Activist Annie Wu, a Chinese adoptee, said she’s repeatedly heard the question, “What if you had an abortion?” It’s an all-too-common hypothesis that anti-abortion advocates lash out at adoptees who publicly defend reproductive rights, especially given the recent case of Roe v. Calf.
”If my birth mother were to abort me, I would be fine with that. I wouldn’t exist, so I wouldn’t care or be affected,” Wu, a digital organizer for the nonprofit PA Stands Up, wrote in an Instagram post.
Many adopted abortion rights activists say they are uniquely positioned in the crosshairs of the debate: their very existence is often “rigged” to promote anti-abortion views – portraying adoption as a moral alternative to abortion. They feel vulnerable to harassment, their experiences are questioned or downplayed, and their agency is overridden in combat too often, they say.
Wu, who said she has received support from many in the adoptee community, said she has been accused of aiding “murder” and has been asked hypothetical questions about whether “someone is coming up to you and killing you right now.”
“How do I deal with it? That my existence was a winning argument in a debate that wiped out my own rights, the rights of so many other people, and set in motion what is likely to be the unfolding of more civil rights across the board?”
Stephanie Drenka, a Korean adoptee and editor of Visible Magazine, told NBC News that adoptees have long called for anti-abortionists and those in power to stop weaponizing their stories.
Judge Samuel Alito, for example, wrote on behalf of the majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson that “a woman giving up her newborn child for adoption today has little reason to fear that the baby will not find a suitable home.”
“How do I deal with it? That my existence was a winning argument in a debate that wiped out my own rights, the rights of so many other people, and set in motion what will likely be the unfolding of more civil rights across the board?” said Drenka.
With the landmark 1973 ruling overturned and nearly two dozen states poised to ban or severely restrict access to abortion, the backlash they have endured is taking its toll, many adoptees say.
“The vitriol is just the assumption that as adoptees, we don’t deserve a say in our reproductive rights because of our adoptive status,” Drenka said.
“This is just a sample of the dehumanization and type of infantilization that adoptees face. We are born commodities, and then when we grow up and speak our minds, we are silenced.”
While the adoptee community is not a monolith, abortion activists have to validate their own experiences against adoptive parents or those whose lives are untouched by the process more often than against other adoptees. Becky Belcore, an advisory board member for the Adoptees for Justice project and Korean adoptees, said adoptees most often ask hypothetical questions about how they would feel if they had an abortion. Many anti-abortion activists, she said, have tried to remind adoptees that given a choice, they would not live. But Wu said the argument is moot.
“To me, that’s like saying, ‘Well, what if your parents were just tired that night?’ Or ‘What if you used a condom that night?’” she said.
Being ‘grateful’ for being adopted and other adoptee traumas
The activists also said they faced implications that they should be “grateful” to be alive. Drenka said she’s heard adoption described in sunny terms like “blessing” and that adoptees should feel “happy.” She added that her own story, like many others, reads on the surface like a happy ending.
However, outsiders cannot calculate the loss that accompanies each adoption.
“We had no control over our situation. As much as anyone who is born can be grateful to be alive, this is just the life we have.”
“I spent three months with a foster mother and was then adopted by a very loving white family and had all the opportunities in the world. I actually found my birth family and have a relationship with them,” she said. “But what people don’t like to think about is the trauma my birth mother experienced when she had to give up on me because my birth father forced her to.”
Belcore emphasized that of course, adoptees are not obligated to be grateful.
“We had no control over our situation. As much as anyone who is born can be grateful to be alive, this is just the life we have.” She said. “That is our experience. Some of it was really awful for people.”
Due to the significant number of cross-border and interracial adoptions, some adoptees are also confronted with racist or xenophobic comments. Wu said she finds some commentators tend to fixate on her background as a woman of Chinese descent.
“They’re just telling me to go back to China or I should be thankful that I don’t live under the Chinese government,” Wu said, adding that commentators often portray China as a particularly oppressed nation.
The comments are not only racist, Wu said, but also “hypocritical”.
“What the United States government is doing now is controlling a portion of the population that is able to reproduce and telling them they need to reproduce.”
But many who support abortion rights have also been guilty of downplaying adoption, the activists said. After a photo of a couple holding up a “We’re going to adopt your baby” poster went viral after Roe broke up, others turned the image into a viral meme, poking fun at those who used the term adoption as a solution attribute.
“In general, when people have discussions, they should make sure that they’re not just using something as a topic of conversation — they’re actually speaking up for the people behind it.”
Belcore and Wu both said that the use of humor in the situation to deal with and illustrate the absurd is understandable. But Wu stressed that these memes can also be insensitive without context.
“In general, when people discuss it, they should make sure that they’re not just using something as a topic of conversation — they’re actually championing the people behind it,” Wu said.
Belcore said the subject is simply too difficult to fully capture in a meme.
“If someone thinks about how they were separated from their biological parents and raised in a different family, it would have pretty serious consequences for their life,” she said. “If you take just a moment to think about it, you’d be more curious to learn more about it.”
Adopts say they have to ‘keep several things true at once’
Adopters say the backlash can be hard to stomach, especially for those who have not had good experiences with their adoptive families. Belcore said those talks could potentially be a trigger.
“For those of us who haven’t had good adoption agencies, it makes people quite angry because many don’t think about what happens to the child’s life after it’s adopted and the long lasting impact that has when we grow up,” said Belcore. “It’s pretty annoying.”
Drenka and Wu said they both have healthy, loving relationships with their adoptive parents and feel pressured to explain their stance too much lest it be misconstrued. Both say that too often the complexity of their experiences is obliterated or flattened.
“One of the most difficult aspects of an adoption is holding several things true at the same time,” Drenka said. “When things like this happen, I have to acknowledge that I lived a privileged life as an adoptee and also experienced trauma and lingering trauma as an infant [from] being separated from my roots and not having access to information that most people take for granted.”
But Drenka said she is not backing down and is urging people to listen to adoptees’ stories.
“I feel like I’ve been practicing for this moment. I’ve been practicing for several years what it means to tell my story in spaces that aren’t necessarily safe,” Drenka said. “But we know that adoptees … are usually in spaces where we feel we don’t belong or where no one understands them. So I’ll keep working on sharing my story if it reaches just one of them.”