Writing for the majority in Dobb v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. offered a reassurance to those who will now be denied access to abortion: “A woman who puts her newborn up for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.” But Alito’s words are unlikely to be comforting or relevant to Americans who want abortions. Research shows that more than 90 percent of people denied access to abortion choose to parent their babies and have no interest in adoption.
Alito cites a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on why so many “suitable homes” are available: “the domestic supply of infants … relinquished at birth or within the first month of life available to be adopted [has] become virtually nonexistent.” In other words: Demand for infants is high and supply is low.
Just as the court ignores the needs of people seeking abortions, through this language of supply and demand, it ignores the power inequities upon which adoption is premised. The demand for infants comes from those with more power, the supply comes from those with less. The adoption market in the United States historically has adapted to accommodate the needs of those with more power, while failing to address the needs of vulnerable women forced to birth and relinquish infants.
The United States has a long and sweeping history of separating children from families — from the days of slavery and Native American boarding schools to the current immigration and family policing system — but none of these removals were focused on infants, and they were rarely about making children available for adoption (though they sometimes did accomplish that).
While slavery, for example, hinged on control over enslaved women’s reproductive rights and forced family separation, the focus was on White enslavers buying older children whose labor could be stolen or sold. In the 1850s, slavery states outlawed separating enslaved mothers from their infants, hoping this meager reform would make the institution of slavery less abhorrent and, thus, more durable. Such changes cost them little, as there was no demand for infants.
At the same time, the New York Children’s Aid Society was shipping poor White children (who nearly always had living parents) out West on “orphan trains,” marketing them as a source of free labor: “Boys. handy and active … could be employed on farms, in trades, in manufacturing … Girls could be used for the common kinds of housework.”