Is adoption really the “solution” to unwanted pregnancies that anti-abortion and some pro-choice advocates say it is? (Spoiler: nope!) In this eye-opening episode, Dr. Gretchen Sisson joins Renee and Regina to explain the real relationship between adoption and abortion, and why we should put children and pregnant people, and not solely the needs of adoptive parents, first. She also joins Renee and Regina for a There Are Other Books segment on Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. 

Regina Mahone: Today on The A Files, we’re talking about another A-word.

Renee Bracey Sherman: The scarlet A, adultery.

RM: No.

RBS: Apples.

RM: Not that one.

RBS: Adolescents, aardvarks, antelopes?

RM: I guess-

RBS: Avocados?

RM: … you’re getting warmer but colder at the same time. We’re talking about adoption, but those are all good topics for season two.

RBS: Great. Let’s do it. Adorption.

RM: Adorption.

Hello and welcome to The A Files, A Secret History of Abortion, a podcast from The Meteor. I’m Regina Mahone.

RBS: And I’m Renee Bracey Sherman. Regina and I are friends who talk about abortion a lot.

RM: Today on the podcast, we’re talking about adoption and what it has to do with abortion and the reproductive justice movement. We’re speaking with Dr. Gretchen Sisson about her research on abortion and adoption and her book, Relinquished.

RBS: And then we have a very special There Are Other Books in which we discuss the book and television series Little Fires Everywhere. See, a book can be a TV show sometimes. Let’s get into it.

RM: Okay, so in our Abortion Sigma episode, we broke down the concept of pro-life and how it changed the meaning of abortion and how in society we think about abortion. It became less about this medical care and more about, “Oh, if I have an abortion, that means I’m against life,” which is a fallacy, of course, and in convincing many of us that abortion is against life, the anti-abortion movement has made it easier for us to see adoption as the rightful alternative to abortion. If you don’t want to “Kill your embryo or fetus,” then you should do your godly duty of giving your child up for adoption. But the logic of this is illogical, right, Renee?

RBS: So it’s so illogical. Okay, think of it this way. Imagine a logic model, right? Those arrows, and you have the binary decisions, yes, no. And you sort of take it as a maze, right? At the beginning, you are pregnant. The question is, do you want to be pregnant? And maybe is it safe for you to be, is it healthy for you to be pregnant? Your options there are, yes, I do want to be pregnant, or no, I don’t want to be pregnant. And if the answer is no, I don’t want to be pregnant, then you end the pregnancy. You terminate, you have an abortion, right? But if the answer is yes, I still do want to be pregnant, then you start to think, “Do I want to parent this child?” Yes or no? And if the answer is yes, then you give birth and you parent the child.

If the answer is no, then you can start to think, “Do I want to pursue relinquishment through adoption?” Right? Then there, yes or no? And if it’s yes, then you could do a non-kinship relinquishment, meaning the child goes to strangers, people that maybe you choose, maybe you don’t, I don’t know, depending on the place that you go to, but it is legally binding, and then you are no longer legally their parent. If the answer is no, that you don’t want to pursue relinquishment through adoption, you could do a kinship adoption with a family member. It’s either informal and they just care for your child, or sometimes it’s legally binding. It can be all of these things. And, of course, this is what reproductive justice is about, because there’s not actually just this simple logic model. What’s on top of that logic model is how much money you have, where you live, what your race is, who you live with, if you even have support for parenting, all of these things.

So it’s not as simple as a yes or no, but I think it’s important to break down the logic model to help understand people’s decision-making. And at the end of the day, it’s either if you want to be pregnant, you then parent or you can place for adoption. If you don’t want to be pregnant, it’s abortion. You don’t sit here and say, “Well, I’m pregnant.  It’s either between abortion or adoption,”  as the anti-abortion movement wants you to think. The only solution for terminating a pregnancy is abortion. The anti-abortion movement has worked really hard to make you think that this logic model doesn’t exist and make you think that decision-making looks different.

RM: In spite of this very logical decision-making process, anti-abortion activists continue to push the idea that adoption can solve the need for abortions, and they aren’t the only ones. Pro-choice folks like President Obama have-

RBS: No.

RM: … suggested it’s the perfect alternative to abortion. Here, let’s play that clip.

President Obama: So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions. Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available.

RM: That sounds nice, but in practice, that’s not at all how it works.

