, their families, and volunteers, has been advocating to change both societal views and public policy to enable unmarried mothers to raise their children in Korea. In these efforts, KUMFA has some valuable allies, including adult adoptees in both Korea and the U.S., as well as the organization Korean Unwed Mothers Support Network, an American group led by the father of an adopted Korean daughter. KUMFA’s activities include monthly meetings, where members share resources and support, including holiday camps, which provide somewhere families can go during the holidays; and one-on-one mentorships for children. It also includes working with adoptee advocacy groups to pass revisions to the 2011 Special Adoption Law, which seeks to improve state support for single moms, standardize adoption procedures against corruption, and create better systems for adult adoptees to find their birth parents. Finally, KUMFA runs a guest house for unwed mothers called HEATER, which cares for up to 24 mothers and their children annually.

As reported in a piece by the New York Times on KUMFA, currently about 1.6 percent of all births in Korea are outside of marriage, compared to the 40% in the United States. Of these Korean unwed birth mothers, 70% end up relinquishing their children for adoption, while in the U.S. that figure is 1%. Despite some shifts in public policy combined with societal guilt and international pressure to end the practice, Korea remains one of the top four countries sending adoptable children to the U.S. This is taking place in spite of Korea’s economy ranking at or near the top ten globally; thus, begging the question of why a wealthy country would need to send away its children. The answer is both economic and cultural. Government support for unmarried mothers in Korea equals about half the support for families with adopted children. Perhaps even more significant, social stigma against unwed moms is deeply entrenched in Korean culture. Bias against unwed mothers is rooted in public policy that governed Korea for decades, including patrilineal citizenship laws and patriarchal family laws, all defining existence through one’s relationship to the male head of household. According to a recent government survey, only one quarter of Koreans were willing to have a relationship with a single mother, whether as a neighbor or coworker.

In her book Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States, scholar Rickie Solinger draws a connection between the rate of foreign-born adoptions to the U.S., which rose between 1972 and 1973, and the case of Roe v. Wade. As American women gained control over their own bodies, the supply of adoptable babies in this country decreased. Lower birth rates and higher rates of infertility caused couples to look for children outside the U.S. in unprecedented numbers. These factors in the U.S., combined with lack of social support and societal stigmas in Korea, created a perfect storm of supply and demand for adoptable babies filtered through an adoption industry that dates back to the 1950s. In other words, while American women were free to adopt children from Korea, unwed mothers in Korea were not free to raise theirs.

 If one of the goals of feminism is to liberate women to make informed choices about their lives and to remove barriers for them to access those choices, then this right to choose should include a mother’s choice to raise her own child. As an adult adoptee, I often wonder what would have happened if my own first mother had had the economic and social freedom to raise me. As a woman who has experienced infertility, I understand the longing to build a family of my own. But, as a feminist, I could not personally engage in the system of adoption, knowing its effect on vulnerable women around the world and here in the U.S. That is not to say that adoption is wrong in and of itself or that all adoptive parents are anti-feminist. I have personally known many people from all points of the adoption triad who are engaged in exciting critical dialogues, art making, and social action, and for that, I am grateful.


Suggested Resources

Briggs, Laura. Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transnational and Transracial Adoption. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Choe Sang-hun. “Group Resists Korean Stigma for Unwed Mothers.” The New York Times, Oct. 7, 2009. Web.

Korean Unwed Mothers and Families Association (KUMFA). “Introduction and Activities.” Web.

Leo, Katie. “Feminist Lens on Adoption.” Minnesota Women’s Press. Nov. 25, 2008. Web.

McKee, Kimberly. “Silence, Citizenship, and Gender: The Status of Women and Intercountry Adoption in Korea.” Proceedings of the Second International Symposium on Korean Adoption Studies (2010) : 1-17. Print.

“New Jersey Officials Make Deal on Adoption Records.” The Associated Press, April 18, 2014.

New Jersey Senate Bill 873. Web.

O’Neill, Aliah. “The legacy of Ireland’s Catholic Church-run Mother and Baby Homes.”, July 19, 2010. Web.

Roberts, Dorothy. Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 2002.

Sixsmith, Martin. Philomena (formerly titled The Lost Child of Philomena Lee), New York: Penguin Books, 2009.

Solinger, Rickie. Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

The Philomena Project. “Goals.” Web.

Artwork © Zafire Vrba and students at Lindeparkens gymnasiesärskola