In the related #1in3Speaks chat, anti-choice tweeters send bewildered replies to my reproductive rights-laden declarations as they continue to post pictures of “success story” children who were adopted and went on to achieve greatness. I used to be them. Growing up, my opinion was that abortion was unnecessary if adoption was available, and even during my teenager years as a Hillary Clinton feminist, I adopted the line that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare”. My own transformation came as I became more involved in HIV/AIDS prevention, deepened my own understanding of reproductive rights, sexual freedom, and intersectional feminism, and supported many close friends and clients through pregnancy termination and abortion aftercare.
At various points throughout my adult life, those who don’t know me have been surprised to learn that I support access to safe, legal, affordable, accessible abortion services and a person’s right to terminate a pregnancy for whatever reason they choose or need. This is not because we may have at one point shared a politically Conservative upbringing or an identification with Christianity, though these were foundations upon which I was raised and which informed my opinions of abortion as a young person. People are often most surprised that I am a pro-choice because I am an adoptee.
Identifying as a pro-choice adoptee is, to many, a contradiction of sorts because it is more than a political belief; it is a personal acknowledgement that questions my very being. It is accepting the fact that, had my birth mother had access to affordable and shame-free abortion, I would likely not be alive today. The weight of this truth often feels too heavy to hold and even today, it is a statement that is difficult to vocalize because of all that it means. Saying and writing it, though, is not a wish that I had never been born or a wish that I could die now, but rather a resistance against the cultural narrative that I should be grateful for not being aborted because adoption gave me a chance to survive and thrive. I have thrived. I’m also not supposed to be here.
Adoption is often positioned by anti-choice advocates as an ideal compromise in the triumvirate of pregnancy options, the perfect non-abortion alternative for someone who cannot or does not want to parent. As it is framed, with all of the people hoping to create a family through adoption, terminating your parental rights rather than your pregnancy simultaneously addresses two challenges with one solution. Crisis pregnancy centers, which position themselves as safe havens and resource centers, are one of the biggest peddlers of this message, counseling clients toward adoption and spreading misinformation about sexual health and abortion, if they acknowledge it at all.
Politically, I now know that this line of reasoning is flawed. Advocating for adoption as a universal abortion alternative fails to acknowledge the many reasons why someone may choose to end a pregnancy and doesn’t remove the fact that someone cannot or may not want to be pregnant for a variety of reasons. The rhetoric and practices of many pro-adoption campaigns also fail to address the underlying causes for why many women may feel they need to terminate parental rights in the first place: society’s lack of financial, emotional, and institutional support for pregnant and parenting people, particularly youth, lower-income people, and women of color.
In South Korea, where I was born, a culture of stigma and shame has and still surrounds unmarried pregnancy and single motherhood, despite many advocates’ best efforts to transform the public’s consciousness. Of the more than 200,000 children sent overseas through adoption since the early 1950’s, approximately 90% have been born to unwed and/or single mothers. Often exiled by their families, many pregnant women live in isolation until childbirth or seek support in unwed mothers’ homes that keep them out of the public eye and away from a need for society to critically self-examine the true value it places on women, children, and families. It is no coincidence that these homes are founded by and to support the highly profitable international adoption complex (nearly $35 million per year in South Korea alone) by engaging in many of the same coercive practices that keep US crisis pregnancy centers thriving under the radar.
Abortion remains illegal in South Korea, enacted by law in 1953 and upheld by courts in 2012. In the US, where abortion is legal but highly restricted, many state and local laws mirror, and are in some cases less permissive than South Korea, which makes exceptions for rape, incest, fetal abnormalities, and the life of the pregnant person. Abortion in South Korea is anything but rare, however, with reports of the government even at one time encouraging abortion to stem population growth. Before rushing to paint South Korea as an underground reproductive rights refuge, though, it’s important to account for the impact of illegality, unaffordability, and internalized shame that is still present. On a visit to Seoul in 2011, very few people would talk openly about abortion and my birth mother brushed it off as too inaccessible. How could she have afforded an abortion with no income or other resources during her pregnancy? How would she have found a doctor to perform one, when it was hard enough to find a doctor to attend my birth? Even when compared with the adoption taboo that has kept her first pregnancy and me a secret for over 30 years, the stigma around abortion was more deeply felt.
I am not depressed or suicidal or lacking in self-esteem or self worth. I do not think this way because of my estranged relationship with my adoptive family or a life of regret that I wish to erase. I simply know that I cannot engage in personal exceptionalism, celebrating my own adoption and therefore my own existence, while also knowing that my birth was only made possible by a combination of single motherhood stigma and abortion inaccessibility. I am a pro-choice adoptee deeply committed to reproductive rights and justice and that means believing in them for everyone, even if it means accepting hard truths about abortion, adoption, and the falsehood of my own “right” to life.
---------------------------------------------------------------------Joy Messinger is an educator and activist for sexuality, reproductive justice, adoption, queerness, and Asian American feminism. Her writing can be found at the AACRE Blog, Daily Dot, and Gazillion Voices, an online magazine by and for adoptees and their allies. Look for her on Twitter at @joydelivery.