RBS: I’m actually really glad that we’re talking about this because adoption is this issue that is just thrown out there as a solution to everyone’s unexpected pregnancy problems. It’s glorified as this perfect thing, but when you talk to people who’ve actually been adopted or those who have been adopted, it’s not at all what the anti-abortion movement and some pro-choice people like Barry make it out to be. It’s really, really complicated. My youngest brother is adopted, and a lot of people in my family are adopted through relinquishment or stepparent adoptions, transracial, international adoptions, et cetera. And I might add, they’re all supportive of abortion. Okay, so adoption is a really broad term for a lot of things. So to clarify, let’s talk about the difference between adoption versus foster care, for example.

RM: So many people confuse both of those terms, right?

RBS: Oh my gosh, constantly. So foster care is when a child has not yet been adopted. They may have been removed from a home for a number of different reasons. The state may have taken them, right? And decision-making by the foster parents who are taking care of them is shared by the agency and perhaps the birth parents, and the state. It really depends. The foster parents receive money to care for that child while they’re in their custody. Adoption is where a birth parent or first parent relinquishes their child, and therefore adoptive parents have the legal rights and responsibilities for the child. There’s a lot of narratives that we have been told about adoption, things that I’ve heard or that you don’t want to adopt because those babies are undesirable or something went wrong with them. They’re inheriting the problems of the birth parents. There’s bad genetics, right?

RM: The “Crack babies.”

RBS: Right. All of these narratives that are out there that are actually really racist and really classist because, if you look at who generally is the adoptive family background, they tend to be white, wealthier, or upper middle class. So there is this idea that there’s something wrong with these children, that they’re like damaged goods, which is a really fucked-up narrative for then a child to go into a home where people are thinking that they’re going to be the savior for that child, right? The stories of adoptees are starting to come out, and so they’re talking about what adoption looks like from it being really difficult to be a child of color, adopted by white parents, or move to a completely different country. All of that, right?

And just to be clear for this episode, we are focusing this conversation and interview on the experiences of birth parents who relinquish their children rather than adoptees because it’s an underexplored topic and it’s a moment in which adoption is pitted against abortion as the false solution, and it’s being pushed on pregnant folks. But adoptees are starting to talk really frankly about their own experiences more and more these days. And I really encourage all of you to go listen to what they have to say.

RM: And so, before we get to our interview with Dr. Sisson, we want to correct the record on these different ideas about adoption. Since what the anti-abortion movement says about adoption doesn’t really reflect people’s actual experiences. One of the most high-profile and recent instances in which adoption came up in the context of abortion was during oral arguments in the Dobbs case. You may remember Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who is an adoptive parent…

RBS: Of Black children.

RM: Yes, of Black children, suggested during oral arguments that abortion wasn’t necessary because of safe haven laws. Let’s play that clip.

Justice Barrett: Both Roe and Casey emphasized the burdens of parenting. And insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which the forced parenting, forced motherhood would hinder women’s access to the workplace and to equal opportunities, it’s also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy. Why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem? 

RM: Okay, first, let’s explain safe haven laws. These state-based laws allow people who just gave birth the ability to relinquish their parental rights without being held criminally liable or prosecuted for dropping off their child in a safe location like a fire station or an ER so that the infant may be adopted or put into the foster care system. But here’s the thing with Justice Coney Barrett’s line of thinking: it completely ignores the physical and sometimes life-threatening effect of pregnancy on bodies, which, by the way, is just so much more dangerous than abortion.

RBS: I also think that we need to have a conversation about what are the actual numbers here. There are about 18,000 to 20,000 private domestic adoptions per year of infant relinquishment, but that’s compared to 800,000 to a million abortions each year in the United States. I am not a math genius, but those numbers are not the same. I believe they’re not even close. The reality is that hella people don’t want to be pregnant, so they’re going to need abortions, hella people to the tune of a million people. Anyway, I’m ranting.

RM: I’m glad you brought that up because it feels a bit like a tale to me. Anti-abortion folks know that more people would choose an abortion when facing an unintended pregnancy. So to entice more people to adopt or to relinquish their rights, the anti-abortion movement pushes policies that provide adoption benefits. Things like the adoption tax credit, which primarily benefits the adoptive parents, but can include some expenses for the birth mother too.

RBS: How kind.

