Open adoptions, as opposed to traditional adoptions, allow birth parents to stay involved in their children's lives even after the adoption has been finalized.
Twenty years ago, 1 percent of domestic adoptions were open. Now, 60 percent to 70 percent of domestic adoptions are open, which is why many agencies, whether advocates or opponents of the trend, offer open adoptions as an option.
Map: Laws on Open Adoption Agreements State by State
Although many still consider open adoptions controversial, those who have researched the practice say that some of the fears are unwarranted. Harold Grotevant, whose Minnesota/Texas Adoption Research Project has followed 720 active adoption participants for more than 15 years, says, "For people who want to do an open adoption, we have found no evidence that it is harmful." Grotevent does add a caveat: "It makes your family more complicated. It is not necessarily the best route for everyone."
A Shift in Power
"Birthmothers have a lot more control than they used to," says Marianne Berry, one of the leading open adoption experts in the country. "They get to decide who gets their babies."
It wasn't always this way. As recent as the 1970s some birthmothers never saw their children after delivery. Some women were tied down and blindfolded in the delivery room to avoid the possibility of eye contact — and the possibility of further bonding — with their babies. For those who had the opportunity to see and hold their babies, the relationship was often short-lived; case workers, whose job it was to ensure secrecy and silence, would quickly surrender the babies to waiting adoptive parents with whom the birthmother had never had, and would never have, contact.
The past quarter century brought about great change in domestic adoption. As the stigma of unwed motherhood waned, more women found the freedom to choose parenting over placing their babies for adoption.
A general decline in the number of unplanned births — and, consequently, babies available for adoption — can be directly linked to three major cultural developments: the 1973 Supreme Court decision to legalize abortions, a rise in infertility rates, and a growing use and acceptance of contraceptive methods.
In the few open adoption studies that have been conducted, the findings reflect the impact of these developments. One study estimates that 30 years ago there were 89,000 domestic adoptions. Only five years later that number had dropped to 48,000. Today, only about 20,000 to 25,000 infants are placed for adoption in this country. Meanwhile, according to an estimate by America's Pregnancy Hotline, well over 200,000 families try to adopt each year.
Many would-be parents, faced with these realities, have gone overseas to adopt. As a result, international adoptions tripled in the time period between 1992 and 2001, growing from 6,472 to 19,237.
For those seeking to adopt a domestic white infant, the challenge today is often not so much in finding the right baby but in winning the heart of a birthmother, the only person with the sole discretion to determine who will adopt, and then go on to raise, her baby.
According to rough estimates, as many as one third of birthmothers withdraw from the adoption process, even after selecting adoptive parents. It is perfectly legal to do so; until they've signed final relinquishment papers, birthmothers are allowed to change their minds without consequence.