Many opponents of abortion tout adoption as a solution for pregnant people who cannot or do not want to parent a child — especially in states like Tennessee that have all but banned abortion. But when a pregnant person is faced with a choice between abortion, adoption and parenting the child, adoption is historically least chosen.

In Tennessee in 2020, 3,306 children were adopted, down from 3,782 adoptions in 2019, according to data from the National Council for Adoption. For reference, the state has around 8,000 kids in foster care currently, and 80,000 births each year. Thousands of families are on wait lists to adopt an infant.

The state has also seen controversy around adoption lately, with a Jewish Knoxville couple’s case dismissed after challenging a 2020 state law that allows religious organizations to deny adoption services to same-sex couples, among others.

The coming years will likely show a catchup of adoptions that were delayed during COVID-19. It will take years to see whether adoption rates rise post-Roe, though those who work in the field hope to see more support for birth parents and children implemented sooner.

The Adoption Project, which launched in April, looks to expedite the process for birth parents, adoptive parents and children. President and CEO Jeremy Harrell says it was three years between the time his family started a home study to adopt a child and the time the adoption of his young daughter was finalized.

According to state law, a birth mother must go to court to sign over parental rights 72 hours after giving birth. She then has 72 more hours to change her mind. A child then has to be in their adopted home six months before the adoption can be finalized. The Adoption Project would like to see the time until finalization shortened, with another option besides in-person court available to mothers. Some states allow an attorney, a notary and a witness of one’s choice instead.

“I understand the protection of taking somebody to court,” Harrell says. “There’s a judge who’s standing there making sure nobody’s being taken advantage of. There’s a huge protection to that. There’s also a lot of burden to it, that you’re taking somebody who’s just had a baby, you’ve gone home, you’re separated from your baby. Now we’re gonna make you go to court.”

In Tennessee, adoption from foster care has been steadily growing, even seeing a slight uptick to 1,186 children in 2020. In March 2021, Gov. Bill Lee called on faith communities in the state to support kids in the foster care system, and later extended TennCare coverage for adopted youth.

To address how hard the process is on the birth mom, The Adoption Project’s legislative advocacy aims to also include services for birth mothers, including grief counseling from a mental health professional.

Local adoption agency Miriam’s Promise offers free post-adoption counseling indefinitely for birth parents. Lee-Ann Higgins, director of program services, has been counseling birth mothers for 17 years. Most of the expectant parents she sees have decided to go through with the pregnancy, or “timing has made the decision for them,” and have not yet decided if they will parent the child.

The most common deterrent to raising a child is finances, Higgins says. Birth parents often face criticism from their family for choosing adoption, too.

“I think for many men and women, they’re going to be wrestling with their identity,” Higgins says. “Because on one hand, they are parents, and they have made a parenting decision for their child. But on the other hand, they are not going to be actively parenting that child in the sense of day-to-day life activities. We are talking to them about what that means for their identity going forward and helping them deal with any kind of negative responses, especially from their support people.”

Cost is top of mind for many looking to become adoptive parents too. More National Council for Adoption data surveying adopted parents shows that before 2010, the average cost of private domestic adoption was $17,018, and past 2010, the average was $33,142. Around 63 percent of adoptive parents saw cost as a barrier.

Linda Ashford, professor of pediatrics at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, hopes to see access to counseling for adopted children as well. Ashford explains that the attachment relationship is key for any child, and it is interrupted for adopted children. Trust in a caregiver built through everyday experiences such as feeding and diaper changes lays a neurological foundation through which an individual will be able to develop all relationships over time. The earlier the child is adopted, the better chances for their attachment to be typical, she says.

“If we are hoping or suggesting that children are now going to be born who may not have been born last year, we have to be very attentive to the fact that this attachment relationship is key,” Ashford says. “There’s good evidence that adoption is both a great opportunity for a child and also a great risk. As a society, I guess we have to figure out what is the best balance, and how do we help families and children in this balance.”

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