RM: And if you hear tax credit and a bell goes off, me too. It was so painful for families when Republicans in Congress completely blocked the 2021 Expanded Child Tax Credit from continuing. I have to say this every time I mention the tax credit too, it lifted 2.9 million children out of poverty. I’m not even making those numbers up. That’s what happened. But instead of advocating for the continued expansion of those funds, anti-abortion folks are suggesting we increase the adoption tax credit, which benefits mostly white and affluent folks who are doing most of the adopting.

RBS: It just feels like if we gave money to parents to raise their own kids, they might be happier. But of course, we can’t do that in the US because we hate anything that makes parents’ lives easier. It’s weird because we have all of this money that we throw at everything except making sure parents can be parents. What else do we fund other than helping parents be parents?

RM: Crisis pregnancy centers.

RBS: No.

RM: No, but that’s it. They also want crisis pregnancy centers, which are known to lie and mislead pregnant people, to get more money for services like adoption counseling. People don’t want adoption counseling. They want abortions. In fact, I think that’s the whole shtick of the anti-abortion movement. If they can’t find a problem their solution solves, they create one, like the lie the anti-abortion movement pushes that anti-abortion bans protect the life of the pregnant person. They also want to protect faith-based adoption and foster care agencies. But many folks have reported on the abuses within these agencies, some of which have been caught stealing children or engaging in coercive adoption tactics. If you haven’t read Catherine  Joyce on this subject, add her books to your list. In particular, The Child Catchers.

RBS: Here’s the thing that feels hard to say or to talk about, but it’s actually really important to see adoption and foster care as connected to nothing but the legacy of slavery and stealing native children and putting them in boarding school. The idea at the root of all of these concepts is that there is a more superior race or religion who are better suited to have children from undesirable families and care for them. And transracial adoptions like this are also complicated, and many of the families taking in children from other cultures, races, and ethnicities are not equipped to adequately support their children’s born identities. And what often can happen is that their identities are ignored, and the child is forced to assimilate to this white evangelical lifestyle. It can cause real trauma on top of trauma of being taken away from your family.

Adoption and foster care, or the family policing system, as Professor Dorothy Roberts has coined it, is just another version of family separation that has existed as long as the United States has existed, right? We just sort of cleaned it up, and I mentioned the power dynamics. That is the most disturbing aspect of adoption as a system and the foster care systems more broadly. The intersections of race and class and these transactions are impossible to ignore. Poverty, which is created by white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, et cetera, allows adoption and family separation to flourish simply because people are poor.

RM: So clearly, adoption is super problematic, right?

RBS: Well, yeah, as a system, adoption is super problematic, but there are becoming more situations in which adoption is better for everyone involved. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, but it’s complicated, and it takes a lot of work and thoughtfulness of everyone involved. And I just don’t think that people think about that when they hear adoption or go into it, or think about what it is. Actually, you know what? Let’s just get into it. Here’s our interview with Dr. Gretchen Sisson.

RM: Hello, Gretchen. Welcome. Thank you so much for being here.

Gretchen Sisson: Thanks for having me.

RM: Can you introduce yourself?

Gretchen Sisson: I’m Gretchen Sisson. I’m a sociologist at the University of California in San Francisco, where I study abortion and adoption in the United States, and I am the author of the new book, Relinquished: The Politics of Adoption and the Privilege of American Motherhood.

RBS: We are so excited to talk to you about your book, Relinquished. So what in particular sparked your interest in the adoption angle of the abortion conversation?

Gretchen Sisson: So it really goes back to my time in Boston. I was working at an organization called the Massachusetts Alliance on Teen Pregnancy. And so I was working with these incredible young mothers. They were lobbying the Boston City Council, which at the time included now-Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, to change the pregnant parenting student policy at Boston Public Schools. And I was just so inspired and deeply impressed by the work that these young women were doing to advocate for themselves and their children, but at the same time, dismayed that they had to do all of this political work just to get the basic protections that they should have. 16 and Pregnant started airing on MTV, and there was this story in the first season about Catelynn and Tyler, who relinquished their daughter. And the particular through line of that first season of 16 and Pregnant was how mature, how self-sacrificing Catelynn and Tyler were, how they were in fact better parents than the young women who were raising their children by virtue of having given up their daughter for adoption.

And at this time, I had also recently read Ann Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away, which is a tremendous account of adoption pre-Roe and the coercive maternity homes at that point. I was starting to look more seriously at adoption and really wanted to put these narratives together. As I mentioned, I was volunteering at the local abortion fund, and it was kind of these overlaps of volunteer academic professional work that I was doing where adoption was consistently the solution, the quote solution. So the solution to infertility is just to adopt, right? The solution to… not just young parenthood, but to any parenting and poverty really is like, oh, you should just relinquish your baby. The solution to abortion is, “Oh, we’ll just offer adoption as an alternative.”

And so there’s this recurring idea of if we just transfer these babies from these undeserving families to these more deserving families, and the more deserving families are almost always middle-class or heteronormative, usually white, and have a certain amount of social power that goes with that, then adoption is going to address all of these areas that we choose not to publicly invest in. And so that’s why I wanted to start looking at adoption more deeply.

RM: We talked about the way that media creates these false narratives around adoption, but the anti-abortion movement, one of the biggest players in terms of working really hard to spread the narrative that if someone wants an abortion, the more selfless thing they should do is have the baby place it for adoption. And you’ve written that most people considering adoption aren’t trying to decide between abortion and adoption. Can you explain what your research has found and why that myth persists?

Gretchen Sisson: Yeah, I think it persists first because the anti-abortion movement wants it to. It was always a political message of, “Oh, we’re not forcing parenthood on anybody.” You can pursue an adoption instead of having this abortion. But what we found is that women and pregnant people aren’t choosing between abortion and adoption. They’re first making a decision about whether or not they want to be pregnant. And most of the women I interviewed would get to a certain point in their pregnancy where that felt impossible. So maybe they were hoping their partner would come through more. Maybe they were hoping they would get that job. Maybe they were hoping their own parents would be able to offer more support or that they’d be able to find stable, affordable housing that would let them bring their baby home. Whatever one of those factors kind of falls apart at some point in their pregnancy and they’re facing this crisis, that’s really when they turned to adoption.

There were a number of women that I interviewed that did want to have an abortion, but they couldn’t get one for whatever reason, usually because they discovered that they were pregnant pretty late and they were past the gestational limit or they just couldn’t afford one, and they didn’t know where to go to get one. And I should say they’re the minority, right? They’re sort of the double minority in that most birth mothers who’ve relinquished didn’t want to have an abortion. And most people who want to have an abortion and they can’t have one, don’t choose adoption. And it makes sense, right? First, you’re going to make a decision about whether or not you want to continue the pregnancy, then you’re going to make a decision about who’s going to raise your child based on what you feel is possible for you.

RM: So for your research, you’ve talked to parents through hundreds of interviews who’ve relinquished their children for private adoption. What were some of the most common things that they told you about their experience?

Gretchen Sisson: I think that the financial constraint was really the biggest recurring theme, especially among mothers who’ve relinquished more recently. So my sample includes mothers who relinquished from 2000 to 2020 for some of the mothers in earlier adoption. In that 2000 to 2005 window, you see some of the themes that are actually really strong echoes of pre-Roe, right? They were from conservative families, evangelical families, where there was this high stigma around being an unmarried mother. There was a stigma around the fact that they’d had sexual relationships at all. They were really pushed by their parents to relinquish, and this was also their first pregnancy. They were moving towards adoption as a way of delaying parenthood. And so the pressures that police women pre-Roe applied if you are women now, but for those to whom they do apply, they were still very real. And then, for women who relinquished later, you weren’t seeing as much of that.

So really, these decisions were entirely, I cannot afford to have this baby. And for many of them, it wasn’t their first child. They were already parenting. This wasn’t a way of delaying parenthood. They just could not financially care for another child. And I think that poverty is really increasingly the primary contributing factor to why relinquishment occurs that were prior involvement with the child welfare or family policing systems. So you see a lot of women who have lost older children to foster care who are told this baby’s likely to be taken into foster care. But if you relinquish them through a private adoption, then you’re going to get to pick the parents. It might be an open adoption. You might have more contact, and particularly for women of color and very particularly for Black women who are disproportionately surveilled and policed by that system, this can be a really persuasive argument, or they’re worried that they can’t afford this baby and it’s going to jeopardize their ability to care for their other children, and they’ll put the custody of all of their children at risk.

So you see this sort of shift over the 20 years from it being about these conservative ideologies to being more and more about financial constraint. And I think that you see both of those factors across the board. I think they’re still relevant for everyone, but I do think that we’re at a historical moment where adoption is just increasingly defined as a response to poverty.

RM: We’re curious, as you’re working on the book and doing research for the book, were there things that surprised you about adoption?

Gretchen Sisson: I mean, I think that kind of what Renee got to earlier about this sort of bipartisan lack of scrutiny really for adoption in the systems that allow us to separate families and the ways that adoption is really aggressively marketed to a lot of pregnant people. Today, you have adoption agencies doing geofenced advertising for not just abortion clinics. So if you go to an abortion clinic, you’ll start getting ads on your phone for adoption agencies, but for methadone clinics, for drug treatment facilities, so that they’re really targeting pregnant people who are in really vulnerable places who might be having questions about their pregnancies and what they’re going to do and whether or not they want to parent and what that might look like. So many adoption agencies will buy Google keywords for single parenting in this state and need help. You’ll get an ad for an adoption agency, or “how do I enroll on WIC in Indiana”?

And they’ll get this ad for an adoption agency. And it’s hard to overstate if you are struggling to figure out a path forward for you and your future child and you want a parent, you feel bonded to your pregnancy, you want what’s best for this child, and you get sucked into this highly targeted advertising rabbit hole online and these profiles of adoptive families who have gorgeous homes and big backyards, and all the profiles talk about their, it’s very classed, these really safe neighborhoods, and how fantastic their local schools are, and how they go to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning. And if you are kind of alone in your pregnancy and your parents aren’t supporting you, your partner’s not there. Here are our wedding photos from 10 years ago. Here are our parents who are so excited to be grandparents, the mothers who told these stories to me. They get infatuated, they get starstruck by some of these profiles, and it really pulls them in.

And it’s not an accident that they come across these ads because there aren’t enough babies to meet the demand. There are far more families that want to adopt than there are infants available for adoption. And so they’re increasingly more and more aggressive in reaching out to pregnant people and making themselves really persuasive. And I think that was part of what surprised me in this work was not just seeing the impact of the advertising myself on my end, but hearing from mothers who felt often in a very lost or vulnerable place, hearing how much these ads in these profiles felt like a liferaft or something. And they’re not given adequate options counseling, right? They’re not given adequate rights protection, and they just cling to this, and this is the situation that they end up in.

RM: So to go back to a point you made earlier, adoption often occurs when birth parents don’t have the resources to support or raise a child they’d otherwise really want to. And it’s also used as a state control over who gets to parent children. At the same time, people on the left celebrate adoption as a progressive way to form families that aren’t strictly biological. And it’s a way that some people and people who are not able to carry a pregnancy to term create their families. Still, we’re wondering, “What would happen to adoption if the goals and values of reproductive justice were realized?”

Gretchen Sisson: So there’s two ways of thinking of this, and the first one is continually reminding ourselves that adoption is about finding homes for children and not finding babies for parents. That adoption is designed to meet the needs of children because I think that so much of how we understand adoption is about how they want to have a baby. They’re dealing with infertility, or you have this couple and they want to adopt, and they’d be great parents and they probably would, but adoption should never be about their desires and their wants. It should be about what a child needs. And when we say it’s about finding a family for a child rather than finding a child for a family, I would add, “What do we need to do to make the family that they’re born into safe and supported?” Because most of the time, that’s what those parents want.

This is where you get into the idea of adoption abolition, which of course borrows tremendously heavily from Black feminist thought, heavily on Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Mariame Kaba. And the idea of, if you say  “we don’t want to separate families”, what world do we need to create where families stay together? And I think that is a world that feels very progressive, very innovative. Nobody is saying adoption is unethical, so babies should stay in unsafe families. Nobody’s saying that. What we’re saying is, their parents shouldn’t be homeless in the first place. What we’re saying is, their parents should have safety and security in their own lives to parent the way that they want to.

What we’re saying is that people should have access to the abortions that they need, so that path is available to them if they don’t want to be parenting in the first place. And so I think this is why it ties so well into reproductive justice issues because it is about understanding and supporting the entire family to make adoption mostly unnecessary. I think we should view adoption as a failure of society to keep families together. And sometimes those failures are going to occur. And then we need to look at what does ethical practice looks like? What does it mean to keep a child in a community? All of those things. But what should come first is, what are the conditions needed to keep families together?

RM: Well, thank you so much, Gretchen. I feel like even being pretty familiar with a lot of these issues, the way that you’ve explained them to folks, I hope helps them to better understand why adoption is a lot more complicated than the justices on the Supreme Court, for example, suggested. So we really appreciate you joining us today. And now, I think, Renee, we’re going to switch to a new segment.

RBS: Okay. So, Gretchen, I hope you’ll stay with us for our next segment. Every episode we have a segment called There Are Other Books, where we boldly and bravely talk about an abortion novel, literally any abortion novel that isn’t The Handmaid’s Tale. And we usually do this after chatting with a guest, but we just had to do it with you this time around because you read a bananas amount of books faster than anyone I’ve ever known. So will you sit and chat with us for There are other books?

Gretchen Sisson: Yes.

RBS: Awesome. So today’s book, we wanted to talk about Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. It is a fantastic novel, and there’s a TV adaptation that stars Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, and a huge, amazing cast. It is a really fantastic book. Regina, do you want to talk about why we chose it this week?

RM: Sure. Well, it overlaps, of course, with the topic we’re talking about, which is adoption, because there’s this idyllic suburb in Cleveland that is the center of the book, and all of the chaos that ensues follows this controversy around a transracial adoption. And the way that one of the characters in the book starts looking into one of the other main characters, I’m trying not to spoil it. It’s really hard to explain books about spoiling them, but there’s also an abortion.

RM: But there’s also an abortion, of course. And because it’s not The Handmaid’s Tale, we wanted to make sure to talk about it. And I think one of the most interesting things about the book is the way that it shows how we have this scarcity mindset in our society because of everything we’ve talked about with the lack of resources for parents. And it’s resulted in this division among parents where you’re a good parent or a bad parent. So in this book, in so many ways, it’s like the Richardsons, which were the white family. They’re better than the single mom and her daughter, who are staying on their property, renting property from them. And it ends up showing up in this way with the abortion, but showing up in a way where it’s like, “Oh, well, our daughter is not going to have an abortion. So it’s your daughter who had the abortion.”

RBS: Yeah. I mean, I really love this book because it brings together all of the different narratives around reproduction. There’s the story of a surrogacy. There’s the story of an adoption. There’s a story of an abortion. There’s parenting, there’s having one child, there’s having multiple children. And in this little town, it shows how class and race really impact who gets connected and who gets supported as a parent, who gets believed as a parent, how immigration shows up in adoption. Gretchen, what did you think of the book, and especially that adoption plotline? How does that feel related to your own research?

Gretchen Sisson: I really loved this book, and I will say, as Renee mentioned, I’m a big book person. So nine times out of 10, if something is adapted for a movie or TV, I’ll be the one who’s like “the book was better”. But I actually think that the TV show was excellent as an adaptation, and I think that it actually added some things to the book. So in the book, I don’t think that there’s a commentary on race, but I think it’s implied that Kerry Washington’s–Mia is the character’s name–she’s white in the book. And so I think adding those racial dynamics to the adaptation made it a really far more compelling story and giving it an eight-episode arc and allowing to explore the characters in kind of more depth in some ways than the book had space to do. Because I think you get into Elena, who’s Reese Witherspoon’s character, her conflict over being a mother, over being a mother of four, whether she wanted to have four children that close together, and those circumstances, I think that there’s a lot of complexity to the show.

So for people who’ve read the book, I would recommend watching it as well. I thought it was really well done. So I think that the show has a lot more complicated racial dynamics than the book does, but the adoption is in both. And it is an immigrant woman named Bebe. Again, it’s been a while since I read the book, but I believe that she’s undocumented and that that’s part of the vulnerable position that she’s in because there’s only certain kinds of work that she can do. There’s only certain sources of support of which she can avail herself as an undocumented single mother in the United States and just as a spoiler. But she ends up giving her daughter to a safe haven at a fire station. And then the book follows what happens next after the child is adopted and who has the right to this child, and what lengths Bebe will go to reunite with her child.

We did an impact study, actually, of the TV show, and we found that people have very conflicted feelings about who deserves to have this baby in their lives. And I think that what both the book and the show do a good job of is really showing the ways in which Bebe is vulnerable in which her relinquishment of her daughter is a crisis response. And I think that when you have Justice Coney Barrett talking about how easy it is to use safe havens and determinate parental rights that way, this idea that this is an empowered decision, and then you have this really visceral, painful example of the type of mother that might use that and the type of position she might be in, I think is just another way of showing the falsity of that idea.

RM: Interesting fact about the book and the character Mia, the writer actually said that she never defines her race in the book. And when she wrote the character, she actually wrote the character as a person of color, but was a little bit hesitant to be the person to address these dynamics of race and class. She says in this interview, I thought of them as people of color because I wanted to talk about race and class, and those things are so intertwined in our country and in our culture, but I didn’t feel like I was the right person to try to bring a Black woman’s experience to the page. And so I was like, “Why did I think of her?” It’s because the writer was thinking of her as a person of color. And so it makes so much sense, and Kerry Washington was like a cast, as Mia in the show.

Gretchen Sisson: Maybe after doing that white person thing of assuming that unless you specified someone wasn’t white, that they’re all white. But I think-

RM: That’s what I was like, I’m pretty sure I assumed it was a Black person too. But anyway.

Gretchen Sisson: Well, yeah, no, I mean, I think that it just gave me a different appreciation of all the power dynamics that were happening. And it’s hard for me now to remember the book and not have Mia be a Black woman. Right? Yeah, good point, Celeste.

RBS: So it’s just a reminder that there are other books you can read something other than The Handmaid’s Tale, and if you need another book, absolutely follow Gretchen because she reads tons of books.

RM: Well, now we have more books, more TV shows to watch, so everyone’s going to be really busy. But before we go, Gretchen, we like to ask everyone, “What is a resource you think people listening to this podcast should absolutely check out or contribute to?”

Gretchen Sisson: So I think that there aren’t that many organizations that do adoption work from a reproductive justice lens. Empower Alliance is a great one, JMacforFamilies and the Movement for Family Power. They specifically look at families that are separated by the family policing system. On Your Feet Foundation is a great one. And so I think just give some of these accounts a follow on Instagram, and then also look for adoptee voices on Instagram, on TikTok, on Twitter. Follow some adopted people who are really sharing their perspectives on what adoption has meant for their lives. Even as a researcher, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from these people and owe a debt of gratitude to them for informing my research. So for people who are invested in reproductive justice and don’t have a lot of background in this area, join the online conversation that’s happening because it’s really rich.

RM: Thanks again for joining us, Gretchen. We appreciate you so much and look forward to telling everybody about your book because it’s amazing and perfect.

RBS: Oh, it’s so good.

Gretchen Sisson: Thank you, guys, both.

RM: Okay, that’s it for The A Files today. Shout out to our guest co-host, Dr. Sisson, and be sure to check out Relinquished. All the details on how to get our book will be in the show notes.

RBS: It’s so good. So definitely read it. And for a reading list, links to articles in the books we’ve mentioned today – there were a lot – and more information. Visit our website at wearethemeteor.com slash The A Files.

RM: See y’all next time.

RBS: Say the word abortion and adoption.

The A Files is produced for The Meteor by LWC Studios. Our hosts are me, Renee Bracey-Sherman, and Regina Mahone. Our executive producers at The Meteor are me, Renee Bracey Sherman, and Regina Mahone, Cindi Leive, and Tara Abrahams. At LWC Studios, our executive producer is Juleyka Lantigua. Paulina Velasco is our managing producer, and our producer is Anne Lim. Kojin Tashiro is our sound designer and engineer.

RM: This podcast is produced with support from The Meteor Fund, the Meteor’s nonprofit initiative. Additional thanks to Pop Culture Collaborative for their support. You can subscribe to The A Files wherever you get your podcasts. And please take a second to rate us, five stars, please. And leave us a review. It would mean a lot.

RBS: For links to any resources mentioned in this episode or for more information, visit our website at wearethemeteor.com slash The A Files. You can follow us on social media at @rbraceysherman on the social media platform, formerly known as Twitter, and @reneebraceysherman on Instagram for me. For Regina, she’s @byreginamahone on the social media platform, formerly known as Twitter and Instagram. And you can follow The Meteor @themeteor on all platforms. Thanks for listening. Thanks for saying the word abortion. And remember, everyone loves someone who’s had an abortion.


Bracey Sherman, Renee, and Mahone, Regina, host. “Abortion Criminalization: Don’t Talk to the Cops!.” The A Files, The Meteor and Lantigua Williams & Co., February 7, 2024. Themeteor.com/theafiles